New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has stirred a crisis by suggesting that he might remove the seating from Times Square and give it back to automotive traffic. The problem is that ladies with the breasts painted fabulous colors parade around in the buff (or nearly), arranging with tourists to photograph them for a few bucks. Wow!
That doesn’t seem like a big problem to me. The women don’t even really look naked. The ability to sit in Times Square – and in several other plazas where Broadway cuts through, such as Madison Square Park, leaving spaces too large to be just for cars – is a miraculous boon not just for tourists but for the average New Yorker. The city should keep its mitts off Times Square.
Enter Aaron Betsky, official provocateur for AIA’s official magazine, Architect. In “Times Square and the Reality of Public Spaces,” Betsky reveals that he has no idea of what a public space is all about. He thinks it is a place where people should be worried about being attacked by strangers. I kid you not. Here is what he says:
When it works, public space, in other words, has an element of danger. It eats away at your assumptions, confronts you with the possibility of violence or disease, or even more simply to rain, snow, and heat. To use a phrase from our therapeutic culture, it takes you out of your comfort zone.
This is, of course, insane. Betsky apparently has a hard-on for the old Times Square, where one actually did have to worry about violence or being offended. Maybe he would like a one-way ticket to Baghdad! But he is confused about Times Square. He recommends that the de Blasio administration “force visitors to crowd onto sidewalks again, where they cannot avoid panhandlers, pickpockets, or rubbing shoulders with office workers and delivery people going about their business.”
Does Betsky actually live in New York? Has he been to Times Square? I have, staying twice in a year at a Times Square hotel where the above photo was taken. I can testify that the sidewalks are still big-time crowded. The “other” that Betsky yearns for has not been evicted, merely cowed (a good thing). Tables and chairs are used not solely by tourists but also by the average New Yorker taking a break from rambunctious sidewalks.
More broadly, Betsky is mistaken if he really thinks that public space is all about leaving your “comfort zone” behind. That’s called failed public space. Successful public space is about being able to enjoy yourself in public. Public space is where citizens play out their role as citizens, whether individually or collectively. You can watch the pretty girls walk by, or you can stage a protest. Public space is where the human comedy takes its act into the public realm. Good architecture makes public space easier to use by making its tectonics more legible and easier on the eye. And by offering – yes – a “comfort zone.”
That is why advocates of public space often find that focusing on the space itself rather than what surrounds it often backfires, animating it but not ennobling it. The famous global public-space consultant Jan Gehl is an expert at neglecting this crucial distinction.
I have been grazing around the edges of this Times Square crisis waiting for someone like Aaron Betsky to leave it awash in drooling inanity. That’s how I get my ya-yas out. Thank you, Aaron! Of course the city should leave Times Square alone. This was an advance in urbanism of such importance that we might not see its like for the rest of the century.
Totally weird is Police Commissioner William Bratton’s support for the mayor on this. Clearly he has reverted to the NYPD’s 1970s policy of not wanting to go out of their way to do their jobs. Wasn’t he the guy who ended that policy, and made the Big Apple safe to live in again? Go figure.
So yes, hustle the painted ladies outta there if you must, but leave the seats alone.