Midtown’s Miracle on Ice
April 15, 2021
Our long, dark winter is over. So is the Bank of America Winter Village, which shut down in March, with construction crews dismantling the skating rink and the assortment of food, drink, and retail stalls in Bryant Park. In the context of New York’s massive losses over the past year—31,853 people dead from Covid-19, 626,800 jobs still gone—the success of a modest place to skate, eat, and shop may seem negligible. But the Bryant Park skating rink was the one good thing going in empty midtown this past season—and a valuable reminder of the benefits of urban density.
With only 10 percent of office workers back at their desks, subway ridership down 70 percent, and tourism limited to a few regional curiosity-seekers, midtown Manhattan, normally the core of the tristate region, with nearly 4 million people coming and going every day, has been a ghost town for a year.
The ghostliness feeds on itself. Why would you go in to work when the coffee shops and restaurants that serve office workers are closed? Why open up your restaurant when the office workers are gone? Hundreds of thousands of jobs—mostly working-class and middle-class service jobs—depend on solving this chicken-and-egg problem.
Rockefeller Center, midtown’s competing skating rink, fell into this trap, running a perfunctory season that closed up just after New Year’s, leaving two and a half long months of winter left. This is not to criticize Rockefeller Center, which is carefully maintaining its flowerbed plantings, and which had to deal with retail looting last summer. It’s just to point out that we can’t take our well-run urban spaces for granted.
The managers of the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), the nonprofit that manages the public park under contract with the city, could have surrendered in similar fashion. The obvious—and seemingly prudent—thing to do this past winter would have been to skip the Winter Village. Why embark on a major seasonal construction project and the hiring of seasonal employees when the risks are so great—the risk that, after all that investment, the city, amid a surge of Covid cases, could shut the rink down? The risk that dozens of skaters sweating together could create a mass-spreading event? And the risk that nobody shows up?
But “given the enormous worsening of street disorder in midtown Manhattan this past spring and summer, we felt we had no choice but to make the risky decision to go forward with Winter Village to protect the Bryant Park environment,” said BPC president Dan Biederman. “When Dan said he was going ahead with the rink,” says Phil Columbo, who runs the nearby Bryant Park Hotel and is on the board of the BPC, “some people just looked at him, like . . . ”
But the BPC has taken risks before. The organization took over the park three decades ago when it was mostly a haven for small-time drug dealers and users—a nuisance, at best, to the business district—and rebuilt it into a key attraction and amenity for workers and tourists. Before Covid, the park’s problem was that it was often too crowded.
Rather than retreat in the face of the unknown this winter, the park’s managers adapted. When the rink opened just before Halloween, skaters changed their shoes outside—on benches, one per family, well more than six feet apart—instead of in an indoor locker room. To minimize contact with workers, skaters were strongly discouraged, via a high fee, from bringing any belongings to check in; instead, they were given or sold a $5 reusable drawstring bag, depending on whether they rented skates or not, to carry their shoes on their back.
Friendly but firm workers strictly enforced mask requirements. There was no indulgent behavior, at the cost of making other visitors uncomfortable: if you were a child old enough to skate, you were old enough to keep a mask on your face. Children proved perfectly capable of making this simple annoyance–reward calculation themselves, without parental cajoling.
By running Winter Village this year, Bryant Park became the only real reason to come to midtown. It was the city’s only free skating rink, provided you had your own skates and didn’t mind skating at off-peak hours.
The rink proved urban density’s enduring appeal at a time when many are questioning its future value. You can’t ice-skate from home. (Well, most people can’t.) And no sponsor is going to run a professional-quality rink without the financial support that density can provide: Bank of America, for example, would not likely pay to brand the project without midtown’s visibility. In providing pop-up performances some afternoons by aspiring Olympians and professional dancers from the Ice Theatre of New York—who even knew there was such a thing?—the rink also gave parkgoers the only live performances they’ve seen in a year.
Skating is also a social activity. New York can be a lonely place, particularly for young people who live alone in this strange environment. Coming to the rink gave them the only spontaneous social activity that they had had in a year: a dance student with no dance classes to take; a property manager who said he hit upon the idea of bringing his long-disused hockey skates to work to get out of his deserted office at lunchtime; a young man who said on an especially cold day that his choice was either to come out and skate or to stay at home “and be harassed by my cats”; new college students, with no in-person college to attend, but proudly wearing their school sweatshirts.
The social component is particularly important for children, who have had no school or organized sports during the pandemic. Since most small children can learn to skate far faster than their parents can, skating gives them a measure of freedom they don’t get from staring at screens all day. Kids can race around by themselves or in small groups while their chaperones take a break. Some kids came to the rink once or twice, on rental skates, as a parental diversion from the pandemic year. Others came nearly every day, so excited to skate that they already had their skates on when they arrived, and they progressed from being barely able to stand up to doing fancy tricks. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio grasped the importance of the skating outlet for kids: he reversed his planned closure of the Trump-run Wollman Rink in Central Park this spring after a public outcry.
In retrospect, the season proved so successful that it seems the only obvious thing to do had been to go ahead. In December 2020, 53,889 skaters came to Bryant Park, compared with 108,224 the previous December. In February, the figure was 32,314 skaters, compared with 42,241 the year before. Maintaining half to three-quarters of a season’s customers—nearly all of them, this year, from the tristate area—is a huge accomplishment at a time when midtown office buildings could not cajole their tenants back and tourists stayed away. Bryant Park realized this success, and once again proved itself flexible: it extended its original early-March closing date to the end of the month.
The rink generally runs a $5 million annual surplus, with the proceeds going back into the park. This year, it will earn much less—$2 million. The money is less important, though, than the fact that the rink demonstrated to tens of thousands of skaters and hundreds of thousands of chaperones and spectators that somebody cared about them. And you can bet that the thousands of small children for whom the rink was their only taste of unbridled glee this winter will never forget this aspect of midtown.