A day in Bryant Park can only be described by the French word romantique. Romantique translates to a sentimental sense or feeling, an aura deeper than just romance that strikes to the core of human emotion. The English translation does not do it justice. The “romantique” atmosphere of the park permeates through the air. The environment warms the heart through a feeling that is, well, love. People’s love fuels the park, making it come to life. As I walk through the park, I see faces and trees alike light up as the holiday season is in full swing. Skaters move around the rink mirroring the motion of the park’s famous merry-go-round. Temporary structures shine those notorious Christmas colors: red, white, and green. In these structures vendors sell their crafts into which they have poured their hearts and souls, adding to the love energizing the park. Even on the coldest day when the number of layers you are wearing equals four or more and “Jack Frost” nipping at your nose makes it as red as Rudolph’s, Bryant Park makes you feel so warm. Bryant Park’s mornings provide a place for people to meet and discuss politics, news, and life or even catch up with others on lost time. Offering a perfect backdrop for such conversations, the New York Public Library is a symbol for humankind’s never-ending curiosity and quest for knowledge. As the sun sets over the skyscrapers, Bryant Park holiday fare comes out in full force. Suddenly I am transported to that holiday feeling of my childhood, the feeling of running with excitement in my onesie pajamas throughout the house, my mom cooking holiday goodies in the kitchen and my dad tending to the fire (which fills the house with the scent of Mesquite wood) telling me stories of Christmases past. The park at night reminds me of Christmas Eve with my father, who would buy last minute gifts and look at me with the softest, kindest eyes. The park transports me to a time when life wasn’t so harsh—a time when I felt so content, a time when I had my dad. At Bryant Park I am home.
Yet Bryant Park has not always been a place driven by love and warmth. In fact, the park’s long history has, like life itself, been filled with many ups and downs. According to the Bryant Park Corporation, the park’s beginnings can be traced back to 1686 when Colonial Governor Thomas Dongan deemed the area known as Potter’s Field (now Bryant Park) public land. In 1842 the site became home to a four-acre reservoir known as the Croton Distributing Reservoir, described as “one of the greatest engineering triumphs of the twentieth-century” (“Bryant Park”). Continuing the upswing, in 1853 the park (then Reservoir Square) was the site of New York City’s first “world’s fair,” the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations or the Crystal Palace (Lynn and Morrone 234). The exhibition was intended as a showcase based on the Great Exhibition 1851 in London (“Bryant Park”). A little later during the Civil War, the reputation of the park and its surroundings took a turn for the worst. After the U.S. government issued draft notices for the first time in its history as a nation, riots ensued throughout the city. In July of 1863, rioters burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets (“Bryant Park”). Despite this heinous crime, the park was revitalized when in 1884 its name was changed to Bryant Park in honor of William Cullen Bryant, America’s most popular poet at the time and an avid abolitionist. Bryant also served as editor of the New York Evening Post; during his tenure in this position, he campaigned vigorously for the creation of Central Park (Lynn and Morrone 234).
In 1911 the New York Public Library was built on the site, giving Bryant Park a prominent cultural presence in New York City. The addition of the library to the site lead the New York Times to write that Bryant Park was “even more in the public eye of New York than Central Park or any other park in our city” (“Great Public Spaces”). In 1934 Bryant Park was rebuilt under the idea of an “urban sanctuary” (“Great Public Spaces”). However, by the 1970s, this idea turned from a beautiful design to a haven for crime; drug dealing and other related activities became rampant in Bryant Park. The problem was so bad in Bryant Park during this decade that police barricades were necessary at all of the park’s entrances after 9:00 pm (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). “During the late 1980’s, Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan was frequented by more drug dealers than sunbathers,” writes Timothy Williams, journalist for the New York Times. The same Bryant Park that in 1928 was called “one of the city’s most attractive breathing spots” by the New York Times was now a disaster and described as a magnet for “addicts, prostitutes, winos and derelicts” (“Great Public Spaces”). With crime in New York City out of control during the 1970s and 1980s, it was time for the city to take a stand, and the symbol of this change would be Bryant Park.
In 1982 New York City turned the restoration of the park over to a nonprofit private company, Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (Williams). The private group had their work cut out for them in an attempt to revitalize a public space that most thought was a lost cause (Williams). The first key player the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation brought on board for the project was renowned urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte. Whyte was a pioneer in research, exploring spatial design’s influence on human behavior (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). Whyte’s job was to understand what made Bryant Park such a haven for crime and what changes to the design of Bryant Park would best suit a public park in the middle of New York City. Whyte found that it was the park’s design that caused these social problems. Whyte recommended simple changes such as removing the iron fences and vegetation around the park to open the space physically and visually (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). In his report about the park, Whyte wrote: “Access is the nub of the solution” (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). In 1986, the Bryant Park Corporation brought in OLIN, a landscape architecture firm out of Philadelphia to implement Whyte’s recommendations regarding the park’s design (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). The first major changes to the design of the park were its elevation above the street coupled with the enlargement of the lawn and the installment of two three hundred-foot-long borders of herbaceous perennials and evergreens along the walls and railings (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). Moreover, the historic fountain at the south end of the park was restored, the Bryant Park Grill was constructed on the northeast corner of the park, and a statue of Jose de Andrada, father of Brazil’s independence, was added (White and Willensky 270). Yet possibly the most intriguing and overlooked part of the park’s restoration is the fact that the park is actually a large scale symbol of green roof and landmark environmental sustainability (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). Moreover, Bryant Park is the only large greenspace in Midtown (White and Willensky 270). These small but powerful changes made Bryant Park a symbol of the new New York, a New York that is progressive socially and environmentally.
