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Bryant Park is a 9.6-acre green space amidst the densely packed skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. For nearly a century, the site has played a role in conversations about the design and management of public spaces and how space influences public behavior. Changes implemented between 1979 and 1992 transformed Bryant Park into a model for revitalizing urban parks through public-private partnerships and extensive programming, and for deploying environmental design as a deterrent to crime.
The city block that Bryant Park now shares with the New York Public Library was almost entirely developed in the nineteenth century. On the east half of the site sat the Croton Distributing Reservoir, which played a key role in bringing running water to New York City. Completed in 1842 to designs by John B. Jervis and James Renwick, Jr., the reservoir was an early example of multipurpose infrastructure. Atop the massive granite walls surrounding the reservoir was a public promenade that offered views of the Palisades in the distance and provided a spot for basking in the moonlight reflecting off the water. The west side of the block, designated “Reservoir Square” in 1846, was home to the “crystal palace” for the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, which opened in 1853. When this structure was destroyed by fire in 1858 a landscaped park was created on the site.
Stereoscopes from the 1860s show the park stepping up from street level, though not to the extent it does today. An 1871 improvement plan by the engineer M.A. Kellogg and the landscape gardener F.A. Pollard indicated planted beds along the perimeter with winding paths and tree-shaded lawns laid out in a gardenesque style. In 1884, the park was renamed to honor William Cullen Bryant, the celebrated poet and newspaper editor and its layout remained largely unchanged until the 1930s, even as the adjacent site underwent a complete transformation.
The Croton Distributing Reservoir was demolished by 1900 and replaced by the New York Public Library, completed in 1911. Designed by Carrère and Hastings, the library has formal terraces with limestone balustrades to the front and rear of the building. The rear terrace includes a memorial honoring Bryant, as well as a restroom structure, also designed by the library’s architects. The Josephine Shaw Memorial Fountain, designed by the architect Charles A. Platt, initially sat on this terrace as well. The granite and bronze fountain was the first major monument in a New York City park to honor a woman.
Use of Bryant Park changed over time, largely following changes to the surrounding urban context, including the construction of the elevated train along Sixth Avenue. During the late nineteenth century, the park was popular with families living in the nearby brownstones. As office buildings and stores replaced the residences, the park became a lunch spot for workers and shoppers and a place to meet visitors arriving at Grand Central Station a few blocks to the east. By the 1910s, Bryant Park was also attracting transients who slept in the park, and local officials began implementing diverse strategies to drive them out. On July 1, 1914, for example, police raided the park at 2 a.m. and arrested everyone present—200 men and a woman.
These efforts continued during the 1920s, even as part of the park was closed for staging subway construction. As the subway neared completion, some prominent designers suggested that a different design might change the way that people behaved in the park. In the July 1927 issue of Landscape Architecture, Robert Wheelwright wondered if replacing what he called the “naturalesque shrubberies” with “a formal bosquet with open tapis vert in the center” might prevent the accumulation of rubbish and the “shelter that may provoke nuisances.” The more formal design, he argued, would encourage users to have greater respect for the park and would “facilitate proper policing and supervision.”
Though Wheelwright’s proposal prompted much discussion, it was not until 1934 that Bryant Park was redesigned in a neoclassical style with a strong central axis derived from the library building. The new park had a central lawn panel with scroll-like parterres along its sides. The lawn was surrounded by terraces—raised four feet from the streets surrounding the park—with limestone balustrades and four rows of London plane trees. The Shaw Memorial Fountain, which had been out of operation for many years, was relocated to a new plaza on the park’s northwest side.
This scheme was largely the work of Lusby Simpson, an unemployed architect from Queens who won a competition sponsored by the Architects Emergency Employment Committee, which was organized in response to the crisis of the Great Depression. Other designers who contributed to the park’s redesign were landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke, landscape designer M. Betty Sprout (who was Clarke’s spouse), and the architect Aymar Embury II. The renovation of Bryant Park was one of the first projects that Robert Moses completed in his role as New York City Parks Commissioner, and it was frequently held up as an example of his ability to get things done . Both Clarke and Simpson were honored for their contributions.
Bryant Park and the New York Public Library were jointly listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, but that same year Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving described it “a disaster area because of the people that frequent it”—especially after dark. By then, the park, which had long been a gay cruising spot, had also become a regular site for drug sales and use and for prostitution. Police began barricading the park’s entrances at night to prevent all of these activities. Although Hoving instituted special events within the park to attract users considered legitimate, once those events ended, the park was once again occupied by those city officials considered undesirable.
In 1979 the urban observer William H. Whyte featured Bryant Park prominently in his influential documentary, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte theorized that the park attracted muggers and dope dealers because it was “cut off from the street by fences and walls.” More specifically, Whyte and his protégés at the Project for Public Spaces mapped what they termed “abused areas” within the park, spaces where drug dealing and drug use, public urination, and sleeping regularly took place. For a report commissioned by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Whyte argued that Bryant Park’s problem was “under-use,” and proposed appropriate access as “the nub of the solution.” He laid out various proposals for increasing visibility and improving circulation within the space.
