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Reimagining Times Square

Podcast

Reimagining Times Square

August 10, 2016
New York
Arts and Culture

City Journal editor Brian Anderson and former New York Times columnist John Tierney discuss recent controversies concerning the “Crossroads of the World” and how to improve the plaza for tourists and New Yorkers alike.​

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: New York City's Times Square, the self-proclaimed "Crossroads of the World," is the top destination for tourists hoping for the quintessential Gotham experience.  What most visitors, and even many New Yorkers don't realize, is that for much of the second part of the twentieth century, Times Square was a major hub for all sorts of distasteful and criminal activity.  Pornographic movie theaters, prostitution, drugs, and violence were an all-too-common phenomenon in midtown Manhattan until the 1990s.  After years of reform, including the implementation of Broken Windows policing, most of the X-rated businesses and disorder has been replaced by Disney stores, dancing performers, and nearly 60 million visitors in 2015.  Last year, however, a new controversy kicked off renewed debate about how to improve Times Square.  Dozens of men dressed in large costumes were arrested around the plaza for starting fights and harassing tourists for tips.  In addition, the appearance of topless, body-painted women known as desnudas created a firestorm in New York's tabloids and even caused the governor to issue a call for action.  With the record-setting scores of pedestrians squeezing by hotdog carts, bad art vendors, and panhandling costume characters, this problem has left New York with one question: Is there a better way to manage the city's most valuable piece of real estate?  Joining us today to discuss the state of Times Square is John Tierney.  John is a contributing editor at City Journal, before joining us he was a reporter and columnist for many years for The New York Times, and his piece in the Spring issue was entitled "Reimagining Times Square."  Thanks for joining us, John. 

John Tierney: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: John, there has been a lot of controversy about the growing chaos is Times Square generated by what some call street performers, others call costume beggars.  Describe what's going on there and why people are getting irritated.

John Tierney: Well, there has been this growth, since they closed Broadway and turned it into a plaza, there has been this vacuum there that has been filled by some of the worst - the most untalented performers anywhere.  They call them street performers but they are these costume characters who dress up as Elmo and Disney characters, there is of course the naked cowboy, who has been around for awhile, and now there are these topless women known as desnudas.  And what they are basically doing is begging for money by posing for selfies, and they are harassing tourists.  They kind of just add to the whole air of Times Square, of being this sort of place that's kind of overrun by junk and schlock.

Brian Anderson: City council is considering a bill that would confine the costume characters and street performers to very specific areas of Times Square.  Do you think that fixes the problem?  Does that go far enough?

John Tierney: The city council bill is a start, confining them to certain parts of the square.  I would personally like to see them banished, because I think, you know, that that is such valuable real estate that it ought to be really confined for really talented performers, these buskers, as they are called.  And I think there needs to be a lot more management of Times Square than simply allowing anyone to just stand around and basically harangue people for money.  And there's an awful lot of junk kind of right at the periphery of Times Square, all these sidewalk vendors, that add to this whole problem that urban planners called streetscape schlock.

Brian Anderson: Say a little bit about the history of Times Square, though.  It's gone through several permutations.  Twenty years ago it wasn't Elmos that you had to worry about, it was prostitution and uglier forms of begging, I guess you would say.

John Tierney: Times Square became this sort of accidental gathering place once the subway system opened, and it's never really been a great public space because there's never been enough, really - a place for people to go.  But it was a great hub for mass entertainment in, you know, the 20s and 30s, for popular entertainment, but then once television and movies came along people started staying home more and it became, and crime became a problem in the city - there was less, there was a breakdown in police, in policing and also I think just in public standards.  And so it became a place that beggars and homeless people and prostitutes and drug dealers began using as their private, basically business headquarters.  And once that happened this cycle started where more and more people started staying away, and then it just became a place where undesirables congregated.

Brian Anderson: And you also had a lot of triple-X theaters and that kind of business.

John Tierney: Right.  What happened, also, was that as traditional theaters lost out to television then these theaters really weren't useful for very much.  And so the one way to make a profit was to offer people something that they couldn't get on television, so they opened up these X-rated theaters, and peep shows , and massage parlors, and it became this kind of informal, you know, red light district, basically, that grew up sort of accidentally.  There was always a history in Times Square of it being a place where you went for some risqué entertainment.  But it used to be much more hidden off, in side streets and things, and it just became the main event in Times Square.

Brian Anderson: And how was that situation turned around?  That was one of the achievements of the Giuliani years.

John Tierney: Right it was - the main thing was to practice the, or was to apply the Broken Windows theory of policing, and basically start cleaning up the disorder and stopping the aggressive panhandling, stopping homeless people using it as their sleeping place, and cracking down on crime.  And so once, you know, once you get rid of those signs of disorder and once there was more policing there then you started attracting, you know, Disney was one of the first big tenants, and then this had this reverse effect, you know, where good begets good, and more and more people started going back to it.

