A visitor to New York City’s Bryant Park, a 9.6-acre gem at Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue behind the New York Public Library, might find it difficult to believe its dismal state forty years ago. Now it is a showplace: teeming with people, immaculately maintained, and packed with activities ranging from book talks to ice skating to juggling (or at least it was until the coronavirus hit). But in the 1970s, it was infested with drug dealers and avoided by most everyone else, one of the spaces notorious enough to earn the sobriquet “Needle Park.” The story of how that changed—and how other urban spaces can be similarly transformed—is the subject of Andrew M. Manshel’s Learning from Bryant Park.

In much of the mid-century era, it was by no means obvious whether or not parks were an urban positive or...


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