Robert Rosenblum

Tables and Chairs

Nicole Gelinas

October 25, 2022

Despite the rise in disorder and crime, New York City’s remade public realm still thrives.

Despite the rise in disorder and crime, New York City’s remade public realm still thrives.

Contrary to popular New York City lore, Bloomberg-era transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan did not conjure Times Square’s world-famous pedestrian plazas, inaugurated in summer 2009, out of thin air. Beginning in the John Lindsay mayoralty of a half a century ago, forward-thinking transportation and planning officials had regularly proposed such plazas — only to see powerful interests in media, business and theater nix them, fearful over crime and vagrancy. How, then — as New York City has suffered its first significant, sustained uptick in crime and disorder since that era — has the “Broadway Mall” (as proponents called the Times Square idea back then), as well as older and newer public spaces throughout core Manhattan, fared? Surprisingly resiliently — proving, once again, that good design (and even, in some cases, little design at all) can and does promote civic behavior, even if it will never be a substitute for policing.

Why pedestrianize?

Pedestrianizing, or plaza-fying, Broadway was never solely about New York City’s war on cars in Manhattan, as launched during the Bloomberg era. First, it was a technocratic traffic-engineering idea. Broadway is a diagonal avenue, cutting across north-south and east-west streets. Allowing car and truck traffic full access actually clogs traffic, rather than speeds it up, by creating more intersectional conflict among cars and trucks coming across three different directions, not two, and thus requiring three separate green-light cycles, sometimes more. 

Second, the Times Square plazas, and similar areas through Manhattan, were a quality-of-life initiative. Creating plazas where cars and trucks once rumbled was nicer for the majority of users: that is, the sometimes 400,000 pedestrians who walk through Times Square each day, 10 times the figure for drivers and passengers. In 1971, when the Lindsay administration was initially beautifying Times Square, a design firm counseled City Hall that creating a pedestrian plaza along Broadway would allow for the “planting of trees and vegetation,” and would “replenish oxygen in the air and ... reduce noise levels. The wide walkways, the separation from fast vehicular movement and the slower pace, will stimulate relaxation while shopping or strolling during lunch hour.”

The plazas were part of the story of millennial New York’s seemingly irrevocable triumph over its old, now-vanquished bogeymen: crime and disorder.

Why not pedestrianize?

Yet back then, whenever this idea appeared or reappeared, fear prevailed over experimentation. In 1977, in response to a revived proposal to “pedestrianize” Broadway between 45th and 48th Streets, the New York Times editorial board outright jeered. The paper said that the “misguided effort” would “create a nice pimp and prostitute promenade.” Instead of the promised “clichés” of “trees, benches, cafes and fancy paving,” the editors added, the plaza would be “engulfed by the area’s special brand of ground-in grime and litter and visual and social pollution.” The plaza “simply couldn’t survive.”

This outlook, shared by the theater and real-estate industries, was justified at the time, as New York City was experiencing a drastic diminishment of public safety in public spaces: if public spaces were dangerous, why make more of them? In the eight years leading up to Lindsay’s first proposal for a Times Square pedestrian plaza in 1971, New York City had gone from 548 homicides annually to 1,466. That year, a robber died in an open-air Times Square gun battle, and a part-time New York Times delivery driver was shot to death in what, today, we’d call a road-rage incident. Below the level of homicide, Times Square had become a seedy hub of porn, sex trafficking, scam card games and drug dealing and abuse. Times Square had always had vice, thanks to its proximity to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and to Penn Station; the area was where people came to do things they would never do in view of their family and friends, and it was also a place where people came, from all over their country, when their luck in life had entirely run out. But with the previous delicate balance entirely smashed, the idea of giving over more space to this dysfunction seemed insane. 

