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History of Bryant Park: Modern Times

May 1, 2020

By the end of the 1930s, Bryant Park seemed poised for good times. The park had been redesigned to great acclaim in 1934, the Depression was finally easing, the unsightly Sixth Avenue elevated train was gone, and the IRT subway line beneath Sixth Avenue had been completed.

Instead, the mid-late part of the 20th century saw the decline of Bryant Park due to several factors. As just one of hundreds of parks managed by the city, Bryant Park fell victim to a decades-long budget crisis that left the Parks Department perennially cash-strapped. The park's location, in a business district with few nighttime visitors, also made it a haven for illegal activities. Further exacerbating the issue was the design of the park itself: raised above street grade, surrounded by a fence, and featuring tall hedges, all of which unwittingly encouraged crime and sordid use. By the early 1970s, Bryant Park had largely been taken over by drug dealers and was mostly avoided by Midtown workers and tourists. 

After several failed plans to rehabilitate Bryant Park in the 1970’s, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) was founded in 1980 by Dan Biederman, Time Inc. and NYPL Chairman Andrew Heiskell, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A pioneer in public-private management, BPRC immediately began to reclaim Bryant Park for the people of New York. Repairing damaged structures, removing graffiti, picking up trash, and adding a security team were among the first steps of their master plan, all of which led to a 92 percent reduction in crime and doubling of annual visitors over the first seven years. BPRC also introduced innovative programming that brought people to the park and finally pushed out the drug dealers.

In 1988, Bryant Park closed for an extensive four-year renovation and reopened in 1992 to universal acclaim. Besides increasing visibility into the park from street level and removing those isolating hedges, the renovation also included reopening the parks restrooms, which had been closed for 35 years, construction of two restaurant pavilions and four concession kiosks, and the introduction of what would become the park’s most recognizable icons: 2,000 movable bistro chairs. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger called the redesigned park a “triumph for many,” and Time Magazine described it as a “small miracle.”

Since reopening in 1992, Bryant Park has become one of the busiest public spaces on the planet. Le Carrousel was added in 2002, and in 2003, the Reading Room revived a Depression-era tradition by offering free reading materials to anyone that stopped by.

Every year, millions of people from around the world come to listen to music, participate in classes, attend literary events, enjoy free amenities, eat lunch, or just hang out in Bryant Park. In the winter, visitors come to Bank of America Winter Village to skate at The Rink, browse at the Holiday Shops, and choose from imaginative and varied eating options. The popularity of the park was summed up by Bruce Weber in the New York Times when he described it as the “Town Square of Midtown.”

The turnaround of Bryant Park is considered by many public space experts to be the supreme example of urban renewal, and public-private management has become a successful model for public spaces around the world.