As a kid growing up in a gray suburb of London, I loved to go looking for the perfect park bench. We had only five in our local park, and one was broken. Some Sunday mornings, my dad could be persuaded to drive to new parks. We’d have a kick-around with a soccer ball, share a bag of Doritos and check out all the benches in the area, reading their dedications, inscriptions and graffiti.
A good park bench leaves me in a state perched somewhere between nostalgia and eager anticipation. Where once I was excited by the profanities engraved on wood, I now find, as a 40-year-old, that I’m more appreciative of each bench’s quiet stoicism, the way they’re willing to wait out their turn in every weather, remaining available to all-comers. Like a good book or piece of music, a park bench allows for a sense of solitude and community at the same time, a simultaneity that’s crucial to life in a great city.
Part of my obsession with park benches is as spaces where history settles. My latest novel owes its whole existence to one. I came across a granite bench in Central Park dedicated to Andrew Haswell Green, “the Father of Greater New York,” and grew curious: such a grand title for someone I knew nothing about. By planting such seeds of intrigue, and making space for reflection, park benches become portals to the past. Often a bench is the only thing stopping a name or experience from being forgotten. Park benches are excellent vessels for passing off precious information — and not just for C.I.A. agents in movies. It might be a gold plaque dedicated to a relative who died, or maybe a love poem of admirable economy: “Andy 4 Sharon.”
A park bench allows for a sense of solitude and community at the same time, a simultaneity that’s crucial to life in a great city.
Maybe that’s the greatest power of the park bench: its capacity to retain and encourage the art of observation. A good bench catches us in our quietest, most vulnerable moments, when we may be open to imagining new narratives and revisiting old ones. Our masks are taken off, hung from the bench’s wrought iron. On other nearby benches, babies are being burped. Glances exchanged. Sandwiches eaten. Newspapers perused.
Lately, though, I’ve found myself sitting on a lot of cramped metal benches of the kind that don’t invite you to linger long, or harsh concrete ones that leave you cold. That’s because public seating is becoming an endangered species. If a park bench is not being removed, the backup plan is often to make it uncomfortable. “Hostile architecture” — an urban design strategy intended to impede “antisocial” behavior — is proliferating all over the world.
In 2014, The Guardian reported that at Yantai Park in China’s Shandong Province, “pay per sit” park benches with a coin-operated timer had been introduced — overstay your welcome, and small spikes would emerge to prod your posterior. A few years back, students at the London School of Economics protested against the conversion of benches in the United Kingdom into “heartless barriers”: Extra armrests had been installed at hip-width intervals to debar the possibility of lying down.
Along with the extra armrests that aren’t really for arm rest, many park benches are becoming backless. Hostile architecture imagines a model citizen who is expensively caffeinated, constantly perched and poised, never in need of anyone or anything to lean on, forever ready to get up and go earn and spend.
Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, has documented many instances across New York City of public benches’ disappearing as part of a wider trend: the mass privatization of public space as officials decide that open-air seating is insalubrious. In cities like San Francisco, the removal of public seating over the past three decades has become the chief alternative to meaningful public policy around homelessness. We don’t want to look upon the less fortunate; they are bad for business. Our cities are becoming more like Disneyland, which has been quietly removing public seating and replacing it with more restaurant seating. If you want a moment’s rest in 21st-century America, you have to open your wallet.
One recent Sunday I wandered through Central Park for a photo shoot for my German publishers. I was sweating in my suit jacket, but in a buoyant mood. To be in Central Park in what is hopefully the pandemic’s twilight is to be reminded of the beauty of living in a city that still makes space for park benches in the modern cityscape. Two teenagers on the Mall were using a bench as a sunlit dance stage. At Cherry Hill, one bench was being used as a table for a 2-year-old’s birthday party; another bench held a bucket of fountain water that was being enjoyed by one of the horses being offered up for carriage rides. At the Conservatory Garden, a bride and her groom were posing for photographs on one black bench, while a busker napped on another. Approaching Gapstow Bridge in the southeast corner of the park, I saw benches accommodating not only weary rears but also bodies in the throes of outdoor exercise: tricep dips and plyometric push-ups, butt-targeting bridges and the single-leg lunge.
None of the benches complained. They were possessed of the quiet dignity of a work of art — but unlike most works of art, they could support a whole family.