Bryant Park’s radical renovation was finally completed in 1992 (“Bryant Park New York City USA”). Paul Goldberger, journalist for the New York Times, wrote this about the park’s reopening: “Where once the park was the home of derelicts, drug dealers and drug users, it is now awash with office workers, shoppers, strollers and readers from the New York Public Library next door” (Goldberger). The park had made a complete transformation. The park’s new elegance became the talk of New York City and soon after a popular destination. Nowadays Bryant Park welcomes thousands of visitors, some enjoying lunch at the Bryant Park Grill, others catching some sun on the lawn, all drawn to the beauty and warm atmosphere the park has to offer. In fact, Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone write in their novel Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, “On a beautiful day, the jammed park takes on an almost party-like atmosphere” (239). The park’s post-restoration popularity has led to the park holding various events throughout the year, including fashion shows, concerts, and ice-skating. Arguably Bryant Park’s most notable event is the Bryant Park Movie Series in which the park projects movies on a large screen located in the middle of the lawn with attendance numbering nearly fifteen thousand (Pfeiffer 11).
The success of Bryant Park’s renovation has led the city to make strides in restoring the public landscape in the surrounding community. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Associates write in their 2010 article entitled “Bryant Park New York City” that “the success of Bryant Park’s restored restrooms, in turn, encouraged the city to seek contracts for placing public toilets on streets throughout the city” (Pfeiffer 12). This solution helped to alleviate New York City’s troubles with sanitation and safety. Additionally, after its renovation, rental activity in the surrounding neighborhood grew by nearly sixty-percent (“Great Public Spaces”). Real estate agents called the park “a marketing tool,” and a powerful one at that. In an award citation for Bryant Park, the Urban Institute wrote, “the success of the park feeds the success of the neighborhood” (“Bryant Park”). I believe that Bryant Park can serve as an example across the nation that one change can truly shape a city’s future. I also believe that Bryant Park speaks not only to the success of the neighborhood, but also to the success of New York City as a whole. It speaks to New York’s rise from a city in peril, ridden with crime and poverty, to a city that is now arguably the capital of the world. From the ashes rises the phoenix; New York is truly the phoenix and Bryant Park its inspiration.
From Phoenix to New York, from the desert and open range to a city of millions where traffic is bumper to bumper and cars honk the second lights change, I have made this trip many times. But this time it is different. This time I do not have my dad to guide me through the bustling New York City streets. I have to walk to my own beat. This time I am here to stay. I am here to go to college and make my own way. I am excited, nervous, and unsure all at the same time. The butterflies in my stomach flutter seemingly faster and faster with each step I take. This has been my dream since the beginning of my teens. I would graduate high school and go to an excellent college in New York City. Yet now that I was here in New York City, my heart filled with trepidation. The city that I could not wait to leave was the city that filled my dreams, and the city of my dreams was not the place I was sure that I wanted to be. In short, I was homesick. One day my sister said, “Let’s all go to Bryant Park. It’s a beautiful day.” So we began walking over to the park, which was only two blocks from our hotel. The day was truly beautiful. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, and it felt as though temperature was not a concept that existed. The weather was certainly a great contrast from the hellishly hot 120-degree weather we had just come from in Arizona. Then, all of sudden, there it was behind the New York Public Library. The stairs leading into the park were so extraordinarily inviting. I could almost hear them say, “Leave your problems here. Come inside, relax and enjoy the beauty of nature.” As I walked into Bryant Park, I could feel my stress float away; the tension in my shoulders was no more. I sat and let myself be absorbed into the park. I took a minute to feel the sun’s warmth on my skin and the green grass under my feet. It’s funny how your location can change, but simple feelings like those never change. I then got up and walked around the park; the structure inside though a mixture of contemporary and classical felt so perfect for our day and age. The trees of the park not only converted carbon dioxide to oxygen, but also seemed to convert anxiety to bliss. The park’s statues told stories of people who changed the course of history, just as the park itself had. I sat next to the fountain, closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the water. I don’t know what it is about the sound of water, but it seems to melt away one’s pain. My forehead loosened and my eyebrows went from a “V” shape to a straight line. I then proceeded to walk out of the park onto the street, through the beautiful cacophony of the New York City streets back to the hotel. Later that night I returned to the park for dinner. At some point during the meal, a feeling of warmth crept over my body. It felt as though it was my father’s hand on my shoulder. Staring out of the restaurant and imagining my father’s gaze upon me, I said to myself “This is New York; this is home.” I leave you with this poem I wrote based on the love I felt from Bryant Park’s warm embrace.
What’s better than falling in love?
What’s better on a cold city night
Than the warmth of a hug?
What’s better than gazing at the
What’s better than when lips meet
And fit like a hand in a glove?
What’s better than falling in love?
What’s better than crying on the
Shoulder of your beloved,
When you feel the next step is much too hard to take?
What’s better than falling in love and discovering that you
Are finally home?
“Bryant Park.” Bryant Park. Bryant Park Corporation, 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
“Bryant Park – Great Public Spaces| Project for Public Spaces (PPS).” Bryant Park – Great Public Spaces| Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Project for Public Spaces, Inc., 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
“Bryant Park New York City USA.” ASALA (American Society of Landscape Architects). American Society of Landscape Architects, 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.
Goldberger, Paul. “ARCHITECTURE VIEW; Bryant Park, An Out-of-Town Experience.” New York Times. New York Times, 03 May 1992. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
Lynn, Robin, and Francis Morrone. Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.
Pfeiffer, Hardy H. “Bryant Park New York City.” Places: Design Observer. Observer Omnimedia LLC, 2003-2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
White, Norval, and Elliot Willensky. AIA Guide to New York City. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Williams, Timothy. “In Manhattan Park’s Rebirth, Unease at Corporate Presence.” Editorial. New York Times. The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2005. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.