It didn’t help the case for greater pedestrianization that Midtown’s marquee public space, Bryant Park, just a five-minute walk to the east of Times Square, had also descended into chaos. Conventional wisdom in the same era viewed Bryant Park more as a nuisance than an amenity. “Most New Yorkers have long since turned their backs on Bryant Park,” wrote a Manhattan white-collar office worker in 1977. “A few people ... still walk through the park, but their enjoyment of it is diminished by the inevitable derelicts draped over benches and by toughs who drink from brown-paper-wrapped bottles and glare menacingly at them.” In 1985, feminist Katha Pollitt wrote that she had recently “found [her]self in midtown and decided to talk a walk through Bryant Park, the intransigently shabby square of struggling greenery and overflowing trash baskets. ... Distracted by one of the park’s resident drug dealers, who invited me to take off my clothes, and by another, who wanted to know why I wasn’t smiling, I looked around and noticed an interesting thing:” the ratio of men to women, about 50 to three. The three women were “walking quickly and grimly.” If New York City couldn’t even maintain one of its highest-profile Manhattan parks as a welcoming space, what hope would there be for an open space in the middle of Times Square?

Times Square, 2009-2019: a beacon of millennial urban success

In 2009, then, when then-Mayor Bloomberg launched the Times Square pedestrian spaces, initially dotted with beach chairs, the plazas were part of the story of millennial New York’s seemingly irrevocable triumph over its old, now-vanquished bogeymen: crime and disorder. By 2009, murders, citywide, were actually below the levels of 1963. Thanks partly to redevelopment and partly to assertive policing, Times Square’s smut shops and street scammers were (mostly) gone. Across Times Square’s two police precincts, the direction of travel was clear: in Midtown South, annual murders had fallen from eight in 1990 to two in 2009; overall felonies had fallen from 22,843 to 3,330. In Midtown North, murders fell from 16 in 1990 to two, and overall felonies had fallen from 15,385 to 2,479. 

By then, too, New York City was confident that expanded public spaces were working because Bryant Park was working. Beginning in 1992, after an extensive closure and refurbishment, Bryant Park was a physical symbol of New York’s improbable resurgence, thanks to ample business-improvement-district funding to fund obsessive up-to-the-minute micromanagement by Dan Biederman of the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC). Under the BPC, which took over the park through an agreement with the city, Bryant Park became a place where solitary women and families could sit unmolested not only by sexual harassers or drug dealers, but even by people playing loud music.

Bloomberg’s confidence in opening up Times Square to the masses was borne out. Record crowds — often close to half a million walkers a day — crammed Times Square, sitting on the new “red steps” and movable, Bryant-Park-style tables and chairs to take pictures of themselves and each other. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the biggest problem was fake Elmo. Midtown South suffered one murder in 2019 and 2,552 overall felonies (and had three years with no murders, all after 2010). In 2019, Midtown North also suffered one murder and 2,423 felonies (and had had four recent years with no murders). By 2019, pedestrian plazas from just north of Union Square to just north of Times Square defined much of Broadway, with little or no room for cars and trucks. 

Times Square, 2020: empty

Now, though, two-and-a-half years since New York City shut itself down in March of 2020, New York City and core Manhattan are vastly different from 2019. In April, May and June of 2020, Times Square saw fewer than 50,000 daily visitors per month, a fraction of the normal level. With Midtown Manhattan devoid of office workers and tourists to help maintain equilibrium through much of 2020 and 2021, and with the city having unwisely housed more than 10,000 single men in hotels with no support services or security during the day, crime and disorder in core Manhattan were rampant. Between 2019 and 2021, the murder level citywide soared 53 percent relative to 2019 — the biggest increase over such a compressed time period ever. Midtown South had three murders in 2020 and five in 2021; Midtown North had four murders in 2020 and three in 2021. Though overall felonies (other than murder) were lower than before the pandemic in 2020, they began to rise in Midtown South in 2021. This year, through October 2, at over 3,000, they’ve already exceeded full-year 2019 levels. In Midtown North, though felonies remained below 2019 levels in both 2020 and 2021, this year, at 1,982, they’re running slightly above 2019 levels, year to date. Midtown South has six murders, so far, in 2022; Midtown North, one. It would be reasonable to think that, if history were repeating itself, Bryant Park and Manhattan’s new public plazas would be the nexus points of that danger, disorder and disuse. 

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Bryant Park became a pandemic oasis...

