Learning from Bryant Park

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.

As Manshel relates in the book, once a space was designed, approved, financed, and fitted out, the heavier work began – the ongoing, day-to-day operation. In every instance, Manshel says, maintenance and programming were more important than the size or the design of the space. “These aren’t big ideas. They are small ones that make a difference.”

The key to programming, Manshel writes, is to keep in mind Whyte’s famous maxims: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people;” and “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.” Many urban designers and architects are leery of introducing commercial activities into public spaces. But some commerce “can actually be invaluable in animating public spaces.” When an enterprise really takes off, as the Bryant Park Grill and Café did (after four or five years), there can be a financial payoff as well as appealing pizzazz.

In programming consistency is key. A one-off event, Manshel writes, may not “have enough presence to change people’s minds about the character of an inactive space.” Clustering events physically has a synergistic effect. “Creating critical mass is an essential placemaking tactic.”

The techniques that work in one space can easily be tried out in another, Manshel believes. Tools that have been used “to improve the urban core” can also be used to improve suburban public spaces.

Manshel, an alumnus of Oberlin who also has a law degree and an MBA from New York University, seems to have drawn from all corners of his broad expertise to meet the diverse challenges of every placemaking program. One controversial innovation: Enabling business improvement districts (BIDs) themselves to issue bonds for capital improvements.

Oh yes, Manshel is also a musician (renaissance lute, baroque guitar, and theorbo), and that made him a good choice to promote cultural events at Bryant Park and elsewhere. But even an accomplished musician can have a note fall flat: In his first year at Bryant Park he programmed outdoor concerts featuring wind serenades performed by chamber ensembles. But the acoustic concerts could not be heard. The concerts were then amplified, but still did not register with visitors to the park. Then they switched to jazz and Broadway shows tunes. In that venue louder was better.

Other things went unexpectedly wrong. For the Grand Central Partnership Manshel ordered $600,000 worth of custom designed concrete planters. But within six months in place, the planters’ decorative corners began to be chipped off by motor vehicles and handcarts bumping against them. “The beautiful stippled, porous surface” began to turn from gray to black as dirt and grime were absorbed from the street. All of the planters eventually were replaced with round plastic planters at one-tenth the cost.

Manshel learned to start small and see how a decision plays out in the real world. In selecting the moveable chair that would become a visual symbol of Bryant Park, he acquired samples of about a dozen different chairs, including one that Whyte favored. Then staff and visitors were invited to sit in each and put a pencil mark on the wall above the one they favored. The winner was not the choice of either Whyte or Manshel. Whyte’s favorite, a wire mesh design, ended up leaving a physical impression on the butts of people who sat more than a few minutes.

You wouldn’t expect to find insights into the homeless problem in a book about placemaking, but you do in Learning from Bryant Park. Working with groups well versed in dealing with homeless people, Manshel learned that there are two kinds of homeless people; families, who almost never end up in public places; and single people, who often do show up in parks, plazas, and sidewalks. The key to dealing with them, Manshel writes, is to realize the homeless are not all alike. The most effective solutions involved staff getting to know the homeless as individuals and then persisting “to gain their trust and evaluate their needs.” Only then could the staff attempt to connect the homeless person to the appropriate social service. Nothing’s easy.

“Placemaking is not a quick fix,” Manshel writes. He advises people to allow five years before there is a visible impact from public space programming. That’s longer than most politicians’ term in office. For that reason private nonprofits are often better suited to pursue placemaking ventures. And sometimes it is better for placemakers ”to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Learning from Bryant Park makes me want to revisit that gem in the heart of Manhattan and look more closely at some of the details that helped make the space so successful. It also makes me want to visit Campus Martius Park in Detroit to see what can work, and to Pershing Square in Los Angeles, to see what hasn’t worked (at least not as of Manshel’s account).

But I don’t need to travel far. Two blocks from my house is a fabulous public space in a previously unused alley off the main street. Now the nonprofit that revived the space is facing the challenge of programming. But programming doesn’t come easily. Perhaps a partnership should be formed with some experts in our community. It’s all easier said than done — another lesson from this book, learned the hard way by Manshel.