A Times Square for Our Time, Pedestrian in More Ways Than One
Open since late May, the pedestrian mall at Times Square, where the city boldly closed off traffic, has a rough, slipshod feel — if anything, more slipshod now that the folding lawn chairs the Times Square Alliance provides are starting to show wear and tear, their plastic strips poking out below seats that sag so much they all but touch the ground. With yellow tape roping off discrete areas and the tacky chairs inviting passers-by to have a seat, sections of Broadway now look like something between a crime scene and an audience, which may be an inadvertent tribute to the culture of the space, but does not offer much in the way of aesthetics.
Granted, the chairs and orange barrels demarcating the pedestrian space are temporary. In fact, the entire project may be temporary: the city will not decide until December whether to keep the street closed to traffic. In any case, on Tuesday workers began painting parts of the pavement red, and there are plans to add a gravel surface in the coming weeks.
But right now, the pedestrian mall, it must be said, looks a little unworthy of New York. The city may be reeling from recession, but the huge orange plastic containers and tatty hardware-store chairs give the sense that it’s already letting itself go, like some Lehman Brothers wife who has not just forsaken her golden highlights, but given up on grooming altogether. Surely someone at Ikea could have helped the city ease this transition — maybe some witty, oversize umbrellas (sure, weighed down), or at least chairs that do not look like they are lonely for the company of pink flamingos.
Or maybe the problem is not the quality of the seats. Maybe the problem is all the people sitting in them. New York is a city of walkers, not sitters; a city of motion, not repose. In Times Square, tourists should be looking at New York, caught up in the swarm of activity and lights and commerce and theater; instead, New Yorkers find themselves looking at the tourists, a cordoned-off display of the temporarily sedentary.
“Is that what you think?” asked Gulshan Mia, 30, who was sitting on one of those chairs between 43rd and 44th Streets one recent morning, listening to music on her iPod. “But that’s because you’re from New York.” Ms. Mia is from South Africa, and was living up until a few months ago in Taiwan; even now, with an apartment in Jersey City, she would not necessarily call herself a New Yorker.
But she is not a tourist, either. Ms. Mia works at Toys R Us in Times Square, and is what you might call a pedestrian mall regular. She wakes up every morning a half an hour early just so she can get to Times Square, sit in one of those seats, listen to music and people-watch. She comes there on her work breaks, too.
She said she enjoyed the meandering pace of the tourists, and the international sign language of couples bickering over who gets the one chair that’s open at any given time. She watches global diplomacy in action as the Germans bum cigarettes from the Italians and the Italians bum a light from the British. At lunchtime, she makes eye contact with fellow nontourists on their lunch breaks. “I don’t know if you know the nod,” she said. “I’m starting to feel like I belong now that I get the nod.”
The landscape designer Diana Balmori said she thought of the makeshift mall as a kind of “tidal marsh,” a place where the land and water push up against each other, and it is not clear which will take over. For Ms. Balmori, the phrase represents Broadway’s new tentative divide between a street for cars and a space for people. It’s also an apt description for Times Square itself, a space half-defined by the city and half-defined by the tourists who inhabit it. And it captures the people like Ms. Mia, someone living in New York but not of it, like a few of the other self-described regulars parked in Times Square that morning: a restaurant manager with a thick Argentine accent, a hitchhiker lounging on a chaise who said he lived in New Orleans but summered in Manhattan.
Sitting beside Ms. Mia, I was starting to rethink my impression of the pedestrian mall, appreciating some of its merits, messy though they may be. But only for a minute.
“I just really like it here,” she said. “I find it strangely peaceful.”
We’ve come to accept the multitudes of adjectives that rotate in and out of use for Times Square depending on the era: gritty, dangerous, commercial, touristy, kitschy, overpriced, overcrowded, flashy, tacky, corporate. But peaceful?
That’s just wrong.