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Reimagining Times Square

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Reimagining Times Square

A better way for the Crossroads of the World Spring 2016
New York
Arts and Culture

Two decades ago, when most of the pavement in Times Square was reserved for cars, I proposed converting the self-proclaimed Crossroads of the World into a pedestrian paradise named Piazza Broadway. The proposal seemed far-fetched at the time—it was greeted with thunderous silence—but I did my best to sell it. With cars banished, I predicted in 1997, Times Square would be transformed into “a great urban common like the ones at the hearts of European capitals.”

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Since the city finally turned Broadway into a plaza in 2009, I have yet to hear anyone compare it with Rome’s Piazza Navona or Prague’s Old Town Square. It does not remind you of Piccadilly Circus or Covent Garden. When you find yourself accosted by a cowboy in underpants or a topless woman in body paint and a headdress, it might evoke memories of Times Square’s Midnight Cowboy era and the signs promising “Live Nude Girls,” except that the peep shows have moved from indoor cubicles onto the sidewalk—not the kind of progress I had in mind.

The problem isn’t just the nudity. The desnudas, as the topless women are known, are only the most obvious example of a larger issue: New York still doesn’t know what to do with the planet’s most famous piece of real estate. Times Square is the world’s agora, the global equivalent of what ancient Greeks called the “gathering place” of a city, but it violates the fundamental principles of urban design. A great public space doesn’t just happen. It has to be managed, and city bureaucrats are usually the wrong ones for the job. Under their supervision, the Crossroads of the World has been ceded to some of the tackiest hustlers anywhere. There is a better way.

Tourists head to Times Square hoping for the quintessential Gotham experience, but what do they find? Mobs of pedestrians trying to squeeze around enormous carts selling hot dogs and kebabs. Street vendors hawking pictures of Marilyn Monroe and posters with messages like “Wine! How classy people get wasted.” Fake Buddhist monks begging for money. Living statues, the Naked Cowboy, topless women, and a horde of costumed cartoon characters, all pressuring tourists to pay them for a picture—because nothing says New York like a selfie with the Hulk.

The scene is even less appealing to non-tourists. When Broadway was first closed to cars, a survey showed that New Yorkers working in the area were much more satisfied with their neighborhood. But their satisfaction has since declined because of the problems known to urban planners as “pedlock” (pedestrian gridlock) and “streetscape schlock.” The purveyors of schlock have taken over Times Square not because they’re talented but because they’re persistent—and because the city has let them have their way.

Times Square has always been an accidental agora. The ancient Greeks, like urbanites throughout history, deliberately left open space at the hearts of their cities for people, merchants, and entertainers to mingle. When a commission drew New York’s street grid in the early nineteenth century, it considered leaving room for plazas, but the commissioners decided against it because the value of land in Manhattan was “so uncommonly great.” Their planned grid did include a few big public spaces—a marketplace around East 10th Street and a parade ground in midtown—but these areas instead ended up with homes and businesses.

As Manhattanites moved uptown, stores and theaters moved along with them, clustering at the intersections of Broadway with each avenue. The intersections were called squares, but they were nothing of the sort. Times Square wasn’t a plaza with benches and paths for pedestrians, and it wasn’t square. As Broadway sliced diagonally across Seventh Avenue, the triangles between the avenues formed a giant bowtie of empty pavement that bore no resemblance to the Athenian agora. Socrates and Plato would have found themselves drowned out by the traffic noise.

What it lacked in charm, though, Times Square made up for in location. In 1904, the year the subway opened, the square formerly known as Longacre took the name of its new anchor tenant, the New York Times, which moved there to be at the hub of the new system. The Times celebrated its new skyscraper on December 31 with an all-day festival, culminating in a lavish fireworks display. Until then, New Year’s Eve revelers had gathered downtown at Trinity Church, but the fireworks and the subway brought some 200,000 people to Times Square, and a new tradition was born. When the city banned the fireworks a few years later, the Times came up with a nonflammable alternative on its roof by lowering a giant illuminated ball down the flagpole. Times Square became the place to gather for big events, the hub offering the latest news (on the lighted zipper) and the best in mass entertainment—until the masses were diverted to movies and television.

