Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Bryant blog.

Since New York has had such a heavy concentration of media for so long, the city's most famous landmarks are widely known, and not only in this country, but in a lot of other places, too. I remember a Japanese student of mine who communicated to me, in the most basic English, that he wanted to visit New York someday, so he could see "free girl." A little more probing on my part, and his pantomime of holding a torch up with one arm, revealed that he wanted to see the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, it's easy to rattle off the famous places: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Broadway, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Bryant Park. Well, maybe not that last one. But it's a excellent little park, and hardly hidden. It's smack in the middle of Midtown, occupying the square behind the magnificent main branch of the New York Public Library, which fronts Fifth Ave. After I finished loading my stomach with barbecue and beer (see yesterday's blog), I had a little more than an hour till curtain time at the American Airlines Theater. I so headed eastward (the grid isn't true to the compass, but it's close enough) until I came to Bryant Park.

Turning now to the Michelin Green Guide for New York: "Located behind the library, this formal garden is Midtown’s only large green space. Built on the site once occupied by the Crystal Palace [an 1850s sort of World's Fair] and the Croton Reservoir, the park was named for William Cullen Bryant in 1884 but remained vacant until 1934, when it was laid out by Lubsy Simpson. Despite endeavors to keep the park a pleasant public space, it soon became a gathering place for the unemployed and homeless, and [by] the 1960s was taken over by drug peddlers. After undergoing an extensive restoration effort, the park reopened to the public in late 1991."

In this case, an "extensive restoration effort" might have included landscaping, but it also must have included police muscle, and closing the park at night. There's been nattering about the cleanup of Times Square, to the effect that driving out the lowlifes mars the authenticity of the place, but as far as I know, no one has made the same silly argument about Bryant Park.

I discovered that it had closed at 7 p.m., just a few minutes before I got there. The park's design is supposed to have been inspired by some of the parks in Paris, and if I remember right closing at night is a feature of some of those, too. I walked around its perimeter and discovered that a promenade directly behind the library building was open, affording a nice view of the open green center of the park, and the more formal landscaping on the sides. The place was alive with other walkers, old people sitting on benches, a man in a tux who might have wandered away from some formal event at the library, a couple making out, a few families.

A seated bronze of William Cullen Bryant faces the park at this promenade, looking a little stern. As a lad, I think I'd heard of him, though I probably confused him with William Jennings Bryan. Maybe he's stern because shares this public space with a statue of Gertrude Stein, who is seated on a pedestal nearby. It's an odd work. I don't think she was especially known for her detachment, but in this depiction, she looks bizarrely like a seated Buddha.


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