A Public Space
During Colonial times, when the British occupied what is now the United States, huge tracts of land were parceled out by The Crown for specific purposes. Six acres of prime land in the Province of New York (what is now known as 40th and 42nd Streets & Fifth and Sixth Avenues) was then under the jurisdiction of British politicians appointed by Parliament. In 1686, Thomas Dongan, the 2nd Earl of Limerick, designed the area that is now known as The New York Public Library and Bryant Park as “Public Space”.
Along came the American Revolution, and with it one of the fiercest battles of the war. The Battle of Long Island was fought up and down what is now modern-day midtown, with a retreat of nearly 9,000 Colonial troops running across the open land. With war came death and disease, therefore many, including brave fighters, passed on. Juxtaposed against the deaths, the general population of Manhattan Island was growing in leaps and bounds. Only the deceased with well-off families could afford placement in the few formally designated cemeteries.
The solution was simple–turn the park area into a Potter’s Field for the unknown and the indigent. The land was originally designated for public use after all, so from 1823 to 1840, this park, where children now ride the carousel and people play Chinese Chess, Ping Pong and do yoga, was set to purpose as a huge graveyard.
Reservoir Square and The Crystal Palace.
Fifty years later, the buried bodies were exhumed and transferred via the East River to Wards Island, NY. to make way for a 4-acre, granite wall enclosed reservoir system. Water flowed through underground pipes from the upstate Croton Reservoir through midtown ending at Central Park.
The area surrounding this new water system was named Reservoir Square. Along with the reservoir, a grand glass and metal building called “The Crystal Palace” was built as a tribute to the day’s technology. The design was a blatant competition with the Crystal Palace in London, England. The Crystal Palace housed New York’s first World’s Fair in 1853, The Crystal Place was best known for a grand display titled “Exhibition of Industry of All Nations.” Built to then-modern standards, the Cathedral like structure was supposed to be fireproof. This proved a catastrophic misjudgment when the building caught fire in 1857 and quickly burned to the ground.
The Civil War brought terror to Reservoir Square. The New York Draft Riots were in full swing, with hordes of protesters destroying the area surrounding the water facility. Police stations were vandalized and there was chaos in the streets. One of the worst atrocities that sprang from the Draft Riots was the burning of a home for orphaned Black children.
New York Public Library
In 1884, Reservoir Park was renamed Bryant Park after Romantic poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. A decision was made in 1887 to dismantle the reservoir to make way for the glorious main branch of the New York Public Library on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd street. This Beaux Arts style building, flanked with the famous marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, broke ground in 1887 and opened on May 23, 1911. Traces of the former reservoir metal structure are still visible below the bottom floor of the library building. In 1878, the Sixth Avenue L Railway tracks loomed over the park. The general ambiance of the park, instead of being bucolic and peaceful, was noisy, cramped, and claustrophobic.
20th Century Challenges and Changes
The 1930s were a pivotal decade for the history of the park. Once elected as Mayor Of New York in 1933, Fiorella LaGuardia decided that City Parks Management be administered by one Parks Commissioner. Elected to the post was the famous urban planner and city politician Robert Moses.
The Bryant Park renovation at the time included tearing down the L Train tracks and replacing them with a subway stop. The park’s land grade was raised and set back from streets surrounded by high walls and tall, thick hedges. These renovations, perfect for the 1930s, made the park a dangerous place just a few decades later. Drug dealers loved that the park was hidden off the street. Newly discharged psychiatric patients due to the deinstitutionalization trend of the 1980s made the park their secluded makeshift home. Purse snatching and rapes were common in the thick of the park—only the faint echo of screams was heard lower down on the bustling city street. For those who lived or worked in Midtown Manhattan, it was considered an insane proposition to take a stroll in Bryant Park, even in broad daylight.
Evidence of crime spilled from the park into the streets, where prostitutes and pimps furtively ducked into the few entrances, seldom detected by police patrolling 5th Avenue. The condition of Bryant Park mimicked the infusion of drugs and violent crime that pervaded all of New York’s’ famous landmarks at the time, from Times Square to Grand Central Terminal, to Central Park. Something had to give and in the 1990s a second redevelopment project was put into works. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, headed by Dan Biederman, and Andrew Heiskell, Chairman of Time Inc. went to work. This was part of a larger movement to “take back the city” from the filth and crime of the prior two decades.
The first challenge was the park’s topography. A sociologist, William H. Whyte was consulted about how to make the park safe and friendly. Bryant Park, which had been previously set high and back, had to be lowered to street level, not just for aesthetics but for safety. The thick hedges and iron gates were torn down to make way for several park entrances that made it easy to view the park from the street. Instead of benches affixed to the pavement, movable chairs were places around small round tables. The idea was that if a person can place their chair facing any way they please, they feel more empowered and are not stuck with their back against any one area. The chairs are not bolted down; however, considering the crowds in the park at any given time, one would be noticed walking away with a labeled metal chair; however, you can buy vintage Bryant Park bistro furniture from their gift shop site.
Over the years, more and more activities and attractions were put into place in the park with the idea that the more people who frequent the park, the safer the atmosphere. Family-friendly events like Monday Movies in the park, ping pong tables, children’s puppet shows and book events all added to the park’s popularity. By 2005, a carousel, hand out games, and The Pond Skating Rink were opened which attracted locals and tourists alike for year-round fun.
Under Bryant Park
What’s as interesting as what goes on in the park is what goes on under the park. Beneath Bryant Park’s dedication sign is a trap door that leads down to the stacks level of the New York Public Library. For those who order research material and wonder how it gets from request to in your hand so fast here is how it happens: You make your call request, it is then sent down to be fulfilled via a railroad system that goes to a stack of over 1.5 million books and reference material. Your book or periodical of choice is then chugged through the underground lines and up to the librarian to give to you to use. The escape hatch was devised as an emergency exit to use in the event that the basement level workers can’t get out of the emergency entrances in the library building. Worse case scenario, they can escape up into the park.
Bryant Park: A Place to Work and Play
All the activities at Bryant Park, from the movies to the carousel rides, were designed to be free to the public. The exception used to be New York Fashion Week that took place twice a year, closing off vast sections of the park for elite ticket holders. City leaders decided that having this pricey event violated the spirit of the park and the money earned from hosting it wasn’t worth the price. New York Fashion week then became a “moveable fashion feast” and currently takes place at Springs Studio.
In addition to all the activities, Bryant Park hosts a strong, free, Wi-Fi connection for those who want to work in the park. If you wish to stay longer than your battery allows there are over forty electrical outlets to use, also free of charge, Kiosks and nearby restaurants make it easy to stay for lunch. The rebuilt restrooms are clean and have classical music piped in. They offer tours for those new to the city or those who haven’t seen the wonderful area since the renovation.
So, if you’re looking for a friendly park where you can ride a carousel, catch a Monday night movie, use the free Wi-Fi and turn your seat any way you like, Bryant Park is the place to go. As a tribute, Robert Moses’ favorite trees, the London Plane, still flank Bryan Park. From Wild Colonial farmlands, to Potter’s Field, to two very different ideas of recreation zone, Bryant Park has weathered the changes and emerged as a jewel in the crown of New York’s Midtown. With all the effort that has gone into constructing and revamping the park since Colonial Times, it’s worth a visit. If you remember Bryant Park from days gone by, it’s time to take a second look.