When Bad Things Happen to Good Parks
By Ethan Kent
“This is a private park.” That’s what I was told while taking pictures of Bryant Park during a heavily guarded political event last month. A security guard used this rationale to explain his previous command: “You have to keep moving. You are not allowed to stand in one place.”
Bryant Park, which was transformed from a frightening open-air drug market in the 1980s into a vibrant place for everyone, may be the closest thing to a town square in New York City. But it is increasingly off-limits to the citizens of the city — only now instead of drug dealers, it is VIP events keeping us out. With events like this private political gala and the twice-yearly invitation-only Fashion Week occupying an ever-larger section of the lawn, it seems the park is being stripped of its role as an inclusive center of civic life.
That’s why PPS has added Bryant Park to the Hall of Shame section of our Great Public Spaces website until its role as a public commons is restored.
Are the financial gains of privatization really necessary to effectively operate and maintain the park?
Indeed, almost all the activities in Bryant Park are now paying activities. There are no educational exhibits, even though the park is located in the backyard of the New York Public Library. There is no play area for children. There is no public art. Even the park concessions seem to serve less of a public function. The snack bar kiosks, which were once operated by independent local businesses, are now chain operations whose real purpose seems to be providing corporate advertising on one of the most visible corners in New York City.
Are the financial gains of privatization really necessary to effectively operate and maintain the park? Bryant Park already generates as much revenue as any other park of its size, yet it continues to sell itself as a venue for events that directly conflict with its role as a public park. Almost all other privately managed civic squares in the U.S. and Europe either do not allow private events or ensure that the impact of such events remains negligible. Portland, Oregon’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, which hosts about 300 events annually, sets aside only two days each year for private events (and these events are fundraisers to support public institutions).
Few guests at Fashion Week may remember the time when Bryant Park was a spot New Yorkers took care to avoid. Only after years of hard work did the park become the beloved place that it is today. During its reclamation, who could have anticipated that the park’s success would one day bring a new threat in the form of encroaching privatization? Every time a private event is allowed to take precedence over public use of Bryant Park, it is a discouraging sign to people who are trying to turn around public spaces in their communities. Once they succeed, will their efforts also be hijacked by private interests a few years down the road?
So instead of letting Fashion Week usurp large swaths of Bryant Park for months out of each year (not just the Fashion Weeks themselves, but much of the weeks before and after as well), why not stage a public fashion show showcasing the creativity of local designers? Or how about a flower show in the spring, and a high quality weekly art market, and special daytime events for children in New York’s public schools? By exploring new ways to better serve the public, Bryant Park can regain its civic importance to New York and reclaim its title as a great public place.