Bryant Park has become New York City to me. When I was in college in the 1970s New York City was Greenwich Village, where I’d visit and hang out about once a quarter with my brother who lived on MacDougal Street below Houston, then later Thompson above Bleeker. In the 80s and 90s I hardly visited New York at all, but in 2001 I came on business and got a cheap room in a midtown hotel and stumbled upon Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library. Even in chilly March the park between 40th and 42nd Streets, Fifth and Sixth Avenues, had a tidy appeal, but when I returned in July 2004 my eyes opened completely.
Green café tables and chairs clustered in the shade of plane trees all around the perimeter; gardens bloomed in rainbow colors in the margin between the clipped rectangular lawn and the stone walkways; an outdoor movie screen promised outdoor films every Monday night; cafes and a bar spilled laughter and the clattering of plates and glasses into the traffic din; I sat and stayed. And stayed.
I returned in March 2005 for a trade show and again spent every free moment there, even though I needed to bundle up against the chill. And then, in June, I was back, planning my meetings around time to sit in the park, watching people, and working. Yes, Bryant Park now even has free wireless, so I could get my electronic work done as long as my batteries lasted.
Bryant Park is named for William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), a poet, newspaper editor, and civic reformer. The park was once a potter’s field, then a Victorian greensward called Reservoir Square, later the site of New York’s first “world’s fair,” the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853-54, and by the late 1970s, despite being designated a scenic landmark, was a wasteland of drug dealers and junkies. At that time the Rockefeller brothers started the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation and worked with Andrew Heiskell, then Chairman of Time Inc. and the New York Public Library, and Daniel A. Biederman, an innovator in downtown management, to create a master plan that was put in place and produced the Bryant Park we know today.
Designed in the French Classical tradition, the park has 240 London plane trees along the promenades (the same species found in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris), more than 100 species of woody shrubs, perennials, annuals, and 150,000 bulbs, 3,500 movable chairs and hundreds of café-style tables, 50 café umbrellas with tables, and a 1.25 acre lawn at the center of it all. A children’s carousel whirls on the south side, food, coffee, and flower kiosks operate on the west side, a free outdoor reading room offers newspapers and books daily on the north side, and terrace restaurants thrive on the east side directly behind the library. The drug dealers and junkies are gone, replaced by some 10,000 people a day who relax, ponder, play, work, or just smell the flowers. All of this is barely a block from Times Square. And it’s all paid for by an assessment on surrounding properties, and corporate and private donations.
One day I was sitting under an umbrella on the terrace behind the library looking across the park down 41st Street all the way to the Hudson. The sky had gone from blue to hazy as the day wore on, and down the street it appeared to be darkening. Gradually the clouds collected, deepened, and rolled up 41st Street. Soon the whole sky took on the blue-gray of an impending storm and then the wind kicked up, swirling leaves and flapping book pages and newspapers as everyone looked up from their reading. Moments later calm returned, for just a moment. Then the deluge came.
My umbrella was large, my table small, and I sat watching the fat drops pummel the square. The flagstones flooded in an instant. People scurried to find cover. Water poured off the umbrellas. Thunder roared, lightning flashed, and the whole world stopped to watch.
A flash ripped the sky above the buildings on 40th Street and the thunder exploded almost at the same instant. We were right beneath it, waiting for the next one. I was awed and cheered by this raw display of nature’s energy. And dry as a bone.
The storm raged for ten minutes, then tapered to a drizzle for ten more before stopping entirely. Calm returned, the sky lightened, and everyone went about their business, while I sat and thanked the city of New York and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation visionaries who turned this place into my home away from home. And nature, of course. Without her, they would have had to turn on the sprinklers.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.