The Mallification of Bryant Park – Or When Private Entities Prevail at Public Parks

bryant park as mall
bryant park as mall

What happens when our parks are privatized – is this a benign thing as some assume or are there notable and negative consequences? Is Midtown’s Bryant Park what we want our public spaces to be… its spirit sold out to the highest bidder with a focus on consumerism and corporate influence all while being uber-programmed? Bryant Park is currently run by a Business Improvement District (BID) whose president, Daniel Biederman, proudly told the City Council recently that the space doesn’t take any money from the city – and has not since 1997. And it shows.

This week, The New York Observer looked a bit closer at Bryant Park over the winter … calling it out as a Mall, not a vibrant public space which is what it ought to be.

From The New York Observer, Eat, Shop, Skate, Smile: On the Mallifcation of Bryant Park by Chris Pomorski, November 11, 2014 (Note: the underlined sentence sums it up perfectly):

By most metrics, Mr. Biederman’s efforts to spur park attendance through the cold season have been tremendously successful. (Though there was a shooting at the skating rink last year.) For all intents and purposes, though, Bryant Park looks and functions during the Winter Village months more like an outdoor mall than a park. Mr. Biederman suggested that the skating rink is used primarily by New Yorkers, while the shops draw a mix of natives and tourists. But it’s difficult to imagine many New Yorkers thrilling to either the Winter Village’s environment or its wares.

On an overcast afternoon last week, small groups toting guidebooks and backpacks predominated on the walkways on which the shops are set. The huts sold winter accessories, chocolate, inexpensive jewelry and fragrant candles. One sold stuffed animals, another metallic figurines inspired by science fiction films and comic books. A third hawked “edgy,” often New York-centric t-shirts, as might be found at a Hot Topic. Through many corridors, the sort of candied cleanser aroma familiar to anyone who has ever been dragged to a Bath and Body Works hung in the air. Around the skating rink, a grungy mat of synthetic royal blue turf had been laid. A woman in pink leather high-top sneakers tugged at the arm of a male companion. “There’s a Starbucks across the street!” she cried.

The park was crowded. But it was not vibrant. It was productive, but it was not particularly pleasant—at least not for one visitor who has valued the place in part for its being an exceptional space in a city whose territory seems ever more devoted to the getting and the celebration of stuff. But the mallification of Bryant Park was, after all, the solution to the riddle of the free skating rink, the one Mayor Daley couldn’t crack. And it’s hardly unique in ceding public space to commercial purposes—Grand Central has its Holiday Fair and Columbus Circle its market; Union Square has often been virtually impassable on weekends for the throngs eager stock up on all manner of organic goods from the Green Market.

Nonetheless, the binary philosophy that appears to underlie Bryant Park’s Winter Village—and which many members of the city’s corporate upper crust are fond of promoting—that our only choices for urban life are a wholesale embrace of unfettered consumerism or descent into savage, gratified ruin, seems to sell New Yorkers rather short. (No pun intended.)

You can read the full piece at The New York Observer.

Photos: Cathryn

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