Times Square then became the hub for porn, peep shows, prostitution, drugs, and crime. It didn’t revive until city officials, including the police, joined with local businesses in applying the Broken Windows approach to reducing public disorder. They focused on removing the visible signs of disorder: graffiti and trash, seedy massage parlors and other X-rated businesses, aggressive panhandlers, and sleeping vagrants. The cleanup and the accompanying dramatic drop in crime during the 1990s made Times Square safe for Disney and everyone else. But safety, while essential, isn’t enough to make a great public space. There’s another crucial ingredient, as you can see just a block away from Times Square.

During the 1970s, when Bryant Park was managed by the city, it was shunned by New Yorkers and tourists alike. Though situated in a prime location on 42nd Street, surrounded by the New York Public Library and landmark office buildings filled with workers eager for fresh air, the park became the business headquarters of drug dealers and muggers. The library’s wall along the park was called “the world’s longest urinal.”

Things got so bad that the city parks department ceded most of its duties to a coalition of local businesses led by Daniel Biederman, an MBA with a passion for creating public spaces that actually appealed to the public. He supervised an overhaul of Bryant Park in the 1980s and still oversees the space as president of the Bryant Park Corporation, the not-for-profit group that manages the park, employs the workers, and finances operations—all without any tax dollars from city hall.

Besides providing beautiful landscaping and miraculously clean public bathrooms, Biederman put out movable chairs and tables so that people could create their own seating areas. (To the amazement of New Yorkers, the furniture wasn’t stolen.) He enticed the public with a varying menu of attractions: Ping-Pong tables and juggling lessons, an outdoor reading room with books and magazines, a manicured green for bowling and putting, an area for chess and backgammon, smartly designed kiosks with good food, movie screenings in the summer, a skating rink in the winter, and an array of boutiques selling gifts during the holiday season. Bryant Park now attracts so many visitors that it has become the most densely occupied urban park in the world. Yet it doesn’t feel mobbed or chaotic. Its transformation has become a case study for urban planners, a demonstration of what can happen when a city relinquishes responsibilities to a private group unfettered by municipal bureaucracy and union contracts.

Similar private-public partnerships, financed by donations and by assessments on local property owners, have worked wonders over the past three decades in the rest of New York: the conservancies that largely manage Central Park, the High Line park, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park; the partnership that oversees Grand Central Terminal; and the business improvement districts (BIDs) that provide cleaning and other services in dozens of neighborhoods. Their work has been copied around the world. Biederman now spends much of his time as a consultant on public spaces in other cities.

In New York, though, these neighborhood groups haven’t gotten the credit and support they deserve for helping lead the city’s revival. Mayor Rudy Giuliani reacted to Biederman’s success by imposing restrictions on him and the other groups. City bureaucrats have been reluctant to surrender turf. Progressive activists, union leaders, and journalists have scorned the civic groups as privatizers and elitists.

While running for mayor, Bill de Blasio supported a bill in the state legislature that would confiscate 20 percent of the budget of Biederman’s group and other large conservancies and divert the money to smaller parks. The bill went nowhere, but Mayor de Blasio has successfully pressured the groups to support his redistributionist agenda by making “voluntary” contributions. You’d think a mayor would be grateful to these private citizens for rescuing parks from the city’s neglect, but de Blasio has Tom Sawyer’s chutzpah: if you want to do my job for me, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

Biederman isn’t involved in the Times Square makeover, but he offered some free analysis during a tour one evening. As a devotee of Broken Windows theory, he focused on the disorder at the periphery: the food carts and sidewalk vendors with racks of clothing and tables of fake cashmere scarves, calligraphy, street signs for Broadway and Gay Street, photos of NBA players, Yankee caps, posters of the skyline, “tributes” to the World Trade Center, and more. “Why does New York have to present itself so badly to tourists?” he asks, surveying the junk on the corner of 44th Street and Broadway. “Most of these vendors are either illegal or claiming some tortured interpretation of the First Amendment—as if selling drawings of the skyline is a protected form of expression. When these guys come near Bryant Park, I fight them, especially the food carts.”

New York is notorious for overregulation, yet it’s unusually lax when it comes to controlling its sidewalks. Many other American and European cities strictly limit street vendors or ban them altogether. New York’s vendors have been a tradition since nineteenth-century immigrants sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side, and they’ve evolved into an entrenched special interest that has effectively privatized some of the city’s most valuable real estate, without paying for it. “Walk around the Loop in Chicago, and you will not see food carts anywhere,” Biederman notes. “The only ones in Boston are in parks, and they’re not as atrocious-looking as our carts. It’s fine to allow vendors in the right places. But you can’t just let them block the sidewalks anywhere they want.”

