Bryant Park is a 9.603 acre (39,000 m²) privately managed public park located in the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is bounded by Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue, 40th Street and 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan. The central building of the New York Public Library is in the park. Although part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Bryant Park is managed by a private not-for-profit corporation, the Bryant Park Corporation.
In 1686, when the area was still a wilderness, New York’s colonial governor, Thomas Dongan, designated the area now known as Bryant Park as a public space. George Washington’s troops crossed the area while retreating from the Battle of Long Islandin 1776. Beginning in 1823, Bryant Park was designated a potter’s field (a graveyard for the poor) and remained so until 1840, when thousands of bodies were moved to Wards Island. The first park at this site opened in 1847 as Reservoir Square. It was named after its neighbor, the Croton Distributing Reservoir. In 1853, the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations with the New York Crystal Palace, featuring thousands of exhibitors, took place in the park. The square was used for military drills during the American Civil War, and was the site of some of the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, when the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street was burned down. In 1884, Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park, to honor the New York Evening Post editor and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. In 1899, the Reservoir building was removed and construction of the New York Public Library building began. Terraces, public facilities, and kiosks were added to the park.
However the construction of the Sixth Avenue Elevated railway in 1878 had cast a literal and metaphorical shadow over the park, and by the 1930s the park had suffered neglect and was considered disreputable. The park was re-designed in 1933/1934 as a Great Depression public works project under the leadership of Robert Moses. The new park featured a great lawn, and added hedges and later an iron fence to separate the park from the surrounding city streets. The park was temporarily degraded in the late 1930s by the tearing down of the El and the construction of the IND Sixth Avenue Line subway. On October 15, 1969, a rally attended by 40,000 people was held in Bryant Park as part of the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Speakers at that event were John Lindsay, Eugene McCarthy, William Sloane Coffin, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Ben Gazzara, Helen Hayes, Rod McKuen, Shirley Maclaine, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach; among the musical performers were Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Broadway cast of the musical Hair. Tony Conrad captured the event live from the window of his 42nd Street apartment and published the recording on the album Bryant Park Moratorium Rally. By the 1970s, Bryant Park had been taken over by drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless. It was nicknamed “Needle Park” by some, due to its brisk heroin trade, and was considered a “no-go zone” by ordinary citizens and visitors. From 1979 to 1983, a coordinated program of amenities, including a bookmarket, a flower market, cafes, landscape improvements, and entertainment activities, was initiated by a parks advocacy group called the Parks Council and immediately brought new life to the park—an effort continued over the succeeding years by The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, which had been founded in 1980 by a group of prominent New Yorkers, including members of the Rockefeller family, to improve conditions in the park. In 1988, a privately funded re-design and restoration was begun by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation under the leadership of Dan Biederman, with the goal of opening up the park to the streets and encouraging activity within it.
Bryant Park is one of the signature examples of New York City’s revival in the 1990s. Essentially crime-free, the park is filled with office workers on sunny weekdays, city visitors on the weekends, and revelers during the holidays. Daily attendance counts often exceed 800 people per acre, making it the most densely occupied urban park in the world. In 1995, an article about midtown office workers who had found the newly reopened park a good place to go to after work bore the headline “Town Square of Midtown” and the moniker has stuck. In the early 2000s, BPC added a custom-built carousel and revived the tradition of an open-air library, The Reading Room, which also hosts literary events. The Bryant Park Grill and Bryant Park Cafe have become popular after-work spots, and ‘wichcraft, the sandwich chain owned by Tom Colicchio, operates four kiosks on the park’s west end. In the summer of 2002, the park launched the free Bryant Park Wireless Network, making the park the first in NYC to offer free Wi-Fi access to visitors. Improvements in 2008 significantly increased the number of users who could log-on at a given time.
One of the park’s most impressive features is a large lawn that is the longest expanse of grass in Manhattan south of Central Park. Besides serving as a “lunchroom” for midtown office workers and a place of respite for tired pedestrians, the lawn also serves as the seating area for some of the park’s major events, such as the HBO/Bryant Park Summer Film Festival. The lawn’s season since 2005 has lasted from shortly after the fall fashion shows in February until October, when it is closed to make way for Citi Pond, the park’s ice skating rink. During the lawn’s season, it is open on most days, closing only for regular maintenance, to drain after a heavy rain, or to recover after high-impact events. From 1992 through 2009, the lawn’s season was interrupted for three weeks in September by the spring fashion shows. In September 2010, the fashion shows will move to a new home at Lincoln Center, and the lawn will reclaim these three warm-weather weeks.
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