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Bryant Park: Manhattan’s Beast Turned into a Beauty

By Jill Odom
June 7, 2017

One of my favorite parks that I went to when I was in New York last time was Bryant Park, and I’m giddy to be returning to this 9-acre square of greenery in the middle of Manhattan.

As a book lover, I’m a little biased because this park is right next to the New York Public Library Main Branch. The park itself is actually located over an underground structure that houses 1.5 million library books and special collection materials.

It also has the outdoor Reading Room with carts full of books, periodicals and newspapers for anyone to peruse for free. This Reading Room was originally started in 1935 during the Depression Era, allowing unemployed individuals to still have access to reading materials despite not having money, a library card, a valid address or identification. It was revived in 2003 after being closed for 59 years.

Aside from this proximity to books, this park is an isle of serenity with a lawn for lounging, café style chairs for a Parisian lunch and multiple activities for anyone to enjoy including ping pong, outdoor film screenings and crafts.

The history of Bryant Park stretches all the way back to 1686 when New York’s colonial governor designated the space as a public area. It became a potter’s field in 1823 until 1840 when the bodies were moved to Wards Island.

The first park that was opened at the space was Croton Distributing Reservoir in 1847 and it also used to be home to the very short-lived Crystal Place (built in 1853 and burnt down in 1858). In 1884, the park was renamed Bryant Park after New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant.

The park fell into neglect in the 1930s and a redesign added a great lawn and hedges to separate the park from the surrounding city. This didn’t help much as by the 1970s the park had become the territory of drug dealers and prostitutes.

The nonprofit private management company, Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), was formed to restore the park in 1980 and after four years of serious renovation, the park reopened in 1991. Dan Biederman, one of the founders of the Bryant Park Corporation worked with sociologist William H. Whyte to add two essential elements to helping make the park a success.

One was adding movable chairs to the park, which Whyte said gave individuals a sense of empowerment by letting them sit wherever they please. The other decision was to lower the park, which had been elevated, to street level. The isolation of the hedges and height encouraged illegal activity, and Beiderman found people feel safer when connected to the city.

The privately-funded park received a Design Merit Award from Landscape Architecture Magazine and the Urban Land Institute said that the BPC “turned a disaster into an asset.”

Nowadays the park often has over 800 people per acre visiting on a daily basis and it has become a midday getaway for office workers, a tai chi practitioner space and a fantastic little piece of nature.