Yet that hasn’t been the case; the opposite has been true. Instead of falling victim to the disorder surrounding it, as it did in the ’70s and ’80s, Bryant Park shone. The park hasn’t had a violent felony since before COVID-19. How did the park do it? The park’s ’90s-era physical redesign helped. Bryant Park has few desolate, dark spots to hide bad behavior, and wide-open paths across broad sightlines help maintain “eyes on the street.” 

Even good passive design, though, wasn’t enough. As the pandemic emptied the park of its tourists and office workers, thus depriving it of income from its restaurants and concessions, Biederman, still in charge after all these years, did something counterintuitive: ask the nearby commercial properties that help fund it to raise their own business-improvement levy, so that they would provide $2.5 million annually, up from $1.6 million, against the park’s annual $21 million budget. 

Biederman estimates that the park maintains its equilibrium 75 percent through design and events, and only 25 percent through security — which is why he rarely has to call for reinforcement.

A naive observer might have thought that Bryant Park didn’t need to make up for its budget deficit; with fewer people in the park, why not provide fewer services? That was the city’s “shrinkage” philosophy, overall, throughout the ’70s. But Biederman was determined to maintain both physical spaces and security — three to four unarmed guards at any one time — at a pre-COVID-19 level, even with lower attendance. Biederman estimates that the park needs 700 functional users to counteract every one antisocial user: that is, a person, from whatever motivation or affliction, creating a disturbance to fellow park-goers or to the overall park environment. Visitor levels were down to just one-fourth of normal in the summer of 2020, even as the park experienced an increased number of “emotionally disturbed persons” between April 2020 and April 2021. “They would come in and make everyone miserable,” he says, and “harass women.” Homeless people and mentally ill people, of course, can use the park just like anyone else can, but “We have rules in the park,” including against “disorderly behavior” and panhandling. For people who couldn’t follow those rules, he explained, “We made sure security officers,” unarmed, “would usher them out of the park.” For the most part, firm enforcement of common rules works; park officials rarely have to call the police.

As soon as state and local government officials allowed, in the late summer and fall of 2020, Bryant Park quickly restarted its regular program of events, even with lower attendance. Biederman estimates that the park maintains its equilibrium 75 percent through design and events, and only 25 percent through security — which is why he rarely has to call for reinforcement. Even passive do-it-yourself activities, such as the park’s ping-pong tables, bocce court and reading room, help keep a perimeter of benign eyes on passersby. 

When the largely unseen governors of a public space make clear that they will not put up with certain behaviors, people will not engage in such behaviors there, and people will not come to that space if they wish to engage in such behaviors undisturbed.

More organized, programmed group events, from piano concerts to movie nights, counteract any impulse toward negative uses. People dealing drugs, and even people suffering from drug addiction, simply do not want to engage in antisocial activities in full view of hundreds of moviegoers, piano-concert attendees and jugglers on the lawn. During the winter months, when few people want to sit outside and read a book, Bryant Park counteracts what would naturally be sparser crowds with the “Winter Village” of food and drink vending huts, gift shops, surrounding a free skating rink (if you bring your own skates). Bryant Park took a big risk in opening Winter Village that first COVID-19 winter, as it could have spent the resources to build its physical infrastructure, including a massive skating rink, only to see the city shut it down immediately. But that risk was outweighed by the risk of an empty, desolate park during that dark winter for core Manhattan.

Beyond prohibiting outright hostile behavior, the park also has rules against commercial vending, smoking (as in all New York City public parks) and amplified music. Enforcement of these rules — again, generally not through policing, but through the clear message that the rules will be consistently enforced — has helped Bryant Park maintain its level of order, even as much of the rest of the city appears to have descended into an anything-goes free-for-all. Marijuana dealers now openly sell their wares on the public streets of Manhattan, and the smell of marijuana pervades many areas of the city. Not in Bryant Park. There is no real magic to this: when the largely unseen governors of a public space make clear that they will not put up with certain behaviors, people will not engage in such behaviors there, and people will not come to that space if they wish to engage in such behaviors undisturbed. Enforcing such rules in a park that welcomes more than its fair share of out-of-town tourists, especially since the pandemic, is especially important, as newcomers unfamiliar with an area’s culture will behave as people are already behaving there. If they see people buying and smoking pot, they will do the same.

