The New York City Department of Transportation began erecting signs and painting blue boxes on the pavement in Times Square June 13 designed to regulate where the near-ubiquitous costumed characters may pose for pictures with tourists—and where pedestrians can walk to get through the crowded plaza unimpeded.
The action comes in the wake of the April 7 New York City Council vote to give the DOT the power to regulate—but not ban—the costumed characters who roam Times Square and other city pedestrian plazas.
The backbone of the regulations is a series of special zones that will corral the costumed characters who pose for photos and seek—sometimes, demand—tips of up to $20 per photo. Pavement is being painted blue to mark the zones for the characters.
At a March 30 City Council hearing, the DOT presented a proposed map of Times Square that specifies three types of zones: Activity Zones, where the characters would be permitted; Flow Zones, where pedestrians will be allowed to move unimpeded; and Civic Zones, where visitors can sit without being bothered.
Here is a map of the zones. Most of the plaza, marked in purple, consists of Flow Zones. The blue boxes are the areas designated as Activity Zones. Civic Zones are not marked on the map.
The solicitors dress as popular cartoon or movie or video game characters, occasionally as the Statue of Liberty, sometimes as naked carnival dancers who wear nothing more than body paint (known as “desnudas”). They offer to pose for pictures with tourists, then demand payments, sometimes as much as $20, which are supposed to be voluntary tips. Those people who decline to tip are sometimes treated aggressively, which has led to complaints and several arrests. Also covered by the legislation would be ticket scalpers and hawkers who sell tickets to comedy shows, sometimes fraudulently.
Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, issued a previous statement saying, “The passage of this bill ensures that the pedestrian plazas not only in Times Square, but also throughout all five boroughs, will be vibrant and successful public spaces. We thank all those who voted for the bill, especially Councilmembers Johnson, Garodnick, Rodriguez and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito for their leadership. Nor would this bill have been remotely possible without the active and engaged leadership of Mayor de Blasio and his team and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. The legislation was also developed collaboratively with Borough President Gale Brewer, Community Board 5, the NYC BID Association, and the Neighborhood Plaza Partnership. We are immensely grateful to them all.”
Tompkins added, “We commit to working closely with government officials and all affected parties, including those working hard to earn a living on the plazas in Times Square, to thoughtfully address concerns that have been raised during the legislative process. By creating a better environment for those who work in the plazas and those who work in and visit the area, Times Square can continue to be the major economic engine it has always been, producing directly or indirectly one-tenth of all jobs in the city according to a 2012 study.”
Several of the costumed characters who throng Times Square and are the targets of proposed New York City regulation appeared at the March 30 hearing to protest the plans, which one of them compared to apartheid and fascism, according to a report on DNAInfo.
The bill is sponsored by two council members who represent the two halves of the theatre district, Councilman Corey Johnson and Councilman Dan Garodnick, and supported by The Times Square Alliance, who held a press conference and rally March 28 to support the regulations, which would set up “designated activity zones,” each of which will be “bigger than a city bus,” the Department of Transportation said. Within those zones the costumed characters and other hawkers would be able to ply their trade, leaving the rest of the plaza free for visitors and local workers to cross without being accosted.
NYPD Captain Robert O'Hare said 16 of the costumed characters have been arrested in the first three months of 2016.
However, several of the characters were on hand at the hearing, and provided colorful testimony, including hawkers dressed as enemies Batman and the Joker.
One of the arrestees, Batman, claimed he had been falsely arrested. “I understand about all these people with a lot of money in Times Square, they want to pass a bill. It doesn't work like that.”
His usual nemesis, the Joker, agreed: “I'm a liberal born and bred in this city but... this is becoming the most fascist city alive, the most prudish place. This is apartheid, what's being proposed here.”
“The NYPD, instead of focusing on the real crimes... they are harassing us,” said Spider-Man.
The Alliance said it has gathered the support of 47 other organizations whose members work in the Times Square area: Actor's Equity Association, Alicart Restaurant Group, Association for a Better New York, The Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers (ATPAM), Breaking Ground, Boston Properties, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Carolines on Broadway, Clear Channel Spectacolor, Crowne Plaza Times Square Hotel, Davis Realty, Design Trust for Public Spaces, Disney Theatrical Productions, Doubletree Times Square, Durst Organization, Hard Rock Café, Highgate Hotels, The Hotel and Motel Trades Council, Hyatt Times Square, Jamestown LP, Jujamcyn Theaters, Local 1 – IATSE, Marriott Marquis Times Square, Naked Cowboy, NASDAQ, Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, a program of the Horticultural Society, Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, Olive Garden Times Square, The Paramount Building at 1501 Broadway, Paramount Group, Project FIND, Proskauer Rose LLP, Real Estate Board of New York, Regional Plan Association, Roundabout Theater Co., Rudin Management Company, Sherwood Equities, Shubert Organization, Skadden Arps, Spectacular Cities, The Broadway Association, The Broadway League, The Lambs Club, Theater Development Fund, Times Square Advertising Coalition, Transportation Alternatives, Transportation Ventures, and Vornado.
The regulations are also backed by Robert John Burck, better known as the “Naked Cowboy,” one of the first Times Square street performers, who strums a guitar while clad only in boots, white briefs and a cowboy hat.
(Updated June 14, 2016)