Part of the charm or challenge (depending on whose opinion) of visiting Times Square has been the encounters with the Naked Cowboy strumming a guitar in briefs and boots year-round, a green make-up covered human Statue of Liberty, a myriad of caped crusaders and all the pint-sized fans’ favorites who add to the ambience and earn a living posing for pictures with visitors. But New York City has decided to clean up Times Square with a round up of the costumed characters.
The City Council passed legislation this week by a resounding 42-1 to corral the cast of characters, who currently roam widely throughout the Times Square area soliciting business and entertaining passers-by, to specific areas in that part of the city and others. That means that Times Square’s eccentric street performers will no longer be allowed on pedestrian pathways.
The characters (and other solicitors) will be relegated soon to “designated activity zones” that will reportedly be “bigger than a city bus,” but clearly rein in the activity and affect the ambiance. Given that the measure is citywide, the move also precludes characters from soliciting attention anywhere else not so designated. The legislation also affects ticket scalpers and other street hawkers or buskers.
The city’s Department of Transportation presented a map to the NYC council showing how and where they plan to round up characters and permit visitors to Times Square in three types of zones. There will be Activity Zones, where characters and hawkers would be allowed; Flow Zones, where pedestrians can move unimpeded; as well as Civic Zones for people to sit and enjoy the side show people-watching without being bothered.
The action was taken because of repeated complaints about characters harassing people and acting aggressive to wrangle business. Many will offer to pose with tourists and then demand payment, instead of a voluntary tip. The costumed characters sometimes treat those pedestrians who decline to proffer money aggressively, and 16 were arrested in the first three months of the year. As Councilman Dan Garodnick pointed out, “People should be able to visit Times Square and experience the quirkiness and edginess that makes it unique without having to run in the other direction every time they see Spider-Man.”
The characters were well-represented at the council meeting and claims the move affects their first amendment rights. One, who appears as Spider-man, said, “We are entitled to freedom of expression.” He also commented that he has a right to walk around in his Spider-Man costume. “If somebody wants to take pictures with me, that’s their right,” he added. No one would question that, but it is the issue of asking for money and making it clear that that photo is a business transaction that is the broader issue.
The Times Square area has come a long way from the seedy run-down atmosphere of the 1970s. Its family friendly image, helped by Disney, has led to an explosion of visitors of all ages to the many restaurants, souvenir stores, movie theaters and, of course, Broadway shows in the area. According to Playbill, the Times Square area (including the hotels and businesses) produces directly or indirectly 10 percent of all jobs in NYC, including the characters who will now be rounded up in a zone.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Playbill: NY City Council Grants DOT Power to Regulate Times Square Costumed Characters
Playbill: Times Square Costumed Characters Plead Their Case at Hearing
Christian Science Monitor: Why NYC is reining in Times Square Spider-Men, ‘Desnudas’
New York Post: It’s going to get harder to be a costumed creep in Times Square
Image Courtesy of Jane’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License