|Toronto councillors could learn a thing or two from Bryant Park in New York City, says Judith Timson.|
On an exquisite day last week I spent four hours playing in a park.
It wasn’t just any park. Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from Times Square, is a justly lauded jewel, a city space adjacent to the New York Public Library. It evokes such a sense of urban beauty, community, renewal and respite that it seduced me, on a short visit to one of the greatest cities in the world, to forgo many other pleasures, including museums, shopping and hoofing it from one great neighbourhood to another, to well, sit in a park.
It also made me envious. I spend a lot of time in my city in the summer with occasional excursions to cottages. I have two great parks in my own downtown neighbourhood. I’m an admirer of High Park, the Toronto Islands, and parts of the waterfront. But where in Toronto is my Bryant Park?
I was transfixed by this park. If in Henry James’ famous declaration, “summer afternoon” constitutes the “two most beautiful words in the English language,” then Bryant Park is its geographical embodiment.
Modelled after a classical French garden, with hundreds of wrought iron tables and chairs, Bryant Park has paths on which thousands of people, especially at lunch — tourists and New Yorkers alike — promenade, albeit yakking on their cells. It has good full service cafes, sandwich kiosks, a gelato booth, games areas, reading “rooms,” a movie screen, and even, with a huge bouquet of fresh flowers at its entrance, an “award-winning” bathroom that would not have been out of place in an upscale bistro.
With free Wi-Fi, you can spend a morning with your device of choice under the trees, working away, perched at a small table for one, sipping coffee, not missing a beat.
Here is what I did in those four hours: sat alone, people watching as groups of excited soccer fans filled one area to celebrate what would be an ill-fated FIFA match between the U.S.A and Germany, joined my husband at noon for fish tacos and a glass of pinot grigio at a cafe on the park, wandered into a Canadian poetry reading series sponsored by Tightrope Publishing, where Bruce Meyer, “Barrie, Ontario’s “inaugural poet laureate,” read a charming poem about a movie being shot on Bloor Street from his book Testing the Elements, got a Scrabble board from the “games room” attendant and played a pretty good match (I won) with my husband. The attendant helped us move when the sun became too hot.
We finished off with a gelato and then regretfully — we hadn’t made time for the jazz keyboard artist or the jugglers — made our way back to our busy hotel a few blocks away, and then on to the airport for the trip home.
Meanwhile, that very day as I was practically swooning in Bryant Park, Toronto city Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong was up in arms, grumbling in the National Post about some very expensive upgrades to Toronto’s newest waterfront parks. Apparently $529,000 was spent by Waterfront Toronto for two very large granite rocks to adorn Sugar Beach, “to conjure up” a Muskoka lake. (They were painted with a few summery stripes.) Plus $11,565 more each for 36 LED-equipped pink umbrellas that emit a “soft moonglow” at night.
It did sound preposterous. Why conjure up a Muskoka lake when you’re in a great urban setting? How many people will even visit Sugar Beach or Sherbourne Common (which, by the way, have both won design awards).
There is no doubt less money could have been spent. But spending money to create beautiful spaces for citizens — especially those crammed into condos and hungry for green — isn’t the worst thing you can do. However, it requires great vision, money, and common sense to create urban greenspaces that work and endure.
Once upon a time, New York City had given up on Bryant Park. In the 1970s, the park was rife with drug dealers and all the violence they brought. Tourists were warned not to go there. The park did not become a success until a coalition of public and private interests with deep pockets invested the time and money to make the park a safe and beautiful urban oasis.
When the brothers Ford proposed privatizing parks in Toronto, replete with corporate sponsors, many of us went ballistic. We saw this as the crass commercialization of public green spaces, complete with ferris wheels and perhaps a Hooters pavilion.
With the wrong leaders, that is what we would get. But sitting in Bryant Park made me rethink the possibilities and yearn for great civic leadership and the vision to do it right. On every trip I take, I talk to people from other places who murmur appreciatively when I tell them I am from Toronto. The word they use most often to compliment my city is “livable.”
I want it also to be splendid. That is what my day spent playing in Bryant Park really brought me. Or as Bruce Meyer writes: “We are always somewhere else in our dreams.”