Bryant Park: A Stunning Urban Garden

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Bryant Park, a 9 plus acre parcel of land, sits in mid-town Manhattan, blending in so well with the hustle and bustle of the city that it practically goes unnoticed, unless one is familiar with it or just happens to stumble onto it. It is located at 42nd and 6th, with the Bank of America skyscraper directly across from it and the New York Public Library on its grounds.

What makes Bryant Park such a jewel is that feels like a Parisian park transported smack in the middle of traffic jammed,  gritty NYC.  It’s a spot where New Yorkers can relax, read, feed the pigeons, have a chat or buy some food from anyone of the several vendors surrounding it. It is all so civilized, almost from another time: and to my eyes and ears is very reminiscent of The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It would be enough if the park was strictly an area filled with boxwoods, ivy and bistro chairs and tables. But this is not the case.

There is a long history associated with this park dating back to 1686 when the area, which was still a wilderness, was designated as a public space by New York’s colonial governor. Over the next sixty some years, the park was used for a variety of causes, one being a graveyard for the poor.

From 1847 on, when it opened as a park under the name of Reservoir Square, this large chunk of land went through several transformations, finally being given the name of Bryant Park in 1884. During The Great Depression, it was redesigned with a large lawn, evergreen hedges and an iron fence, delineating it as a separate park from the streets of NYC.

By the time I moved to NYC in the early 70s, Bryant Park had become a haven for the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes. Much like Central Park, it was considered an unsafe place to be after sunset. In 1980, a group of well known New Yorkers funded and created a corporation, called The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, under the leadership of a fellow by the name of Dan Biederman, with the goal of making Bryant Park into a beautiful respite where New Yorkers could congregate.

  

In 1988, the park closed for 4 years for a major renovation which included a lush garden design created by Lynden Miller, a well known public garden designer, who has been instrumental in developing public spaces throughout the boroughs of New York. The garden is both exuberant, yet restrained and simple. Miller is masterful at creating luscious plant combinations and incredibly adept in the use of repeating plant material and creating a garden with 4 seasons of interest.

 Even on a very cold day in mid-November, Salvia guaranitica and Rosa ‘Betty Prior’ were still in bloom. A few of the other specimens that I continually notice as I stroll through the park, regardless of what season it is, are: Hydrangea quercifolia, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Variegata’, Salvia ‘van Houtii’, Hemerocallis sp, Hosta sp., Buddleia davidii ‘Nanho Blue’ and Taxus baccata

A piece of history that I find fascinating is that when Biederman began the renovation, he had the foresight to bring in William Whyte, a sociologist and an expert on what constitutes successful public space, as a consultant. The first decision they made was that movable chairs were to be used in the park. Whyte believed that movable chairs gave individuals a sense of empowerment, allowing them to sit and view the garden, skyscrapers or movement of the sun from whatever position they desired. The second decision was to lower Bryant Park to street level. Up until that time, it had been elevated above the street, surrounded by tall hedges (which because of the sense of isolation actually helped in increasing the likelihood of crime).

  When Bryant Park reopened in 1992, New Yorkers were thrilled and the park was acclaimed by critics.  Today Bryant Park is not only a wonderful, open park but has become the grounds where a wide variety of entertainment and educational happenings occur. Here is a listing of some of the events that take place there during the summer: The HBO/Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, The GMA Summer Concert Series, a series of concerts performed by well known classical music organizations in NYC like the New York Philharmonic, New York City Opera, Orchestra of St. Lukes and The New York Pops.

 And during the winter months, the center of the park becomes an ice skating rink. It is a sight to behold. With the Bryant Park christmas tree perched on the landing, and the park filled with families, couples and individuals just enjoying themselves and appreciating the nature that surrounds them, one might be tempted to say “It just doesn’t get much better than this”.

Fran Sorin

Fran’s book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, now considered a classic, was groundbreaking when published as no one had written about gardening in the context of creativity, spirituality, and transformation.

In addition to being a recognized garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is a broadcaster, journalist, Ordained Interfaith Minister, and Soul Tender.

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Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden) November 22, 2008, 6:33 pm

Fascinating story. I had no idea.

Thanks,
Cameron

Yeh Cameron, I know. NYC is so well known for Central Park but there are several other ones that are incredibly beautiful and well hidden! Fran

Mother Nature's Garden November 22, 2008, 6:39 pm

It is wonderful to see green spaces restored. Even in the city is desirable to see the natural seasons.

Mother Nature’s Garden-
Couldn’t agree more. As I get older, I actually find urban gardening most appealing…I think in part because it create such beauty in a city! Fran

Lisa at Greenbow November 22, 2008, 9:35 pm

Interesting story. I can imagine how it is a most appreciated spot of green in the concrete city.

Lisa-
Because Bryant Park is in the center of the city, it gets a huge amount of traffic from the workplace…can you imagine having such a respite to come to during lunch when you’re stuck in an office all day?? Fran

JGH November 22, 2008, 9:38 pm

Bryant Park has really changed. When I first moved to Manhattan in the mid 80s I would go there on my lunch break. There was no place to sit and it was almost scary! I haven’t seen it in awhile, so thanks for these beautiful pics…

JGH-
I remember those times when it was called ‘Needle Park’ due to all of the drug dealing happening at the park. It has such a great history and is a reminder to me that when a person (or group of people) put their minds to something, a dream can come to fruition. Fran

Gardening4Life November 22, 2008, 11:57 pm

What a beautiful post! I made my first trip to Manhattan a little over a year ago. I must say, that I was truly impressed by the parks, Bryant included. I would’ve never imagined finding such a treasure amongst all of the concrete and buildings in the city.

Thanks for the history of the park. It was great to see how so many people really are enjoying the changes. :)

Gardening4Life-
Hope you liked that little island of Manhattan on your first visit. It is true that NYC has some great parks, many hidden. And I must say, to this day, I am still a big fan of Central Park. Fran

Benjamin November 23, 2008, 2:58 pm

Ok. Ok. I’ll go back to NYC again. I was there in February and it drove me insane (in good and bad ways). I’ve just become too acclimated to my middle-o-nowhere-slow-it-down plains living after living in big cities for 12 years.

Benjamin-
I also have mixed feelings about NYC. But when you get it on a beautiful day, there’s nothing better!
Go back at least one more time and see how you feel. And have a great Thanksgiving! Fran

Frances November 23, 2008, 7:02 pm

Hi Fran, a heartwarming story on a cold night to see the return of the park to the public as a safe beautiful spot to commune with nature.

Frances

Thanks Frances. I would love to be in NYC the day after Thanksgiving, which is usually the busiest shopping day of the year, and just sit in the park with a hot cup of tea observing all of the hustle and bustle happening in the area. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!! Fran

Jon November 25, 2008, 4:33 am

Interesting post about the history of this park. I am glad people are able to enjoy it once again. It is always a treat for me to visit your lovely and well-written blog.

Hope y’all have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Jon at Mississippi Garden

Thanks for your comments Jon….and back at you….hope you have a healthy and joyful Thanksgiving! Fran

Lori December 5, 2008, 4:20 am

Very cool story! I’ll have to visit if I’m ever in New York. Now I’m interested in reading up on what makes effective public spaces, too!

Lori-
Check out my latest post on ‘Oudolf’. In there, you will find links to Millenium Park and The Battery Conservancy, both public spaces. It will give you alot of information on how these spaces were designed and the reasoning behind it. I also find it extremely interesting. Fran