Bryant Park is special for all kinds of reasons.
Between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 40th and 42nd Streets in Midtown Manhattan, New York it is a hub of imaginative activity.
On summer evenings you can play over 50 table top games. There’s even a hostess on hand to help you set up and remind you of the rules. Also available are Mah Jongg socials, chess and backgammon, petanque, table tennis, putting, free ice skating in the winter and something called Kubb which apparently is a Scandinavian version of bowls.
Art equipment and studio space are free to adults and children and there are opportunities to learn from professional artists. There’s a shoe shine stand and a place to recharge lap tops and smart phones. Also popular are free classes in juggling, yoga, tai chi and knitting. Since last year the park has its own networking group of young professionals that meet regularly to eh, network and dance barefoot at the annual dance (on grass, of course).
But for me the outstanding element is the open-air-without-walls-no-bureaucracy-Reading Room.
It opened in August 1935 as a response to the rise of unemployment in the Depression. It consisted of several benches, a few book and magazine storage cases, and a table with a beach umbrella for the five librarians from the New York Public library who ran it. It operated six days a week from mid-morning until mid-evening. Most of the books were from the New York Public Library, but all magazines and trade publications were donated. When it rained the books were stored in a large water-proof chest and readers and librarians took shetler where they could. No cards were required – people were just asked to sign in and out.
It closed in 1944 when the job situation improved because of World War II.
The Park hit some dark times and in the 1970s it was a no-go area unless you were in the market for drugs or paid sex. It closed for a re-think ande a re-design and was back in action by the early 1990s. The crime rate dropped like a stone and the number of people using the park leapt.
The Reading Room reopened in 2003. Modelled on the original, it has an extensive selection of books, periodicals and newspapers; readings and programs are organised at lunchtime, after work and for kids; movable furniture to create a more intimate environment has been installed, and there’s kid-sized carts and furniture for children to use. It is all free, without any need of cards or identification.
And that’s not all. There is a book club which meets twice a month and where acclaimed contemporary authors lead a discussion on a classic that has a connection to their own work.
Two great public institutions – libraries and parks – have joined forced to create something very special.
It’s so different to the municipal parks I remember from my childhood with their regiments of tulips and keep-off-the grass signs. With sponsorship, volunteers and an awful lot of imagination, a precious space has been saved and turned into a park for 21st century urban living. And visiting.