Respite, refreshment & entertainment: Bryant Park, New York City

Imagine sitting upon a vast lawn, on a cozy blanket, surrounded by other like-minded souls, on a summer’s night.   You’re eating a scrumptious sandwich, picked up from a local eatery and enjoying the lush plantings that surround you.   Dusk begins to settle in and the outdoor screen starts showing the classic thriller, Rosemary’s Baby. 

But, guess what?  You’re not in Kansas (so to speak) or a friendly Canadian small town, you’re in the middle of New York City, Manhattan to be precise.  And you’re sitting with hundreds of well-behaved urbanites in the middle of Bryant Park.

In the daylight, this is what the park looks like.  Crushed stone paths surround the giant lawn, bounded by spectacularly colourful plantings (designed by the incomparable Lynden B. Miller) that are in their prime by late summer.  Bistro chairs and tables, reminiscent of a European park, cluster around, beckoning you to sit down and stay a while.

The piece of valuable real estate now known as Bryant Park has a long and storied history.  In the 19th century, it accommodated a potter’s field, then a water reservoir and state-of-the-art aquaduct system, a ‘Crystal Palace’ and observatory, and then an encampment for Union army troops.  In 1884 the area was renamed Bryant Park and work was completed in 1911 on the New York Public Library that stands next to it.

Although the early 20th century finally saw a redesign of Bryant Park incorporating a –

classical scheme of a large central lawn, formal pathways, stone balustrades, allées of London Plane trees, and at the west end, an oval plaza containing the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain..”

– the place degenerated for the next forty years into a spot where no one ventured except for drug dealers and ne’er do wells.  Several important names including Rockefeller, Andrew Heiskell (then Chairman of Time Inc. and the New York Public Library), and Daniel A. Biederman (a Harvard Business School graduate and systems consultant with a reputation as an innovator in downtown management) got the show on the road and made Bryant Park the spectacular place it is today. 

There are several things that make Bryant Park extraordinary:

1.  Its beauty – this translates into both the beauty of the design but also the quality of care that is dedicated towards the plantings and the maintenance of the well used paths and patios.

2.  Its people friendliness – no longer dark and dingy, the plantings and hard surfaces have been made more accessible and visually open, so visitors no longer feel hidden or unsafe.

3.  Its special events and amenities – the reading room, the movie nights, the excellent kiosks with food and flowers.

4.  Its commitment to the idea that the viewer/visitor/participant can enjoy the park for FREE.  An area that is new is called the Southwest Porch, an outdoor lounge with golden yellow patio umbrellas and comfortable cushions on the attractive and weather-proof furniture.  It was donated by Southwest Airlines and happily also provides power outlets to laptop-addicted New Yorkers and visitors alike.

The Bryant Park website lists the following rules and regulations while visiting the park.  I thought it was worth repeating since it gave me a chuckle and reflects the newer, friendlier New York – especially the directions for dogs.

You are welcome…

  • to visit the park during the hours posted
  • to use open areas, including the lawn
  • to enjoy the gardens without entering flowerbeds or picking flowers
  • to use a park chair or one seat on a bench designed for sharing
  • to deposit waste in trash receptacles
  • to bring your dog, providing you leash it, keep it from watering trees and plants, and clean up after it

Park guidelines prohibit…

  • entering the park after the hours posted
  • drug use
  • alcohol use outside the Grill and Cafe
  • organized ballgames
  • panhandling
  • sitting or standing on ballustrades
  • entering the fountain
  • feeding pigeons
  • rummaging in trash receptacles
  • amplified music that disturbs others
  • performances, except by permit
  • commercial activity, except by permit
  • obstructing park entrances
  • dogs on the lawn
  • use of plastic tarps on the lawn

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