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.

Hemming Park/Plaza – A Brief History

Early Hemming Park

First known as City Park in 1857 and then St. James Park in 1869, Hemming Park received its permanent name in 1899 in honor of Charles C. Hemming, a Civil War veteran who donated the confederate statue that has stood guard over the park for over a century.

For nearly a century, Hemming Park was the center of life in Jacksonville, peaking in the late 1950s and 1960s when the park was bordered by the city’s largest department stores. JC Penney, Woolworth’s, Furchgott’s, Ivey’s, and May Cohens all did big business nearby, while dignitaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy Jr, and Richard Nixon selected Hemming Park to host their most important speeches in Jacksonville.

Hemming, like Bryant Park, experienced rapid decline in the 1970s as the surrounding department stores began to close or relocate to the suburbs. Destructive birds soon descended on the park, and the city fought back by destroying Hemming’s trees. Hemming Park’s fatal blow came at the end of the 1970s when, as part of a failed 1971 Downtown Master Plan, the remaining green space was ripped out and the park was converted into a bricked pedestrian mall surrounded by a traffic loop. With the transformation complete, the city’s once grandest park was renamed Hemming Plaza.

When the last remaining department store closed in 1987 (May Cohen), the Times-Union practically wrote an obituary for Hemming, declaring that “the village green is deserted, abandoned to the homeless.” The down-and-out (seeking help at the nearby Sulzbacher Center, Clara White Mission and City Rescue Mission), career criminals (regularly arrested and then released four blocks from Hemming Plaza) and the mentally ill (now on the streets following 1980s mass deinstitutionalization) all converged on Hemming Plaza, essentially taking over the area. Since then, the park has experienced up to 100 reported incidents a year, ranging from violence, to gambling, to drug abuse, and more. Two years ago, a Channel 4 news van covering crime at Hemming had a brick thrown through the window and was almost set on fire with a photographer inside. Though Hemming has hosted the occasional special event in recent years, the plaza remains a rough block and is symbolic of why many avoid downtown Jacksonville.

Lyndon Johnson Speaks at Hemming Park

Applying the Bryant Park Philosphy to Other Urban Spaces

“There is nothing that we have done in Bryant Park that couldn’t be done in other city parks and that couldn’t be done with other city facilities.” – Daniel Biederman, President of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation

Though Bryant Park is at the center of one of the world’s busiest business districts, there is nothing particularly remarkable about its restoration and operation that hasn’t been or couldn’t be duplicated and scaled appropriately in other public spaces, including Hemming Plaza. BPRC President Dan Biederman has made a career of implementing similar improvements in cities such as Boston, Dallas, Newark, Pittsburg, and Buffalo. In most cases, he hasn’t needed to reinvent the wheel, but simply do the little things right.

Below are a few scenes from other urban parks throughout the nation that have enjoyed remarkable success by embracing a Bryant Park-like philosophy.

Detroit’s Campus Martius Park, as operated by the Detroit 300 Conservatory:

(Photo by the Detroit 300 Conservatory)

(Photo by Malena Fryar)

(Photo by the Detroit 300 Conservatory)

Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, as operated by the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation

(Photo by Lauren Drewes Daniels)

(from UptownJazzDallas.com)

Houston’s Market Square Park, as operated by the
Downtown Redevelopment Authority

(Photo by Vicki Powers)

(Photo by Vicki Powers)

Boston’s Post Office Square, as operated by the
Garage at Post Office Square

(Photo via LandNotes.org)

Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza, as operated by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory
(Photos via CityParksBlog.org)

Applying the Bryant Park Philosophy to Hemming Plaza

Using the core tenets of Bryant Park’s restoration – design, flexibility, amenities, staffing, programming, and diverse sources of revenue – let’s look at some changes Friends of Hemming Park could incorporate to help Hemming reach its full potential.  Keeping in mind that my background is more in economics, statistics and marketing than art, I’ve also included some rough renders to show what an improved Hemming Park could look like. These designs are for visualization purposes only and can obviously be improved upon by an architect, urban planner, or artist.

Smart, Safe, Social Design

Hemming Plaza – Obstructed Sightlines, Foreboding Perimeter

William Whyte famously said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” With its prime location – bound by City Hall to the north, the Jacksonville main library to the east, a JTA Skyway station to the west, and the St. Johns River just blocks to the south -- it’s inconceivable that Hemming Plaza isn’t one of Jacksonville’s most vibrant and cherished urban spaces. Instead, Hemming is cold and dystopian, both by design and neglect. Broken pavers, dirty fountains, rusted seats, and fenced and exposed utilities dot the landscape of modern Hemming Plaza, lending the impression that few treasure the space or care about how it is used.

James Wilson and George Kelling introduced the seminal “Broken Windows Theory” in the 1960s in the pages of The Atlantic. The two sociologists posited that decay, vandalism, and urban disorder are intrinsically norm-setting, breeding further crime and trouble if left unchecked. In other words, if the city hasn’t respected and taken care of Hemming Plaza for the last several decades, it should come as no surprise that people eventually began using it as a restroom.

One of Friends of Hemming Park’s first stated goals is to thoroughly clean and pressure wash the plaza. This is a great start and immediately reverses the perception that the space isn’t cared for.

While cleaning the existing plaza, trees should also be trimmed and landscaping should be modified to whatever extent possible to begin opening up clearer sightlines across Hemming. Without clear sightlines, the perception of Hemming as an ominous, dangerous place is likely to persist. The Project for Public Spaces notes, “Perceptions of safety increase markedly if people can see ahead and around them, and if other people are visible. Clear sightlines allows park users the ability to verify the presence of persons which they might find threatening. Small neighborhood and downtown parks usually feel more comfortable if a considerable degree of openness is provided.”

Poor Sightlines at Modern Hemming Plaza

In addition to improving sightlines, Friends of Hemming Park should also capitalize on any short-term opportunities to make Hemming Plaza’s perimeter more open and inviting. William Whyte said in 1981 that, “Regardless of park size, safety begins at the perimeter. If the perimeter is inviting and people can observe pleasing activity from the street, they are more inclined to enter a park. An active and visible edge will encourage use and create a perimeter of surveillance for the park. An active edge can also increase park accessibility to user groups who may feel more vulnerable in the park interior and who are of lower mobility, such as women, children, older adults and people with disabilities.”

Hemming Plaza’s existing edge is the antithesis of what Whyte spoke of, with broken sightlines, parking meters, vehicles (parked both legally and illegally), erratically placed car stops, and elevated utilities.

Erratically Placed Vehicle Stops Directly Blocking Pedestrian Entrance Path

Hemming Plaza South Perimeter – Utilities Obstruct View into Park

Inside the plaza, any existing movable infrastructure (such as waste receptacles) should be placed smartly with the pedestrian in mind. Such a thing might seem trivial, but Daniel Biederman of the BPRC has been known to obsess for hours before moving a trash can two or three feet to in hopes of improving the social engineering at Bryant Park.

Hemming Plaza - Trash Receptacle in Pedestrian Walkway

To promote safety and accountability, new park rules should be drafted and prominently displayed near park entrances. Rules should be inviting and should make clear to park visitors that illegal activity or harassment of any kind will not be tolerated at Hemming Park.

Posted Rules Set Clear Expectations and Create Accountability

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