News came out this past week that the company I work for will be moving all of its New York offices to Times Square, where we already have a flashy facility. It will be a big to-do with renovation and creating an office of the future and I’m sure the office will live up to the hype and it will be great for the company.
There’s everything to love about it but it means having to work in Times Square, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Times Square has undergone a complete 180-degree transformation over the last two decades. In the mid-1990s, it was still famous for its crime and pornography. I remember walking through as a kid and marveling at the graphic photos advertising the pornographic films, the barely-censored photos of naked women you tried to look at while pretending to ignore.
Times Square today is a tourist mecca that glows with the false light of a thousand larger-than-life screens and signs. It is a backdrop to television shows, a center showpiece of a city that crawled its way out of the financial and social gutter to become a well-regarded metropolis of the future. It’s found a way to personify the state of the five boroughs within its blocks. When New York was in a state of decay, Times Square reflected that. Now that economic interests have invested for the future here, Times Square reflects that also. Whether you love it or hate it, it is our city’s barometer.
Like much of the conversation today surrounding questions of the changing character of New York City, the gritty past tends to get sugar-coated. While I prefer watching pornography to shopping for Disney trinkets, the Times Square of today is no doubt better for New York City and a proud measure of our progress over crime. (Keep in mind that the tremendous makeover never completely washes out the criminal element or the sub-strata of sleaze or grit. There are still plenty of con artists, prostitutes and drug dealers making money in the Times Square area.)
Times Square’s success as an attraction for visitors makes it less appealing for local residents. Slow-moving foot traffic is maddening for someone trying to get to work. Long lines of people at overpriced tourist traps do not make for suitable lunch spots. Friends who have worked in Times Square report that some of the potential upsides, such as going to the office to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, are foiled by strict rules, often dictated by security concerns.
But as with the rest of life, working in Times Square will be an opportunity to adapt and overcome. I’ll find the good lunch spots to go to and I’ll figure out how to move in and out without being caught up in mobs of plodding tourists. Being a New Yorker means being able to find the right path through adversity and make inconvenience into something triumphant.
The midtown canyons of concrete and glass will be calling for me within a year’s time. It will be another chance to embrace the chaos of living in New York, and make a new path to life in the city.
Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.
Topless women in Times Square have their bodies painted to retain a bit of modesty and offer to let tourists take their photos with them for money. That can cause a lot of problems as the opportunity to see a topless woman for free is quite alluring (strip clubs are quite costly and a Dad can’t gracefully lead his family to have lunch in one).
But the idea that’s been circulated by the mayor is to actually demolish the Times Square pedestrian plaza, and this idea is lunacy.
As a rule, topless women should be encouraged. Sure, they attract a lot of idiots and earn the disapproval of prudes, but that can be managed. The Naked Cowboy became a Times Square attraction and was quickly copied by more than one Naked Cowgirl. The painted women are not much more revealing than those performers.
There’s definitely a need to regulate the crowds and keep a sane amount of these kinds of solicitation performers to a minimum. When every unemployed landscaper and his brother decided they could rake in cash by being Elmo, chaos ensued. Police put limits on costumed characters. If they have to do something similar with the topless women, so be it.
But don’t do away with the pedestrian plaza. That would be incredibly stupid. The solutions to the overabundance of performers is to put limits on them like has already been done with the people wearing large costumes. A permit-based system is used by the MTA in the subways to make sure there aren’t too many subway musicians making too much noise.
Closing the pedestrian plaza in Times Square would be an admission that the city is one of decay and hopelessness again. I remember when the city was like that and while we may want to romanticize and glorify the past, we don’t want to return to the pre-Giuliani New York, trust me.
New York prided itself on cleaning up and turning itself around. Times Square used to be a notorious place full of criminals, drug addicts and the homeless. Theaters that were once beautiful were run-down porno houses. When Disney announced they were going to be putting a store in Times Square in 1995, cartoons depicted Disney characters passed out drunk or dead with syringes sticking out of their arms. But no one would think that now. Times Square is probably one of the safest places in the city.
Doing away with the current Times Square isn’t a solution to any current problem. It’s what people who can’t or won’t do what needs to be done. When there was too much crime in Central Park, we didn’t pave over Central Park.
The pedestrian plaza in Times Square was created because of the success in cleaning it up. Walking through Times Square used to be an even worse nightmare than it is today because you were dodging crowds on sidewalks that were not built to accommodate that many people. Driving through was no picnic either as jaywalking pedestrians held everything up.
Now Times Square is still an overcrowded hellhole, but not to tourists. If you’re a New York resident trying to get somewhere, you generally already avoid Times Square like the plague anyway during regular waking hours.