New York City offers few better bargains for tourists and residents alike than Bryant Park, which is adjacent to the New York Public Library’s main branch. Facing Sixth Avenue and bounded by 42nd and 40th streets, Bryant Park is a combination of green space, tree-covered walks, entertainment offerings (many for free) and eating establishments. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers, it is the largest park in Midtown Manhattan.
Bryant Park History – From Dilapidation to Delight
One of the best-known sites in New York is the imposing, lion-flanked entrance to the main branch of the New York Public Library. However, many are unaware that just behind it to the west has been park land in New York City since 1847, at the time called Reservoir Square. This predates the library, which sits now where the equally imposing Croton Distributing Reservoir stood with its 50-foot walls surrounding four acres of water. The reservoir was dismantled in the 1890s.
In 1884, the park was renamed for editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, a statue of whom looks west from the shadow of the library. But when 50 years had passed, Bryant Park was in disrepair. In the 1930s, the Sixth Avenue elevated train roared past it day and night and cast a long shadow over the open space. When that train was being replaced by a subway, the park was reduced to being a construction staging area.
It was legendary New York parks and public works director Robert Moses who rescued Bryant Park the first time. A Depression Era project, Moses held an architectural competition won by Lusby Simpson, who brought a style inspired by the great parks of Paris. Construction material gave way to wide sidewalks, promenades of London plane trees and the stunning Lowell Fountain at the park’s west end.
By the 1970s, Bryant Park would need rescuing again. As the official Bryant Park web site says, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund commissioned a report on the park, which read, “If you went out and hired the dope dealers, you couldn’t get a more villainous crew to show the urgency of the situation.”
The second rescue of the park was conducted by the Bryant Park Restoration Corp., which was the progenitor of the Bryant Park Corp., a private entity that operates the park for the city under a long-term lease. Under the BRC’s stewardship, crime dropped 92 percent in the park, extensive improvements were made and ongoing funding was provided through leases to numerous restaurants and concessions.
Bryant Park Today
Today, there are few better places in New York City to sit down, relax and take it all in. Tables, chairs and writing desks are all over the park and free for use. You can bring a meal or sit down at restaurants ranging from fine dining at Bryant Park Grill to fast food at the ‘wichcraft sandwich kiosk.
In good weather, the library operates an outdoor reading room. Ping pong tables and equipment are available, chess boards, too. Bryant Park has become a center for free entertainment as well. Mondays in the summer a big screen tops Lowell Fountain as classic movies are shown. The films start at sundown, blankets and picnics are welcome. Thursday afternoons see talented singers and dancers from current Broadway and off-Broadway shows perform, again, for free.
Twice a year, the fashion world centers on Bryant Park with new lines displayed in a massive tent city erected for Fashion Week. And at Christmas, a free skating rink anchors one of the city’s most enjoyable Christmas markets.
New York travel and living is expensive. Bryant Park is one of the best bargains in the city.