In New York politics, as in Newtonian physics, there is action and reaction and, too often, overreaction.
Take Times Square, and the handful of women there who expose their painted breasts and pose for photos with tourists among the Elmos and Spider-Men. They are vastly outnumbered by the milling throngs of out-of-towners, and far tinier than towering images of near-naked models preening and pouting on the digital billboards all around. But their presence has been enough to stir a Lower Manhattan tabloid into a righteous fury.
“BUST THIS FLESH PIT” read one Daily News headline this month. “TOO MUCH TO BARE,” said another
Times Square has an old reputation as a crossroads of bad behavior. But is it really being overrun again by vice? By pimps, prostitutes, muggers, drug dealers, bootleggers, pornographers or even card-game hustlers? Not even close. And yet The News, horrified at the rampant shirtlessness, put these frightening women on Page 1 for four straight days. (Its usual spot for breasts is Page 3.) It called the city to arms to repel this “dastardly” outrage.
Predictably, distressingly, our leaders took the bait. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasioannounced the formation of a multiagency force “to curb topless individuals” and their costumed counterparts in Times Square.
There’s nothing wrong with asking smart people to study a problem — and theintense crowding in Times Square andreports of harassment of naïve tourists by illegally aggressive panhandlers certainly qualify as problems. But the size and firepower of this task force are more appropriate for an Ebola outbreak. It is led by Police Commissioner William Bratton and the City Planning Commission chairman, Carl Weisbrod, and includes the Police Department; the Manhattan district attorney’s office; the Transportation Department; the Law Department; the Department of Consumer Affairs; the Department of City Planning; the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; NYC & Company; and the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen.
Their job is to study how topless women can be “regulated,” and to report back by Oct. 1.
On Thursday, Mr. de Blasio suggested one solution: eliminating some of Times Square’s pedestrian plazas, apparently on the theory that if you can get tourists to go away, you reduce the topless-woman threat. Other officials suggest creating a pen for the women and costumed characters — sort of a panhandling zoo — or turning this great bustling commercial zone into, of all things, a park.
Such proposals, and Mr. de Blasio’s sudden willingness to roll back years of ambitious streetscape redesign, are a monumental overreaction. The mayor could save everybody a lot of time. He could just meet with a few First Amendment lawyers and some of the women and men who make their living posing for tips. He doesn’t have to wait a month — he could get a report this afternoon. It would remind everyone that being shirtless in the city is perfectly legal, a privilege men have enjoyed since forever. That the people who flock around the painted women in Times Square do not seem terribly offended. And that those who are can always walk away.
Most important, it would say that panhandlers who become aggressive and obstructive can be dealt with. Mr. Bratton’s officers are trained to handle terrorists and epidemics and armed criminals. They are more than capable of dealing with half-naked panhandlers who get pushy.
This page is not endorsing extortion. People who break the law should be arrested. And the city should be seriously thinking about how to make Times Square work better than it does — in many ways it is too successful, clotted with so many slow-moving people and vendors and leafleteers and untalented buskers that it can be a highly unpleasant place to try to walk through. Its vibe can be cruddy.
But Times Square is not going to hell, or anywhere near hell’s vicinity. Mr. de Blasio’s enemies have been predicting New York’s downfall since before the mayor took office. He should not be feeding their false narrative by panicking over some localized crudeness. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whorecently said that he thought what the women were doing was illegal and had to be stopped, and that they reminded him of the “bad old days,” should stop being ridiculous.
The Times has a long relationship with our namesake square. It’s in our backyard now, since we moved to Eighth Avenue, but it was our front porch for more than 100 years. We and the city have survived rallies and riots and many, many New Year’s ball drops. More seasoned members of our staff remember how shuttle vans used to take late-shift employees in safety from our old 43rd Street building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Pennsylvania Station.
Times Square can reveal New York at its bleakest and most brilliant. It took grit and resolve to stick with it through the bad times. This is not one of them.