August 21, 2015

Surrendering in Times Square: The dilemma of public spaces

Never underestimate the ability of people to screw up a really good thing – and for political leaders to over-react.


From the New York Times:

Mayor de Blasio Raises Prospect of Removing Times Square Pedestrian Plazas


When New York City installed pedestrian plazas in Times Square six years ago, replacing traffic-choked streets with beach chairs and picnic tables, the move prompted civic controversy, late-night monologue jokes and, eventually, widespread praise as an influential innovation in urban design.

But as the city grapples with an influx of topless tip-seekers, the de Blasio administration has suggested an unexpected remedy: Remove the islands altogether.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that he would consider removing the plazas from the area in a bid to restore order to the crowded streets of the renowned Manhattan crossroads.


Needless to say, there was a counter-reaction:

The mayor’s comments immediately rippled around the city’s civic class, drawing concern from elected officials and advocates alike.

“I’m, like, reeling right now,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for pedestrian and cycling safety.

The comments were particularly vexing, Mr. White said, because the plazas have been credited with reducing pedestrian injuries in an area teeming with visitors. Mr. de Blasio has promoted traffic safety as a hallmark of his administration.

“There’s challenges with hustlers and so forth,” Mr. White said, “but that’s no reason to expose pedestrians to the danger that we had before.” …

erhaps the harshest response came from the Times Square Alliance, a business group that helped lead the area’s transformation from a grimy eyesore into a shiny tourist destination.

“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway,” said Tim Tompkins, the group’s president. “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.”


 Like Times Square itself, this seems to be a very American problem:

Topless in Times Square: A Legal View


21TIMESSQUAREsub-master675The young women approach tourists in Times Square and pose for photos, wearing nothing but a thong and a feathered headdress, their bare breasts painted with patriotic colors in a thin simulation of a bikini top. Then they ask for a tip.

Are they performance artists?

Are they panhandlers?

And, perhaps most important, can the city move against them without violating their right to free speech? …

Whatever action the city takes to control the women, it will face legal challenges at every turn. Civil rights lawyers argue the women are bare-breasted panhandlers, and so they are protected, first by two state high-court rulings that made it legal to go topless and to panhandle, and then by the free-speech clauses in the state and federal constitutions. …

Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the city would also have a hard time arguing in court that the women were blocking traffic or the entrances of buildings, which are common reasons given for putting limitations on speech. “These women can stand there all day” and have people take their pictures, Mr. Siegel said.

Carl Weisbrod, the city planning commission chairman and co-chairman, along with Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, of the new task force, said the group would also consider stepping up police enforcement against desnudas, as well as costumed characters, who cross the line from asking for donations into harassment. Changing the physical layout of the area to alter foot traffic, or making it a city park, where panhandling is not allowed, are also options being considered.


But is this unique to NYC?

Topfreedom in Canada


On July 1, 1997, Linda Meyer went to the swimming pool in the bottom half of her bikini. Some parents complained and she was charged, but the judge in this case (Justice Holmes) voided the by law …

Meyer subsequently tested the decision in a number of locations, winning acknowledgement from the Vancouver Police Department that women would not be charged for appearing top free in public.


As the tension between what’s permissible and what’s proper plays out, it explains why, if public spaces fail to maintain a sufficient level of public order, many of the public revert to this:

McArthur Glen outlet mall.



It looks public, but it isn’t.  Didn’t see a single bare breast – not even a man’s.

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  1. A throwback to Times Square in the days of Midnight Cowboy, only outside and not in sleazy porn shops.

    I’m really of two minds on this one – this is why we can’t have nice things. OTOH, if not here, where?

    1. I presume the “nice thing” is the pedestrian space. What is it, in your mind, that’s wrecking it? Breasts? Asking for money? Tourists? The desecration of the American red, white, and blue? Photography? Something else?

  2. Gyneaphobia. Even in NYC, they would rather shudder one of the most successful public space initiatives in the history of the city than allow women to legally bare themselves. I am not of two minds on this. Closing the pedestrian time square just to curtail the sight of painted breasts is several light years beyond childish. It can not be justified or defended.

  3. I was having a discussion about things like this yesterday, specifically the NIMBY thing, and whether it to some extent comes down to civil law vs common law. Common law acting with the assumption that things aren’t allowed until they are, and civil law that they are allowed until they aren’t.
    The constant cry of ‘they can’t do that’ might be a lot less powerful if there wasn’t always the assumption that an action has to be specifically allowed for it to happen.