A succession of mayors since LaGuardia have tried imposing order, but the result has been a hodgepodge of confusing rules that are cumbersome for police to enforce and routinely ignored by vendors. At this corner of 44th Street, three food carts are set up in a row, and they’re nothing like the little pushcarts of the past. The hulking vehicles block much of the sidewalk, with flashing signs and other equipment powered by noisy generators. “In Bryant Park, we’ve got kiosks that are attractive and sell good food—and they pay rent, unlike these squatters,” adds Biederman. “Here the fumes and lights and noise are destroying the ambience of the corner. If you allow all this crummy activity here, you can’t expect polite behavior in Times Square. The desnudas and the costumed characters are squatters just like these guys.”

Street vendors have effectively privatized some of the city’s most valuable real estate, without paying for it.

But what about the customers buying the greasy food and fake cashmere scarves? What about the tourists who want to go home with a sign for Gay Street or a poster proclaiming, “If my dog doesn’t like you, I don’t like you”? What about the New Yorkers who insist that these vendors and other hustlers are the gritty essence of the city’s streets? “I’m not a snob,” Biederman says. “I like popular things. But that doesn’t have to mean clutter and ugliness and crap. People used to say that graffiti was part of New York’s grit, but that vote has been taken, and New Yorkers have decided they don’t like graffiti on subway cars and walls. I heard that grit argument when we were redoing Bryant Park, but we took the grit out and New Yorkers love it.”

So what would Biederman do with Times Square? “If I were the czar of Times Square, there would be no horrible carts selling food that can make you sick. No calligraphy and pashmina scarves. No costumed characters. No nude women. No Naked Cowboy. We’d have lots of other things instead. We’d try to elevate people’s understanding of what a public space can be.”

Whatever improvements come to Times Square, it will never be as orderly as Bryant Park. On a typical day, 350,000 people pass through: tourists dodging taxis and jostling with New York office workers, commuters, diners, moviegoers, and theatergoers. Closing Broadway to cars eased some of the congestion and noise; but in the ensuing six years, the number of pedestrians at peak times has grown by more than a third.

The architects of the new plaza have experience dealing with crowds—their firm, Snohetta, has designed public spaces on six continents—but they’ve never faced a challenge like this one. “There is nothing comparable to Times Square,” says Craig Dykers, cofounder of Snohetta. “The Ginza district in Tokyo has lights and stores but not the diversity of people. Piazza Navona and Piccadilly Circus have the mix of cars and pedestrians but nowhere near the density. There are pedestrianized spaces in central Copenhagen and Berlin, but they’re not also the transportation hub and the lobby of the theater district. You will not find another Times Square anywhere in the world.”

To Dykers, that’s the beauty of Times Square: it’s always unpredictable. In designing the new plaza, he added some places of refuge—there will be ten long granite benches when the project is finished—but he left lots of room for improvisation. “So many people go to Times Square just to be in an environment that seems unhinged,” he says. “We wanted them to be able to feel a little more relaxed, but without losing the edginess. But when you make a place where anything can happen, anything happens. We realized very quickly that the new Times Square was becoming very vibrant with all kinds of people that weren’t expected, especially the growth in costumed characters.”

You could make a pseudo-libertarian argument that the costumed characters and the other hustlers represent a triumph of the free market. If tourists want to buy kitsch and pose for pictures with topless women and Spiderman, then shouldn’t these entrepreneurs be allowed to meet consumer demand? But that’s too narrow a view. Yes, Spiderman and the desnudas are turning a profit, but they’re doing it on someone else’s property, for free. They’re rent-seekers, not capitalists. By alienating visitors with their crudity and strong-arm tactics, they’re preventing the owners of Times Square—8 million New Yorkers—from getting full value out of the property. “Times Square is at risk of becoming a place that New Yorkers avoid,” says Joseph Rose, a veteran of battles over Times Square during his years as a community-board president and then chairman of the city’s Planning Commission in the 1990s. “You have to fight hard to give people a public space where they feel comfortable.”

The obvious candidate to restore order is the Times Square Alliance, which played a crucial role in the earlier cleanup. Like Biederman’s group in Bryant Park, the alliance is a not-for-profit financed by local businesses, using its budget to employ security officers and sanitation workers. It stages the New Year’s Eve celebration and other events throughout the year, including a food festival and a live broadcast of opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The alliance sponsors artists-in-residence to document life in the plaza and works with the billboard operators’ association to put on a nightly exhibition, the Midnight Moment, when the giant screens are coordinated to display a work of digital art. It has installed food kiosks in the plaza and has plans for more when construction is finished. “You want a little bit of both curation and chaos in a public space,” says alliance president Tim Tompkins. “Times Square should be a mix of high culture and popular culture and diverse cultures. We should be curating activity so that we can tap into the city’s most creative artists and entrepreneurs.”

