Our favorite New York City green space (after Central Park) was the 9.6 acre privately managed Bryant Park. Bounded by 5th and 6th avenues, as well as 40th to 42 streets, the Park is built entirely over the subterranean stacks of the New York City library’s main branch (which forms the eastern boundary of the Park).
Back in 1686, when this area was still considered “wilderness,” New York colonial governor Thomas Dongan established the area as “public space” (whatever that meant at the time, as there did not seem to be any documentation explaining this designation). Historical documents indicated that George Washington’s colonial army crossed this spot while retreating from the Battle of Long Island in 1776. By 1823, this space had been designated as a “Potters Field” (i.e. a cemetery for the poor) and remained so until 1840 when thousands of bodies were relocated to Wards Island. The first “Park” established on this spot was created in 1847, and was named “Resevoir Square” because of its neighboring body of water. Six years later, the “Exhibition of the Industry of Nations”, which included New York’s Crystal Palace, took place here (unfortunately, the Crystal Palace burned down in 1858). Throughout the American Civil War, the Union Army conducted military drills on this space (inspite of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863). The Park was renamed, in 1884, as “Bryant Park” to honor New York Evening Post’s editor, William Cullen Bryant. Regrettably, by the 1930’s the Park had begun to suffer from neglect, forcing a redesign effort from 1933-1934, as a Great Depression work project. During October of 1958, a forty thousand person rally, known as the “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam,” was held here. This included such celebrities as Dick Cavett, Woody Allen, Helen Hays, Shirley MacLaine, and many others. The Park was taken over by drug dealers, prostitutes, and the homeless during the 1970’s, turning it into a “No-Go Zone” for the general public. From 1979 until 1983, the Park’s Council developed a coordinated project to clean up the space. This effort included book and flower markets, landscape improvements, cafes, etc. The “Bryant Park Restoration Corporation” (which included members of the Rockefeller family) was organized in 1980 as part of this renovation effort. In 1988, the Park was closed for a four year total rebuilding project. When it reopened in 1992, it was to widespread acclaim as the best example of urban renewal. It is now one of the top examples of New York City’s revival of the 1990’s. With an estimated 800 people per acre daily attendance, Bryant Park is considered the most densely occupied urban park in the world, and has been called the “Town Square of Mid-town” (New York Times 1995).
One of its top summer attractions is the open air library, known as “The Reading Room” along with its neighboring “Bryant Park Games” area (for ping pong, Chinese checkers, quoits, as well as the French equivalent of bocce, known as “Pétanque”). The park hosts a variety of public events throughout the year - all free - including “Bryant Park Movies” (since 1990). A variety of musical performances are offered under the name “Broadway in the Park.” The activities in the park that we loved the most were the free classes (e.g. juggling, knitting, and languages). Bryant Park’s lawn is considered to be the largest expanse if grass in Manhattan south of Central Park