I’m no fan of Gotham mayor Bill de Blasio, but he’s right about one thing: topless women panhandling in Times Square are not good for New York City. It’s a phenomenon that needs to be dealt with, lest the entertainment center of the Big Apple lose its appeal as a prime destination for out-of-town families looking to spend their tourist dollars in the restaurants, shops, and theaters that have sprouted near the famous intersection since the mid-1990s. The right way to deal with the so-called “desnudas” is an open question, one that the task force led by NYPD commissioner William Bratton and city planning commissioner Carl Weisbrod will decide, but those voices claiming that the flap is all about suppressing “women’s bodies” are at best disingenuous. They’re playing a dangerous game that could reverse some of the progress made in Time Square over the last 25 years.
When I moved to New York in 1991, Times Square was by any measure a blighted neighborhood, a cesspool of sex shops, XXX revues, and sidewalk scam artists. People ran from the sight of it. Broadway theaters and restaurants suffered. And families stayed away—far away. Rudy Giuliani’s administration was determined to push the smut peddlers out of Times Square. Smart application of Broken Windows policing and some innovative zoning changes did the trick, but not without lots of moaning from those who lamented the city’s “Disneyfication.” Part of the current bellyaching about the persecuted desnudas can be attributed to the city’s graffiti-loving revanchist element, which never bought into New York City’s renaissance.
Then there are the Amber Jamieson types. Over the weekend, the New York Post sent Jamieson—a twentysomething reporter and native of Australia—to get to the topless bottom of the desnudas debacle. Stripping down to her skivvies, donning a feathery headdress, and painting her upper body in red, white, and blue, Jamieson spent eight hours posing for photos with tourists. She passed her tips along to Chris, a “baby-faced rapper wannabe” and nipple-painting artist, security guard, and “manager” to several of the naked ladies. Jamieson made $210 for her efforts. For his, Chris made just $76. It’s not easy being a pimp.
For Jamieson, the tut-tutting of politicians like de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo is pure chauvinism, motivated by a desire to keep women from doing what men can do—remove their shirts in public without shame. The experience of walking around mostly naked in Times Square, she says, was empowering. She reports hearing lots of encouragement of the “You go girl!” variety. The customers are polite, the desnudas are just “women exercising their legal right to be topless and hustle for money in the world’s center of capitalism,” and New York is a magical place where pretty young journalists can get a story on the front page and pick up 400 new Twitter followers all in one go. Only prudes could be against such a win-win for civilization. “Of all the issues to dedicate task forces and extra cops to, going after painted ladies seems like naked politics,” she concludes, perhaps aware of the pun.
And besides, desnuda defenders say, the Naked Cowboy has been around for decades and no one complained. That’s proof that the current flap is all about women’s bodies and the Uptight Citizen’s Brigade. It’s true, the Naked Cowboy didn’t prompt a task force, and maybe that’s not fair. But the logic behind Broken Windows policing stipulates that as chaos or disorder or deviant behavior multiplies, a message eventually becomes clear—that anything and everything goes. When we get to that point, the battle for New York City’s public spaces will have been lost.
Let’s face it: the 2009 decision by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg to turn the southern half of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza had some unintended consequences. The new space has attracted a slightly shady element—aggressive panhandlers, selfie Elmos, and now the desnudas. Libertarians on the left and right get exercised about issues like female toplessness and panhandling. They say these things are legal—which they are—and that any attempt to crack down on them must be motivated by priggishness, poverty-shaming, or both. But the question, ultimately, is what type of city do we want—one that strives to be family- and business-friendly or one that orients itself around the needs of street hustlers?
I’m one who believes women walking around topless in public is inappropriate, but no one really thinks that Bill de Blasio is a prude like me. Jamieson and politicians like City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are only saying so because they think it will spur de Blasio to change his tune. He’s a progressive guy, and he wouldn’t want to be lumped in with us moralists. But even if de Blasio flip-flops on the desnudas, it won’t solve the underlying problem: the quality of New York City’s public spaces is declining. As goes Times Square, so goes the city.