Mayor Bill de Blasio caused quite a stir around New York City yesterday as he floated the idea of tearing up the pedestrian plaza in Times Square. This statement was the culmination of several days of debate centered around predatory panhandling and the square’s growing number of “street performers.” Most recently, the debate has focused on a group of topless women, covered in body paint, called desnudas. Reports of aggressive solicitation and the continued harassment of pedestrians and tourists even reached Albany this week, as Governor Cuomo chimed in, calling for the removal of the desnudas.
While the desnudas are certainly the most sensational and therefore tabloid-friendly offenders, Times Square is filled with many other (fully-clothed) people taking advantage of eager tourists--from teenagers pushing their debut albums to shaggy Sesame Street characters eager to pose for a photo and, of course, a price. These practices are obviously not unique to Times Square. You can’t visit the Duomo in Milan or Montmartre in Paris without being harassed by locals looking to make a quick buck off of tourists. However, the city government of Milan would never suggest allowing cars back into the Piazza del Duomo.
“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway! We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces, so we should just tear them up. (...) That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender.” -Tim Tompkins, president, Times Square Alliance
Times Square will continue to be a tourist destination, and forcing pedestrians back onto narrow sidewalks is a recipe for certain danger and disaster. Even just publicly considering the "option" of removing the plazas has been a terrible move for de Blasio, and it is clearly in opposition to the Vision Zero goals which he has made a cornerstone of his administration. "To suggest that cars and trucks be reintroduced into the most pedestrian-rich intersection in North America is just unbelievable," explained Director of Transportation Alternatives, Paul Steely White.
Once known as “Crime Square,” Midtown’s theater district was a hotbed for drugs, prostitution and criminal activity in the 1970s and 80s. By increasing police presence and launching a comprehensive redevelopment plan for this five-block stretch of Broadway, the Giuliani administration is largely credited with the rebranding of Times Square from a seedy urban zone to a thriving tourist hotspot - the “Crossroads of the World,” as it has since been dubbed.
But while Giuliani’s redevelopment plan helped to improve the area’s image and increase perceptions of safety among visitors, it did little to address an underlying problem. Not only do people need to feel safe in a public space, they also have to want to be there. To want to be there, the place needs to have a range of activities, amenities, and users. And while Times Square saw significant drops in violence and crime during the 1990s, its aggressive automobile traffic and meager sidewalk space made it one of the world’s most dangerous and unwelcoming places for bicyclists and pedestrians.
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and and a group of local businesses and community advocates joined together to reclaim this historic public space for pedestrian use, and the NYC Plaza Program was born. Broadway officially went car-free in 2009, and since then the city has added 49 pedestrian plazas.
In addition to our longtime advocacy for streets as places, the idea for closing Times Square to automobile traffic came directly out of PPS's NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign and our work with the Times Square Alliance. The plan is clearly not working well in its current state, however, and the swirl of issues that have pushed Times Square into recent headlines and culminated in Mayor de Blasio’s and police commissioner Bill Bratton’s abrupt and regressive “solution” is only further proof that a design-led approach to any public space issue will not be effective or sustainable in the long term.
In many public spaces busking adds life and diversity, but the unregulated (though certainly not new) prevalence of semi-naked hustlers and pandering superheroes in Times Square is just a symptom of a larger issue. PPS estimates that 90% of the success of a space will be due to its management and programming, and the Times Square pedestrian plaza has not yet had the chance to fully develop these components.
“Eradicating a pedestrian plaza because you don’t like who’s walking there is like blasting away a beach because you object to bikinis or paving a park because you hate squirrels. It represents a profound misunderstanding of public space.” -Justin Davidson, nymag.com
Digging up the pedestrian plaza at Times Square would be a travesty for the city, and it is reminiscent of another ludicrous call, in the 1970s and 80s, to close nearby Bryant Park in a misdirected attempt to combat high crime rates. Fortunately this call went unheeded, and a classic PPS analysis informed a redesign and strong management presence from the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation transformed the troubled park into the well-loved landmark that is today.
Rather than debating the presence of automobiles, Elmos, and partial nudity in Times Square, let’s focus instead on determining what New Yorkers truly want out of this iconic public space. How should it look? What can it offer? What would bring people to the area - office workers, locals, and tourists alike - and encourage them to stay? Times Square is a cultural and historic landmark as well as one of the city’s most treasured destinations. It can and should be a source of local pride, and it should continue to reflect the unique identity of the ever-changing city and its residents.