Throughout the entire pandemic, then, including in its most chaotic, worst dark days, Bryant Park remained an oasis of calm in an increasingly strange Midtown. Though walking the streets required a new level of vigilance, sitting and working or reading in Bryant Park, though less crowded, felt the same as it had before. (I know because I was there, often.) Of course, cynics might say that Bryant Park is, well, Bryant Park — a well-resourced, well-defined area with a clear border and a borderline-obsessive workaholic — Biederman doesn’t work from home — to govern it. 

... But could Times Square and Herald Square still thrive, too?

Bryant Park is indeed a very different space from core Manhattan’s Bloomberg-era Broadway public plazas. They face one natural disadvantage to a well-managed park, just in their ill-defined use. Most people go to a park to go to a park, with a set of particular activities in mind. If I’ve got my mind set on reading a book or having a picnic on the grass, I may decide to go to Bryant Park or Central Park; it’s unlikely that I’ll decide to sit in a random pedestrian plaza on Broadway, as a specific local destination. The plazas thus depend more on casual, transient users, such as office workers, shoppers and commuters. 

The people who do go to Times Square as a destination are tourists, and they aren’t exactly sure what they are going to do there. This lack of a defined activity, and the fact that they will be gone before they can learn the area’s quirks, makes them more susceptible to scam artists. Finally, Times Square and nearby areas are, as ever, just above or adjacent to major transit hubs such as the Port Authority, making them first stops for drug-addicted or panhandling newcomers. The public plazas also don’t have well-defined borders, as a park does, the lack of which makes it harder to delineate between what kind of behavior is acceptable in a particular place and what is not. Finally, away from the core of Times Square, it is harder to maintain Biederman’s golden 700-to-1 ratio of good behavior to bad. 

Biederman is well aware of these differences. His 34th Street Partnership, a sister corporation to Bryant Park, manages the 34th Street and Greeley Square public plazas, near Macy’s, on behalf of the city. It’s an “enormous” challenge, he says, and the “biggest challenge” is drugs. In an enforcement vacuum, many drug sellers and users have conflated decriminalizing the possession of marijuana with decriminalizing not just the possession of harder drugs such as synthetic heroin and crystal meth but also their open-air sale and use. Concurs Barbara Blair, whose Garment District Alliance governs plazas south of Macy’s, “There’s a huge amount of open drug use.” She agrees fully with social-service advocates who say that “individuals need help.” But when resistant to help, it “play(s) out in the public realm,” with “hypodermic needles everywhere.” The temporary placement, during 2020, of adult homeless men, many of them with drug and mental-health woes, helped create an “ecosystem,” Blair puts it, of drug dealers, sex traffickers and johns and other bad actors who prey on addicts — an ecosystem that is harder to dismantle than it was to create. As Tom Harris, who runs the Times Square Alliance, puts it, “A lot of the problems that we face with the disorder is what was unlawful a couple of years ago now is just lawful, it’s not against the law” — whether officially, as with marijuana possession, or unofficially, through a pullback in enforcement of all low-level infractions. 

Yet the plazas have not failed; in fact, one could almost daresay they’re thriving. On two mid-September walks on two separate days down Broadway, from 50th Street to Union Square, the plazas were almost a cartoon version of what they were supposed to be. From north of Times Square to just north of Union Square, collectively, thousands of people were using these public spaces exactly as the city intended: for rest, recreation and entertainment. Whether on Macy’s de-facto front lawn or in front of Junior’s Cheesecake’s 49th Street annex, it was hard to find an empty seat. All along the Broadway corridor, solitary women sat absorbed in their phones — and even, in two separate cases, writing in a journal and drawing — indicating a feeling of confidence and safety.

