Monday, March 26, 2012

20th Anniversary: Bryant Park Before BPC

1983: Looks nice and green, but those hedges on the lawn were quite tall.
A look back at Bryant Park in the late 1970’s reveals a scary and depressing place. Three headlines in the New York Times from 1976 demonstrate just how bad things were. Following the murder of a Bronx man in the park over a game of craps, the NY Times published a series of articles: ‘Murder Scene in Bryant Park is a Place to Drink and Gamble’; ‘Civic Leader Wants Bryant Park Closed’ and ‘Bryant Park: an Oasis Rife with Crime.’ All of these articles mention drugs, gambling, open containers of beer or liquor, and scared neighbors. The latter article revealed some depressing statistics: 43 muggings, 52 arrests for drug possession; and 10 arrests for drug selling in the first six months of 1976.

1982: From a different angle, you get a better perspective of the barriers created by these hedges.

How did it come to that? There are many factors, but three stand out. The park’s sanitation and capital maintenance was provided solely by a financially strapped city. Security was provided solely by an over-taxed police department. Finally, there was the existing design of the park itself. A 1930’s redesign instituted by Robert Moses raised the park four feet from sidewalk grade and featured tall hedges along the north and south edges of the lawn. This combination of factors was devastating: not only was the park relatively inaccessible for law-abiding passersby, but the drug dealers who had taken it over found themselves with a built-in wall to cloak their activities. As Andrew Heiskell, one of the founders of Bryant Park Corporation, told the NY Times in 1980, “It’s incredible, but it seems the park was designed for pushers.”  

Walls on the perimeter of the park kept people out, and hid illicit behavior within.  

There had been numerous efforts to “clean up Bryant Park”, but things really got rolling in 1979. William H. (“Holly”) Whyte, famed urbanist and author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (a seminal text which can be purchased at Bryant Park Shop) was asked by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to study the park. He wrote in his report: “If you went out and hired the dope dealers, you couldn’t get a more villainous crew to show the urgency of the [contemporaneous Bryant Park] situation.”

Also that year, Heiskell, former Editor-in-Chief at Time Magazine and at the time the incoming President of the New York Public Library, became weary of hearing complaints about conditions around the main branch in the park. Armed with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, he teamed with Dan Biederman to form the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (later to be renamed Bryant Park Corporation). They immediately went to work providing extra sanitation and security, and filling as many hours as possible with programming that drew law- abiding citizens in and chased criminals out.

For more information on the park's transformation, read posts from our 20th Anniversary Series

This is an excerpt from a series of articles on the transformation of Bryant Park from our weekly newsletter, MidCity Newswritten by Terry Benoit. MidCity News keeps park enthusiasts informed about our events, milestones, operations, and all of the detailed maintenance work that goes into caring for the park. Weekly updates are sent with our sister organizations 34th Street Partnership and Chelsea Improvement Company

You can view this edition of MidCity News online, or sign up to receive it in your inbox. 

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