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Secrets of Bryant Park
While most New Yorkers are aware of its transformation from "Needle Park," a notorious hub for drug trafficking, violence and prostitution in the 1970s, to the beloved summer hangout spot and family-friendly winter wonderland it is today, Bryant Park has a story that runs much deeper than that.
After serving as a battle ground during the Revolutionary War and a burial site once Washington Square Park was overrun by victims of yellow fever, it became the site of the Croton Distributing Reservoir, once New York City's primary source of fresh water, and boasted the Latting Observatory, an 315-foot building that, when built in 1853, was the city's tallest.
Under the name Reservoir Square, it was the site of Civil War draft riots, and the unfortunate neighbor to the horrific burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1863.
In 1884, Reservoir Square became Bryant Park, named after New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, who is still honored with a statue at the park's eastern end. In 1911, it welcomed the New York Public Library, and in the 1920s spent much of its life covered in debris from the construction of a subway tunnel. It reopened to the public with a new design in 1934, but by the 1970s, as previously noted, was an epicenter of New York City crime. It wasn't until the 1980, when the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was formed under Andrew Heiskell and current president Daniel Biederman, that a plan was made to resuscitate the decrepit space. By the late 1990s, it was the lunchtime go-to that we know and love, rejuvenating the entire surrounding area.
Before your next visit, whether it be for an outdoor movie, a language class, a Shakespeare performance or a ride on the French classical style carousel, get to know the park's best kept secrets, as told by the Bryant Park Corporation.
The literary underground
Making stellar use of New York City's limited space, the New York Public Library stores more than 40 miles of book shelves beneath the Bryant Park Lawn. That's enough space to accommodate up to 3.2 million books and 50,000 reels of microfilm.
The 30-foot excavation to build the stacks, part of the 1989 renovation, is shown in progress, above.(Credit: Bryant Park Corporation)
An uprooted graveyard
Before there were miles of books beneath Bryant Park, something less romantic occupied the space... dead bodies.
Once yellow fever put the potter's field (burial ground for the lower class) at Washington Square Park over capacity, a larger one was formed at the site of what is now Bryant Park. It was decommissioned in 1840, and the bodies were moved to Wards Island, in the northern East River, so that the Croton Reservoir could be built.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
Two birds of a feather
Famed inventor Nikola Tesla spent much of the early 1900s feeding pigeons in Bryant Park. He must have fed thousands of birds, but one particular all-white bird allegedly aroused his interest. According to legend, Tesla said, I love that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loves me.
As a way to honor Tesla's connection to the park, New York City renamed the corner of 40th Street and 6th Avenue Nikola Tesla Corner.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
Bryant Park staff counts everyone in the park twice every day, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. You might be there minding your own business, but hanging out in the park during those hours means you've become a part of all sorts of systematic data used in making decisions regarding future park developments.
Daily attendance counts often exceed 1,000 people per acre, even on days without special events, making it the most densely occupied urban park in the world, according to president Dan Biederman.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
A wish well spent
You've probably made a wish in Bryant Park's Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain at least once, and you're not alone. Visitors toss an estimated $3,000 to $4,000 worth of coins into it each year. Some may find it comforting to know that whether or not their wishes have come true, they are going to a good cause. A few times each year, Bryant Park staff members sort the coins and wash them in their office kitchen sink, above. The funds are used to supplement the park's maintenance, and, as yet another testament to NYC's global reach, employees have found coins from 76 different countries this year alone.(Credit: Bryant Park Corporation)
NYC's first skyscraper
Back in 1853, the space that is now Bryant Park was home to the tallest building in New York City, a 315-foot octagonal wood tower called the Latting Observatory.
The Latting Observatory, which beat Trinity Church for the top spot at the time, was built attached to the Crystal Palace, a grand, glass exhibit space that would attract awe-struck visitors until both structures were abruptly destroyed in an 1858 fire.(Credit: Courtesy of the New York Public Library)
A sacrifice to the gods
We all know about the New York Public Library's stone lions, but have you ever noticed the cattle?Those who look closely at Bryant Park's stone exteriors will find carvings of cattle skulls, used to depict sacrifices to the gods in Ancient Greece.
New York Public Library architects had these made in appreciation of the classical world.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
A trapdoor in disguise
While unsuspecting families play in the game area, a trapdoor sits below them, disguised to look like a bluestone paver. This hides an enormous power vault, which houses enough electrical supply to run Bryant Park's entire Winter Village, including the ice rink, warming pavilion, pop-up restaurant and holiday shops.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
Remnants of a lifeline
Before it was renamed, Bryant Park was known as Reservoir Square, thanks to its Croton Distributing Reservoir, seen above.
The four acre man-made lake, a crucial engineering innovation and the first fresh water supply carried by aqueducts from upstate New York to New York City, was surrounded by 50-foot granite walls. Atop the walls was a public promenade, where visitors could take in views of a city in progress.
The reservoir was torn down in 1900, but a remnant can still be seen in the New York Public Library courtyard.(Credit: Courtesy of the New York Public Library)
A New York minute makeover
Those who have visited Bryant Park in the summer months, when life revolved around its quiet, green lawn, would hardly recognize the space in winter months. But the park's entire transformation to a Winter Village is done in just two weeks, with crews working around the clock to remove the sod and build the ice rink, restaurant, shops and more from scratch.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)
Best kept secret: A pleasant public bathroom!
It may seem minor among the grand historical secrets of Bryant Park, but anyone who has ever spent time in New York City knows the rarity of finding a public bathroom that doesn't make visitors cringe.
In the northeast corner of Bryant Park sits a public bathroom that is consistently rated one of the best in the city-- and with its cleanliness, fresh flower arrangements and classical music, it has most certainly earned its great reputation.(Credit: Nina Ruggiero)