Brian Anderson: Now, some people might say that why don't we just let the market decide.  Presumably if tourists didn't really want their picture taken with Elmo and Spiderman or the naked women, they wouldn't be flocking to Times Square.  What about the pushback against Elmos and company as a form of government overreach?  Would you agree or disagree with that?

John Tierney: I disagree that you certainly hear that argument, but I think that it's a pseudo-libertarian argument, because it's not really capitalism that is taking place in Times Square, it's really rent-seeking, in that you have these people who are exploiting a public space - they are not paying any rent for it.  And so they are making a profit but they are not actually paying the owners of that space to use it, and the owners are the eight million New Yorkers.  And what they are really doing by their crudity and by their strong-arm tactics, they are basically making it a place that New Yorkers don't want to go to.  They are depriving New Yorkers of the value of their property.

Brian Anderson: And in a way one of the arguments you make is that they are privatizing property that belongs to the city and belongs to the public and not paying anything for that.

John Tierney: Exactly.  They are, you know, they are rent-seekers who are basically just squatters on that land that are using it for their own purposes.  And a comparison is in Bryant Park, which suffers from the same problems, in fact even worse, than Times Square.  Once that was really managed and taken over by Dan Biederman and his colleagues, they started charging people to have food kiosks, and charging people and there's lots to do there, there's lots of performers and people who do things there, but they, you know, they actually pay for the privilege to do that, so everyone comes out ahead.  You actually get good food there and they are paying for the space, which pays for the upkeep of the park, and it's a wonderful place as a result.

Brian Anderson: It's one of the city's nicest public spaces, I would say, now.

John Tierney: Absolutely.  I mean that's really the place that New York started coming back, and that's become a model for the rest of the world for how you bring back cities, is you start paying attention to how you manage your public spaces.

Brian Anderson: At the end of your fascinating piece you propose turning all of Broadway, from Times Square to 14th Street, into a gigantic pedestrian plaza.  Now this is a very radical proposal.  Can you expand on the idea a little bit?  What will this help to improve about the public atmosphere in midtown for tourists, for New Yorkers?  Describe this idea.

John Tierney: My idea is to have a promenade all the way from Union Square, 17th Street, all the way up to 59th Street at Columbus Circle, so you could walk all the way from Union Square up to Central Park.  And the reason that I think this works is that New York has got too many pedestrians for too little space, and people want to come here to walk and yet we have banished pedestrians, you know, from most of the prime spots and we've given too much pavement to cars.  I'm ordinarily a great fan of cars.  I wrote something called "The Autonomous Manifesto," and most of America is built for the car and people, you know, and they should be emphasized there.  But Manhattan is the great exception to that, and Broadway, in particular, doesn't really even help drivers very much because between Union Square and Columbus Circle it cuts across the grid and so wherever it crosses an avenue it creates this big bottleneck intersection, and traffic engineers we're actually the ones who wanted to originally close down Broadway around Times Square because by diverting traffic onto 7th Avenue, it basically speeds traffic by eliminating this.  So I think that you don't want to do it all at once, because public spaces take a lot of trial and error to figure out what happens.  But once we get Times Square right I think we should gradually expand it both north and south so that people have more to do than just go and stand in the middle of Times Square and take a picture, that you want to have lots more to do in both directions, and it would become, I think, the greatest promenade in the world.  There are famous ones in Europe - there's Las Ramblas in Barcelona [which] is justly famous, but this would be longer and bigger, it would have more people and more things to do than anywhere in the world.

Brian Anderson: And you've been a journalist covering New York City for a long time now.  What has been your interest in Times Square, generally?

John Tierney: My interest, I started out at The New York Times and one of my first beats was Times Square, as they were trying to redevelop it.  It's always struck me that New York, it just doesn't have this great, central gathering place that other cities do.  And it's partly because when they laid out the street grid they thought that land was too valuable to give away to plazas, which was awfully shortsighted urban planning, because the more people you have jammed together the more you need to have some place for people to - some common area.  So New York has never really had that.  It has Central Park, which is a wonderful spot, but it's not that kind of city square where you get that concentrated energy where people want to gather, and you get all these tourists coming to Times Square and then get there and there's really nothing to do.  It used to be there was no place even to stand, you would be crowded on the sidewalk.  So, it's been a big improvement since they closed Broadway to cars.  It was something I started pushing back in the 90s, when it was considered kind of crazy then, but I think it has been a success to some point.  I mean it's great for pedestrians, it's better than it was, but it could be so much better than it is.

Brian Anderson: John, thanks very much for coming by.

John Tierney: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: Don't forget to check out John's article "Reimagining Times Square" in our  Spring issue and on our website, City-Journal.org.  We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter, @CityJournal, with the hashtag #10Blocks.

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