LEONARD QUART: Bryant Park, an urban oasis
Manhattan’s Bryant Park is a 9.603-acre privately managed public park located between Fifth and Sixth avenues and between 40th and 42nd streets. It consists of a large central lawn surrounded by trees, and it’s placed entirely over an underground structure that houses the grand Beaux-Arts-style New York Public Library’s stacks, which were built in the 1980s when the park was closed to the public and excavated.
I can recall when large numbers of drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless took over the park in the 1970s and few people were willing to venture into it. But by the early ‘80s, a coordinated program of amenities including book and flower markets, and cafes made the park more viable. However, to fully transform the park in 1988, a privately funded redesign and restoration was begun by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation with the goal of opening up the park to the streets and encouraging activity within it. (The old Bryant Park had been elevated from the street and isolated from the public by tall hedges prior to the redesign.)
I had worked as a professor for years at the City University of New York Graduate School and, since I have retired, I have taught at New York University’s adult education division, both located just across the street from Bryant Park. I often stopped there for a latte from one of its kiosks, or just sat there either reading the Times or observing people before class.
I always found it a civilized, restful spot with a custom-built carousel, an open-air library (author’s talks and readings take place there), ping-pong tables and popular after-work spots, the Bryant Park Grill and Bryant Park Café. In the 40th Street plaza of the park, there is a station called Bryant Park Games where visitors can play chess, backgammon and quoits. The Pond, a free-admission skating rink, opened in the park in 2005. The park’s programs — yoga, tai chi and language courses among its many offerings — are probably aimed more at Midtown’s office workers and tourists than at the city’s working class, though I have seen shabbily dressed drifters and retired workers reading the Post or the Daily News sitting on one of the park’s 2,000 available chairs.
Recently, after hobbling for a few blocks, I sat down in the park for a respite and watched people playing cards and chess and others using their computers and iPhones to write or text. There were also many people sun-bathing and picnicking on the lawn, which was surrounded on the 40th Street side by the American Radiator Building — now the luxury Bryant Park Hotel — a 1924 tower in the neo-Gothic style with Art Deco ornaments.
In central London, striking green squares, a bit smaller and much less busy and ambitious like Russell Square, are a commonplace. But In Manhattan where green is at a premium, Bryant Park is larger than life. Its resurrection has meant a great deal to Midtown: an oasis (albeit a very active one) in the midst of immense urban crowds and traffic din. In a city dominated by asphalt, concrete, glass and steel, it provides necessary relief: a moment of serenity before one is engulfed again in a dissonant urban symphony.