What’s working? First, just as in Bryant Park: design. Times Square’s red steps remain a natural focal point of communal activity. The bright glass steps, opened in 2008, are, finally, something to do in Times Square, if only to sit down and look at the LED billboards surrounding you, as well as look out at the crowds. Wide-open, bright-lit plazas, like Bryant Park’s lawn, just aren’t good places to hide criminal or antisocial activity. Even to the south, where crowds are sparser, the fact that the plazas are in the middle of the street makes people feel safe, which makes them sit there, which helps make the space safe. 

Second, and also just as in Bryant Park: commercial activity. Right in the heart of Times Square, the outdoor “beer garden” is another anchor for tourists (locals ought to try sitting and people-watching more, too). To the north, for years, before Junior’s put out bright-red plastic tables and chairs during the pandemic, the Broadway plaza at 49th Street was just a dead space. Now, provided the temperature is above 50 degrees, the tables are filled with pastrami- and cake-eating customers. South of Herald Square, outdoor dining along Broadway has added activity that wasn’t there before.

Third: events and programming. “That’s a big part of our strategy,” says Harris. Before the pandemic, Times Square ran programming two nights a week. Now, “We do five nights a week of public programming. We really have ramped it up in a big way.” Programming gives people who came to Times Square — without knowing what they were supposed to do there — a focal point. On one September afternoon, a crowd of 100 or so listened to a band play marching tunes. Programming also crowds out bad activity: just as at Bryant Park, you don’t want to shoot up heroin in front of a deafening marching band. South of the Square, the Garment District, with smaller crowds, is taking a similar approach. “We had a music program that ran all summer,” says Blair. “People loved it. It was very, very successful.” 

Finally, yes, enforcement — including, ultimately, if all else fails, policing. Harris spent much of the summer of 2022 importuning local elected officials, including the mayor, to halt the open-air sale of marijuana from more than a dozen trucks parked in the area (on the streets, not in the public plazas). Disputes over unregulated marijuana sales have also resulted in three stabbings in the area over the summer. The Times Square Alliance even produced a full-color brochure to illustrate the problem, pinpointing vendors’ exact locations and methods of operation. The brochure noted that marijuana sales weren’t the only issue: the other problem was that classic Times Square plague — the scam. “When employees are asked about product ingredients,” the brochure read, “the explanation is vague if not a total lie. ... These trucks prey on gullible tourists by charging them obscene prices for hemp products and CBD creams. This is not the experience we want visitors to have in the greatest city in the world.”

The firm, consistent pressure worked. In late summer, the city removed the marijuana trucks, with the NYPD doing so supposedly because they were selling food illegally without a permit, and with the city’s sheriff doing so because of traffic tickets. But with police not proactively enforcing low-level laws and rules on their own anymore, it takes constant, organized vigilance to maintain order: just days later, someone was selling what appeared to be pot from a card table just north of Times Square. “You have to be relentless,” says Harris. “Once we let it be known that we’re OK with the disorder, enforcement will stop. We can’t accept the disorder and we have to challenge the city. ... Again, it’s what you’re willing to accept.”

Times Square is not Bryant Park. It does not have a zero-tolerance policy toward street performers with amplified music, nor should it, and Elmo still abounds. People go there not to read a book undisturbed, but to be part of a street scene. A street scene includes some element of spontaneity and, yes, disorder within bounds. Moreover, the plazas haven’t been immune from serious crime: three tourists were shot and wounded in the middle of Times Square in May of 2021, and that October, nurse Maria Ambrocio was knocked to the ground and killed by a fleeing homeless man who had just committed a robbery just south of Times Square, at Broadway and 41st Street. 

Over the past two years, though, many of Midtown’s highest-profile crimes haven’t been in or even anywhere near the Times Square plazas. The most recent homicide, a stabbing death, occurred at 8th Avenue and 44th Street, where cars and trucks still govern the street and pedestrians stick to the perimeter. In November 2020, another stabbing murder occured just south, at 8th and 38th, again, far away from any wide-open public space. The stray-bullet wounding of a Marine, in July 2021, occurred on a side street. 