By the early twentieth century, Times Square had become a place to gather for big events and to learn about the latest news. (PHOTOFEST)

To make that happen, though, Tompkins would need new legal tools. Bryant Park can keep out schlock because of restrictions on commercial activity in parks, but the plaza at Times Square is classified as a regular public street. As the costumed characters took over, the alliance appealed for new restrictions, but city hall paid no attention—until the desnudas appeared last summer.

All the bad publicity prodded de Blasio to form a task force, which sensibly recommended reclassifying the plaza from a street to a “public place,” with its own customized regulations: the Times Square Commons. Tompkins, a member of the task force, has been studying efforts in other cities—Las Vegas, San Francisco, Santa Monica, among others—to regulate street performers without violating their First Amendment rights. “Times Square is a public space where people have the right to say all kinds of things whether we like it or not,” says Tompkins. “But there can be appropriate restrictions on the time and place, and we have the right to regulate commercial activity. A costumed character or topless woman soliciting tips is different from someone standing on a soapbox, or even from an artist who paints her naked body as a work of art and isn’t soliciting money.”

In the proposed Times Square Commons, sections along the side would be kept clear for commuters and other pedestrians. In the center would be a “general civic zone,” with movable tables and chairs. Orators and artists and musicians could ply their trades there, as long as they weren’t soliciting tips. Those looking for money would be confined to one or two “designated activity zones” on each block. If you wanted to pay someone for a photo, give money to a fake Buddhist monk, or buy a CD or a ticket for a tour bus, that’s where you’d go. Even within those zones, the entrepreneurs would be forbidden to set up tables or chairs, so you’d no longer have to navigate your way around sketch artists using the plaza as their private studio. The mayoral task force also recommended new restrictions on street vendors and a special police unit to enforce the rules.

These proposed changes would be a good start, assuming that the city adopts them, but problems would remain. A family could walk across the center of the plaza without being accosted by a desnuda, but the children would still be staring at topless women beckoning from the side. There’d still be a plague of costumed characters and other uninspiring buskers.

Times Square deserves better. Prime locations and time slots should be reserved for musicians and buskers who have demonstrated actual talent. They should have to audition, as they already must for the right to prime slots in other public spaces like New York subway stations, Grand Central Terminal, and London’s Covent Garden. A public space should be managed without being overmanaged. You want to leave some spots at some times open to anyone, but you don’t want mediocrities to overrun the place.

Nor do you want to turn the Crossroads of the World into a strip joint. Yes, there’s a tradition of risqué entertainment in Times Square, but it wasn’t imposed on the unwilling, and the performers had more style than the desnudas. In his Times Square history The Devil’s Playground, James Traub tells how great impresarios like Flo Ziegfeld discovered that straight nudity was bad show business. The Ziegfeld Follies offered naked women on stage in the early 1920s, but then Ziegfeld restored some of their clothes. “This was not a moral standpoint on my part,” he explained, “but an artistic one. I realized that a charming girl will not appear in public undressed.”

Some argue that it’s sexist to ban the desnudas because the law gives women the same right as men to walk around topless in public. As long as the Naked Cowboy gets to work Times Square wearing only his briefs and carrying a guitar, in this view, then the desnudas should be able to work in thongs and body paint. But there’s an easy nonsexist solution: banish all topless street performers. Getting rid of the Naked Cowboy would be a fringe benefit. After all, people may have a right to walk topless on public sidewalks, but they don’t have the right to run a topless business anywhere they want. It’s quite reasonable to ban topless buskers of any sex from the city’s agora. Let them ply their trade on private property in a neighborhood that wants them. (My choice would be to move them a few blocks west to that enormous white elephant, the Javits Center. I’ve long advocated saving taxpayer money by converting the convention center into a self-contained red-light district, the New York XXXposition Center, but no one listened to that proposal, either.)

A remade Times Square could start taking shape at the end of this year, when the new plaza is supposed to be finished. By then, city officials hope to have completed the legal steps to rezone it, enabling the Times Square Alliance and the city to start managing the plaza, a process that will take lots of trial and error. If it’s done correctly, with the right mix of curation and chaos, Times Square will be crowded with even more people—just the kind of problem you want in a public space. And then there’ll be a chance to try something even more ambitious.