In 1980, Time Inc. chairman Andrew Heiskell and Daniel Biederman, a systems analyst, founded the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC). Over the next year, BPRC used private donations (including from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) to manage and program the park. They adding food carts, increased security, and hired a cleaning crew. By September 1980, the BPRC had removed graffiti, cut back hedges to open up views to and from the street, and repaired the park’s fountains. The New York Times reported progress in reclaiming the park from drug sellers and those described as “menacing drifters.”
Around the same time, the architecture firms Davis Brody Associates and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, along with landscape architecture firm Hanna/Olin, began to collaborate on plans for rehabilitating the New York Public Library’s front terrace, with a goal of pushing out the drug dealers who frequented that space. Laurie Olin and Arthur Rosenblatt, who oversaw the project for the library, came up with short-term plan that called for the immediate installation of opaque blue construction fencing, even though reconstruction of the terrace would not begin for more than a year. As completed in 1982, the front terrace rehabilitation removed plantings to open up sightlines, added paving and refreshment kiosks along with movable café-style tables and chairs.
A Hanna/Olin-led design team proposed similar strategies to rehabilitate the rear of the library. Funding for these changes came from the city, private donors, and a business improvement district that assessed a tax on adjacent property owners. Significantly, the designers did not seek to restore the park to its character in an earlier period, as frequent references to the project as a “restoration” would suggest; indeed, in the 1990s, Olin dismissed such a strategy as little more than “taxidermy,” arguing that “the important thing was to figure out how to open [the park] up so that no one felt trapped.”
While plans for revitalizing the park were under discussion in the 1980s, it became clear that the library was facing serious spatial constraints and was outgrowing its historic structure because of a shortage of storage space for books. The solution was the construction of new book stacks underground, beneath Bryant Park’s central lawn. There were precedents for this landscape atop library—including the underground Nathan Marsh Pusey Library at Harvard University completed in 1976—but it was still an unusual solution in when it was proposed in the 1980s. As at Bryant Park, the Harvard project was also meant to expand the stacks of a historic library building while preserving an adjacent green space. In New York, at the parks commissioner’s insistence, the underground building at Bryant Park was designed not only to include 84 miles of stacks, but to support six feet of soil so future generations could plant trees on top of the structure if they wanted to. Bryant Park was closed for several years while the stacks were built and the park was rehabilitated.
Though preliminary discussions for the redesign considered lowering Bryant Park to street level, its landmark status precluded such an approach, which would have required cutting down all the mature plane trees. In the end, the designers even decided to retain the park’s iron fence, removing only select portions to create new mid-block entrances that opened up views into the park, as Whyte had earlier suggested. In an effort to make existing entrances more welcoming, the designers improved sightlines and broke up long flights of stairs with broad landings. To reduce the feeling of entrapment and to keep certain areas from feeling like private turf, Hanna/Olin selectively punctured the existing balustrades and added new stairways to connect the central lawn and the terraces. They also removed the parterres, which tended to attract long-term occupation by the homeless. New perennial plantings, designed by Lynden B. Miller, were fit in along existing walls where they would not create a barrier to circulation.
To activate the space, multiple food kiosks were added to the park, as was a larger pavilion housing a restaurant and nestled along the west facade of the library—all designed in a postmodern mode by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. Café tables on decomposed granite replaced some of the ivy beds beneath the plane trees and movable chairs were provided throughout the space. The park’s ornate restroom structure, long closed to the public, was restored and reopened with BPRC restroom attendants.
Rehabilitation work and new construction were completed by the spring of 1992, when Bryant Park reopened to generally positive reviews. By the mid-1990s, criminal activity in the park had fallen dramatically and the number of visitors was up, due not only to the redesign and new amenities but also to active programming, including the summer film series that commenced in 1993. The park’s private management did not exclude homeless people from the park, but it actively enforced rules regarding behaviors considered disruptive of other park users, including rummaging through trash receptacles and taking sponge baths in restrooms, both of which were prohibited.
Today, the BPRC continues to organize a variety of seasonal activities, including concerts and holiday markets. Every winter since 2005, the park’s central lawn has been converted into a free ice skating rink; the lawn is resodded each spring.
In 2010, Bryant Park received the Landmark Award of the American Society of Landscape Architects in a citation that called it “the definitive model of urban park restoration.” As a rehabilitated urban amenity, Bryant Park has, indeed, become a model for intensively managed downtown parks, inspiring the restoration of such places as Campus Martius in Detroit and the development of new public spaces like Director Park in Portland, Oregon; and Discovery Green in Houston.
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