Times Square, famously home to street acts of all kinds, has finally attracted a cast of characters this summer that some New Yorkers simply cannot abide. The sprawling tourist mecca in the heart of Manhattan has filled lately with desnudas, topless but patriotically painted ladies who preen in photos for tips.
Police can't arrest them or nudge them along. It's legal in New York to both panhandle and bare all. But nearby businesses — and much of the New York news media — have been railing at the city to do something. And on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has commissioned a City Hall task force to consider the problem, suggested one dramatic solution: Maybe the city should just do away with the Times Square pedestrian plaza that attracts these women and other hustlers in the first place.
It's time, he said, to give "a fresh look" to the revamped destination, which was converted to great fanfare under the Michael Bloomberg administration from a clogged thoroughfare for cars into a public space for pedestrians. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton was more blunt Thursday speaking to a local news station: “I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was.”
Urban planners and pedestrian advocates have balked. The new Times Square is widely considered to be a signature piece of Bloomberg's legacy, as well as a national model for how to reclaim civic space from cars. De Blasio's suggestion is a bit like ripping out the National Mall to get rid of mosquitoes, or removing sidewalks simply because that's where the homeless often sleep.
“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway,” Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance business group, said in a facetious statement responding to the mayor. “We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces so we should just tear them up.”
The idea would roll back substantial safety gains for pedestrians, as well as symbolic progress in rebalancing how we think about city streets. Prior to the redevelopment, city officials pointed out at the time, 90 percent of the people who used Times Square were pedestrians. But 90 percent of the space within it was devoted to cars. The resulting space was chaotic and dangerous, hard to cross and nowhere you'd want to linger.
The city first began to experiment in 2009 with a low-budget, temporary renovation. It playfully painted some of the street pavement and brought out planters and chairs. After a trial, the city decided to make the change permanent, hiring Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta to fundamentally rethink the space — as an outdoor theater lobby for Broadway, as a town center for civic rituals, as a place New Yorkers (and not just tourists) would actually want to spend time.
In a great 2013 New Yorker piece about the process, David Owen interviewed Snohetta principal Craig Dykers:
“It’s commonly believed that tourists love Times Square and New Yorkers hate it,” Dykers continued. “That’s fairly true, but New Yorkers, no matter how cynical they may be, are always going to be amazed by the lights, even if they’re angrily running through it. The challenge is that they’re not connected to it in the way they were seventy years ago, when they went there to listen to radio broadcasts of Yankees games and speeches by President Roosevelt, and Times Square really was New York’s space as well as the ‘Crossroads of the World.’ ” Reestablishing even a semblance of the old relationship won’t be easy, he said, but he believes that much of what residents perceive as a problem with tourists is actually a problem with design, and designs can be changed.
In many ways, American cities have been designed around cars rather than people. We devote vast space to roadways and consider sidewalks an afterthought — if there's room. We engineer traffic lights to optimize car travel, not pedestrian flow. We plan convention centers and museums and apartments around their parking garages. Historically, we've razed whole neighborhoods where they've blocked the path of highways we thought we needed for our cars.
The redesigned Times Square is an important space not just because it prioritizes people, but because it's the product of a remarkably deep and thoughtful study of them. Every detail of it reflects attention to how people move through space, how they behave in large crowds, the patterns through which they linger and cluster, and the subconscious cues that give them comfort in vast and busy spaces.
Snohetta considered how daylight moves through the corridor during the day, and how people trip over and interpret sidewalk curbs. They watched where people set their coffee cups and how children behaved when they had nowhere to sit. (Rykers has a fascinating TEDx talk about all of these design details here.)
The firm ultimately designed granite benches suitable for sitting in many ways, then placed them throughout Times Square to subtly direct how people move through the space, separating locals workers who want to speed-walk from tourists who clump together. They got rid of planters people more often used to stash cigarette butts. They decluttered the plaza itself because it's already surrounded by visual mayhem, with all of Times Square's glittering marquees. They designed concrete pavers for the ground embedded with tiny stainless-steel discs that playfully reflect all those lights.
Maybe Snohetta failed to consider that the end result would attract topless ladies, too, or naked cowboys and foul-mouthed Sesame Street characters. But to tear up all of this because of them would be a terrible waste.