Manshel, Andrew W. Learning From Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Katie Uva
On an August night in 1993, I was five years old and sitting in Bryant Park on a blanket on a lush bed of grass with my parents, their friends, and 2,000 fellow New Yorkers. We socialized, ate snacks, and took pictures of ourselves with a guy in a gorilla suit. As the sun went down, we settled in to watch “King Kong” on the big outdoor screen. It was the first year that the park, with support from HBO, screened films on the lawn, an activity that has continued for nearly three decades. It is one of my formative memories of growing up in the city, and I later realized that most of these details—a kid at a large social gathering in Bryant Park, sitting on a luxurious lawn in Midtown at night—would, a few years earlier, have been almost unimaginable. But I was growing up in the midst of a massive transition from the high crime, poorly maintained, economically distressed New York of the seventies to the lower crime, better maintained, more prosperous (though more deeply stratified) city of the late 1990s and 2000s.
The process and planning philosophy behind these changes is the subject of Andrew W. Manshel’s Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces. Manshel was the Associate Director and Counsel for the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation from 1991-1998, pivotal years in the turnaround of the park and the city. He argues that Bryant Park is one of New York’s great success stories, and that it should serve as a model for other local neighborhoods (in particular he focuses on downtown Jamaica, Queens) as well as communities around the country.
Bryant Park’s revitalization, the result of changes large and small, is best seen in Manshel’s compelling and detailed description of how the BPRC settled on the park’s now-iconic green French bistro chairs, the trial-and-error journey to the park’s centerpiece, that impeccable lawn, the plantings that create a cheery scene every spring, and the park’s famed public bathrooms, with their flowers and classical music, that have been variously described as “luxurious,” “the Tiffany’s of public restrooms,” and “fit for Brooke Astor.”
Manshel views Bryant Park as the embodiment of William H. Whyte’s ideas about placemaking: that a space should be designed in response to peoples’ established needs and their observed behavior, and that careful concern for park maintenance and design creates a sense of safety, leading to a decline in crime and antisocial behavior in public spaces. William H. Whyte studied Bryant Park in the late seventies and early eighties, and a nice feature of the book is an appendix including his observations. Whyte’s initial report allows readers to see how his observations and principles guided the eventual changes to the park. Manshel appends a few key points of his own:
- Maintenance and programming is actually more important than design and construction.
- Placemaking is an “iterative process” of small steps responsive to public use and feedback.
- Embracing some commercial uses can be good for the long-term health of parks.
When it comes to the larger implications of placemaking for economic development, the book takes a turn for the controversial and even defensive. Manshel, a strong proponent of business improvement districts (BIDs), is dismissive of those who criticize public-private partnerships, conservancies, and BIDs as undemocratic entities that may drive gentrification. Notably, Manshel repeatedly places “gentrification” in quotes as if to question its very existence. He does the same for “progressives” and “community activists,” as if to imply that those who may oppose BIDs and their development plans have ulterior motives or are merely obstructionists.
In his section entitled “Gentrification is Good,” Manshel cites a 2015 Furman Center report to support the idea that gentrification leads to greater integration and the improvement of neighborhood quality of life; the report claims that the majority of those who move into gentrifying neighborhoods are moving into new units and are “not, for the most part, displacing existing residents [emphasis Manshel’s].” These are debatable claims that need more evidence; if Manshel wants to make a convincing case for gentrification he should have earnestly considered concerns about its effects—rising rents, displacement, the loss of affordable retail space, and over-policing. Instead, he sidesteps most of those issues and dismisses the rest as trivial.
BIDs and other forms of public-private partnerships can be effective in improving maintenance and fueling economic development. That said, as numerous urbanists like Susanna Schaller, Tarry Hum, and Samuel Stein have noted, these changes can also be deeply disruptive to parts of the community, often pitting property owners against renters and leading to displacement. Even if one agrees that Bryant Park was a tremendous success, the claim that its lessons are transferable to other localities needs to be questioned. Strategies that worked in the successful revitalization of a 9.6 acre park located between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square, in an area surrounded by office towers, hotels, and tourist attractions, may not be applicable to residential or mixed-use neighborhoods or even most business districts.
Manshel’s book, much like Dan Doctoroff’s 2017 book Greater than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback, is an engaging study and has a propulsive energy that encourages readers to embrace its author’s strongly asserted point of view. But it is best read with some skepticism and in conversation with other authors and voices.
Katie Uva is a PhD candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center, where her dissertation examines the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs and their impact on New York City. She is an Adjunct Lecturer at Baruch College, an editor at The Gotham Center for New York City History, and worked for several years at The Museum of the City of New York.