Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces
By Andrew M. Manshel. Published by Rutgers University Press, $29.95.
Reviewed by Richard K. Rein.
You don’t have to read too far into Andrew Manshel’s new book to realize that its title, Learning from Bryant Park, is an alluring misnomer. It could just as well have been Learning from Bryant Park; Grand Central and 34th Street; Jamaica, Queens; Campus Martius Park, Detroit; Pershing Square, Los Angeles; Gloversville, New York, and a Lot of Other Places. But that list would not fit easily on the cover of standard size hardcover book.
Bryant Park, however, is an excellent starting point for the book and the title. Manshel picks up the story at the point when urban advocate William H. Whyte presented a bold plan to transform the park behind the New York Public Library from a hangout for drug dealers and homeless people into a bustling year-round public space for residents and visitors. Whyte’s game plan was elegant in its simplicity: expand and widen the access points into the park, trim and improve the plantings so that no one could hide in a dark corner, bring in some food concessions, and spread out hundreds of movable French bistro chairs so people could create their own personal enclaves. One of those now classic chairs graces the cover of Manshel’s book.
And Manshel quickly shows that the lessons are not only found in what went right at Bryant Park but also in what went wrong and in the amount of time and sheer persistence needed to move from Whyte’s vison presented in 1979 to the “overnight” success it became when it reopened (13 years later!) in 1992. The lessons extend far beyond Bryant Park and the city and extended even into suburban settings. After reading this “field guide” to public placemaking, you might take a new view of your town square or neighborhood park, no matter where you live.
Manshel joined the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in 1991, and also served as counsel and “director of public amenities” (including public toilets) at the Grand Central and 34th Street Partnerships, serving at all three under Dan Biederman. (Biederman Redevelopment Ventures now revives and manages public spaces nationwide. One prominent recent project is Salesforce Park atop the new Transbay transit center in San Francisco.)
After 10 years at Bryant Park, Manshel left and became executive vice president of Greater Jamaica Development in Queens. Creating and financing these various partnerships and projects, and then shepherding them through the bureaucratic labyrinth was the first hurdle. Like his inspiration, “Holly” Whyte, who helped write cluster housing ordinances, open space regulations, and urban zoning codes, Manshel was not afraid to enter the weeds of municipal zoning and finance regulations.