The great agoras are more than isolated squares. Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya connects to the promenade and market stalls along Las Ramblas. Piccadilly Circus is a short stroll from Trafalgar Square. Prague’s Old Town Square is linked to other popular spots, like the Charles Bridge and the Jewish Quarter, by pedestrian-friendly streets lined with shops and cafés. Copenhagen revitalized its center by creating a long car-free shopping street, the Strøget, starting at City Hall Square. Rome’s Piazza di Spagna is famous for the Spanish Steps leading to another piazza.

“A good public space reaches out like an octopus into the surrounding city,” says Fred Kent, who has spent half a century analyzing plazas and streets. As founder and president of the Project for Public Spaces, he worked with Biederman on the redesign of Bryant Park and has helped out on thousands of other projects around the world. Of all the cities that he has worked in, he finds his hometown of New York to be the most frustrating because it takes so long to get anything accomplished, but he hopes that the city will eventually recognize what Times Square could be. “Don’t think of Times Square as just the central plaza,” he says. “The desnudas and the costumed characters are filling a vacuum because there isn’t enough else to do. You go there and look around, and it’s just chaos, and there’s no place to go once you’ve taken a photo. Think of creating dynamic destinations in all directions by closing streets and widening sidewalks.”

Pedestrian malls have a deservedly bad reputation in America because they’ve often been put in the wrong places, like moribund commercial districts that don’t have enough people to sustain businesses or create a lively street scene. Most American cities are built for the automobile, and it’s pointless for planners to try imposing their own urban fantasies and anti-car prejudices. Suburbanites have perfectly good reasons for shopping in malls and preferring to commute by auto rather than monorail.

Why not banish cars from Broadway all the way from Union Square to Columbus Circle? Let pedestrians rule.

But midtown Manhattan has the opposite problem: too many pedestrians, too little space. More and more people want to visit and work there because there’s so much street life. New York was built for walking, yet instead of exploiting this comparative advantage over other cities, it has banished pedestrians from most of the open space. Until Broadway was closed to traffic, 90 percent of the space in Times Square was reserved for cars, yet 90 percent of the visitors were on foot.

Drivers were the most egregious squatters of all—and they felt just as entitled as the costumed characters. They fought the pedestrian plaza in Times Square, even though the city’s engineers said that it wouldn’t slow midtown traffic. The original idea for the plaza actually came from 1970s traffic engineers trying to speed the flow. They suggested that vehicles be diverted from Broadway to Seventh Avenue to eliminate the bottleneck at the intersection in Times Square. Now that Broadway has finally been closed, their plan has been vindicated. “The plaza at Times Square hasn’t had significant impacts on traffic flow,” says Samuel Schwartz, the traffic engineer known as Gridlock Sam (he coined the term “gridlock” when he worked for the city). “From a traffic point of view, Broadway doesn’t help much north of Union Square because it is diagonal to the grid and creates inefficient intersections. Closing it wouldn’t have an overall negative effect.”

Then why not banish cars from Broadway all the way from Union Square to Columbus Circle? There could be accommodations for essential vehicles, like trucks making deliveries, but otherwise, let pedestrians rule from 17th Street to 59th Street. They could stroll for more than two miles on Broadway, starting in Union Square and proceeding past Madison Square Park, Herald Square, the garment district, Times Square, and the theater district up to Columbus Circle and into Central Park. The promenade would be longer than Las Ramblas or the Strøget, and it would have far more people and energy. Give tourists something to do beyond Times Square, and give New Yorkers a new way to enjoy their city.

Of course, first we need to get Times Square right. But once that’s done, the same strategies could gradually be applied to the rest of Broadway. Business groups like the Times Square Alliance exist in every neighborhood from Union Square up to Columbus Circle. Let each manage its own section of Broadway. They could experiment with cafés, kiosks, and marketplaces featuring food and merchandise from neighborhood businesses, spots for music, busking, vending, games, and whatever else might work.

The result, I’ll predict again, would be a great urban common, though it wouldn’t bring to mind any of the ones in European capitals—this time for good reason. There would be nothing in the world like the Broadway Promenade.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.

The desnudas, topless women who solicit tips, amuse some tourists but offend many, and illustrate New York City’s difficulty in determining what Times Square should be. (ATLANTIDE PHOTOTRAVEL/CORBIS)

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