Nor do the well-governed plazas attract low-level crimes and disorder. The vendor hawking pot from a card table in mid-September had set up his wares on the sidewalk, not in the plaza — presumably to avoid undue scrutiny. Of the eight photos the Times Square Alliance sent to local officials of people openly using hard drugs or otherwise in distress, seven of the individuals pictured were attempting to keep well out of sight — under a scaffold, in an abandoned doorway or as close as possible to the edge of a sidewalk, up against a wall. If crime and disorder have redefined life in core Manhattan, the plazas aren’t to blame. One of Times Square’s most troubled spots right now, where hustlers often accost tourists attempting to shake them down for money in exchange for “free” CDs, is a fully scaffold-covered stretch of sidewalk to the south of the main plazas.

Another park, another story

Indeed, one of core Manhattan’s most troubled high-profile public spaces, post-2020, isn’t a plaza at all: it’s classic Washington Square Park, far to the south. On a nice September day, the benches along the park’s northwest corridor were peopled by drug users. Throughout the park, half a dozen vendors openly hawked marijuana from card tables, and another was selling unregulated “nutcracker” alcoholic drinks. The same week, two women were groped within 10 minutes. People rode through on motorized two-wheel devices, despite well-advertised signs prohibiting such behavior. During the summers of 2020 and 2021, the park was the scene of all-night raves and parties, despite its midnight curfew. By then, just like Bryant Park two generations earlier, nearby residents began to think of it as a nuisance, not an amenity. In late August of this year, the supposedly closed-for-the-night park was the scene of a stabbing injury, reportedly over marijuana, a repeat of a similar after-hours incident in March.

Yet Washington Square Park, too, is learning from its neighbors to the north. Design: the city has done some modest re-landscaping to open up sightlines (and should do more in the northwest part). Events: though the city itself runs the park, Washington Square Park Conservancy, a nonprofit group, has “significantly increased its own programming,” says Sheryl Woodruff, deputy director of the conservancy. It ran 14 regular programs this summer, as opposed to four or five a season before the pandemic. Since June, the conservancy has had a full-time program manager to further broaden the scope. The conservancy also coordinates volunteers in the park who help maintain order, including cleaning up litter. Human services: outreach teams contracted by the city are contacting the park’s drug users and other troubled people more regularly.

Finally, though, policing: nearby residents say that the NYPD is doing a far better job — if not perfect — of enforcing the park’s closing time this year, as compared to 2020 and 2021, alleviating nearby noise and more serious crime. Washington Square, like Times Square, is never going to be Bryant Park, nor should it be. Freelance musicians have long been part of the scene. But freelance drumming and open-air hard-drug use are two different things. 

Since 2020, nobody has seriously suggested closing any of New York’s new-ish public plazas to people and reopening them to traffic, just as no one would ever suggest permanently closing Washington Square Park, as the city once — temporarily — closed Bryant Park. To do so would be to admit defeat against crime and disorder, one as seemingly irrevocable as the success Bloomberg implicitly declared in 2009, in creating far more space for pedestrians in Times Square.

How to build on success?

But the city can certainly make improvements. The plazas to the south of Times Square and Herald Square, in particular, still feel a bit orphaned. The Bloomberg administration entirely rebuilt Times Square to integrate the plazas, but in the Garment District, though the plazas are now 15 years old, “It’s (still) painted asphalt,” says the Alliance’s Blair. Raising the plaza to make it equal to the sidewalk, distinctive pavement markings and permanent amenities such as trees, water fountains and better lighting, would make a big difference. “Capital improvements would be transformative for this neighborhood,” she says. Retractable metal bollards, rather than giant cement blocks, to keep out traffic would be visually friendlier all along Broadway.

As Jane Jacobs once understood, the ultimate — although not failsafe — prevention of crime and disorder is a healthy mix of foot traffic. As of mid-September, the Garment District is seeing three-quarters of its pre-pandemic footfalls, as is Bryant Park. Times Square, on some days this past summer, has seen more people than before the pandemic. Bryant Park is often so busy that it’s hard to get a table and chair — just like three years ago. Increased crime and disorder still mark post-pandemalyptic Manhattan. But — thanks to design, programming, commercial activity, and, yes, policing — New York’s marquee public spaces are still a respite from disorder, not a magnifier of it.