Hemming Plaza vs NYC's Bryant Park: A Tale of Two Parks

October 17, 2014 49 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

What Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza Can Learn from the Historic Restoration of New York’s Bryant Park by Metro Jacksonville contributor Ken Bowen.

Bryant Park (Photo by Peter Mauss)

In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, nestled beside the New York Public Library’s flagship branch, lies Bryant Park, one of the most celebrated urban parks in the world. Thousands of New Yorkers flock to the park daily to lounge in the grass, chat with friends over lunch, or connect to the park’s free Wi-Fi network. Year round, Bryant is full of life, from yoga classes in the spring, to movie nights in the summer, to ice skating for the holidays. Bryant Park has received hundreds of awards for its design and operation and in 2010, the American Planning Association called Bryant “the definitive model of urban park restoration and environmental, social, and economic sustainability.”

It’s hard to believe then that just over twenty years ago, this now vibrant park was considered too dangerous to enter by most New Yorkers. Drug-dealers, prostitutes, gamblers, and addicts operated with impunity, and locals joked that the police only entered the park when they needed to retrieve a body. Bryant became known as “Needle Park” because of the discarded syringes littering the ground, and up to 500 felonies were recorded in the park each year. Throughout the 1970s, as New York City teetered on bankruptcy, many considered Bryant Park to be the leading symbol of Manhattan’s decay.

Bryant Park’s historic turnaround in the early 1990s was the result of a ground-breaking public-private partnership between New York City and the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) that effectively ceded control of the city-owned urban park over to the nonprofit group. Founded by a handful of influential New Yorkers and guided by the pioneering work of urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte, the BPRC rapidly (and rather cheaply, by Midtown Manhattan standards) transformed the seedy, run-down park into one of the American Planning Association’s best public spaces in the nation.

On the surface, the similarities between New York’s Bryant Park and Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza are striking. Like Bryant Park, Hemming Plaza in anchored by the largest public library in its state. Both parks are bordered by office towers, museums, and some of their respective city’s finest architecture. Mass-transportation directly serves each park, with an elevated Skyway station at the west end of Hemming Plaza and the 42nd Street-Bryant Park subway station at the north end of Bryant Park. And both parks are central to their respective business districts, be it Jacksonville’s Downtown Northbank or Midtown Manhattan.

And, like pre-restoration Bryant Park, Hemming Plaza is Jacksonville’s own paradise lost, a once-grand space that is now perceived by most to be a dangerous block to visit. In a previous lifetime, Hemming was the epicenter of the city, a lush green park surrounded by Jacksonville’s flagship department stores. Now, the typical stories coming out of Hemming Plaza are more likely to involve vagrancy and crime than vibrancy and life. Reports of homeless attacks on teenagers, public intoxication and sex, aggressive panhandling, drug abuse, and open urination and defecation have given Hemming an unsavory reputation. When the decline of Jacksonville’s urban core is discussed, Hemming Plaza is often cited as ground zero.

Like New York in the 1980s, Jacksonville now seeks to restore life to its own fallen public square by handing control of Hemming Plaza over to a local nonprofit group, Friends of Hemming Park (FHP). This unique style of private/public partnership has been duplicated with great success in numerous other cities, including Detroit (Campus Martius Park), Portland (Pioneer Courthouse Square), Houston (Discovery Green and Market Square Park), and Boston (Post Office Square), just to name a few, and Jacksonville’s new partnership with FHP gives Hemming its best chance at success in decades.

Bryant Park (Left), Hemming Plaza (Right)

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