Last week New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines by entertaining a proposal to remove the pedestrian plaza from Times Square. The mayor, along with the state’s governor and police chief Bill Bratton, has been reminiscing about the darker days of Times Square – when it was a hazard rather than a destination.
The mayor’s reasoning is a reaction to a group of women situated in Times Square who panhandle topless. De Blasio has said: “As a human being and a parent, I don’t think it’s appropriate, in the middle of one of the busiest squares in New York City, that women should display themselves that way.” Toplessness is in fact legal in New York. The statement itself, from the mayor of one of America’s most liberal cities, is a far cry from progressive. Threatening to remove public space is conservative to boot.
No one on either side of the equation has claimed this area of Manhattan as a paradise. However since the pedestrian plazas opened in 2009, business has boomed and real estate prices have increased. Pedestrian injuries have also dropped by 35 per cent and injuries to drivers and passengers in cars fell 63 per cent. In a city that often feels unfriendly, designated public space offers the notion that human beings are actually a priority. While other great cities boast large amounts of public space, New York’s mayor is contemplating removing some of ours.
De Blasio’s idea to make Times Square “family friendly” is flawed. The draw of the city itself is its people, whether they are street performers or not. It might be the man walking in Soho with a cat on his head, breakdancers in the subway or a group of topless women in Times Square. Every time someone uses the phrase “only in New York” – followed by a headshake – that is what makes New York City what it is. Claiming to be family friendly is certainly not part of the narrative. If New York wants to continue to be seen as a progressive and avant-garde city – one that draws visitors from other family friendly cities – removing some of the few places that cater to its residents certainly is not the way.
Megan Billings is a researcher/writer in Monocle’s New York bureau.