Times Square Costumed Characters Plead Their Case at Hearing

News   Times Square Costumed Characters Plead Their Case at Hearing
Batman and the Joker finally agree on something.
Various cartoon figures wrangle passersby for photos
Various cartoon figures wrangle passersby for photos

Several of the costumed characters who throng Times Square and are the targets of proposed New York City regulation, appeared at a City Council hearing March 30 to protest the plans, which one of them compared to apartheid and fascism, according to a report on DNAInfo.

The New York City Council recently introduced legislation to give the NYC Department of Transportation the authority to manage and regulate pedestrian plazas throughout New York City. The bill, officially designated as Intro 1109, could regulate—but not ban—costumed characters, hawkers and ticket hustlers in Times Square and other public plazas in the city. A vote is scheduled for April 7.

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 earlier this week 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.

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.

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.

Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has noted the issue with the Times Square characters and made it the subject of a spoof this week:

A rally on the steps of City Hall before the hearing followed a March 28 press conference in Times Square on the same topic. Among speakers at the press conference were Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins, City Councilman Dan Garodnick and a selection of New Yorkers and Times Square-area employees who have experienced “the negative impacts of aggressive solicitation.”

Tompkins described the proposed bill in detail, saying that it would not ban the costumed figures, but would set up a section of the Times Square pedestrian plaza where they could ply their trade among visitors who chose to interact with them. The rest of Times Square would be left open for visitors to wander unmolested.

The legislation would apply to all public plazas throughout New York City.

In a survey cited by the Alliance, 61 percent of Times Square employees reported experiencing a negative encounter with costumed characters or commercial solicitors, with 51 percent of those respondents saying that interaction made them feel unsafe.

Tompkins introduced several speakers who supported the legislation, including Maria Somma of Actors Equity Association, and Robert John Burck, a.k.a. The Naked Cowboy. Burck said that while he would miss being able to wander anywhere in Times Square, he said the proposed rules would benefit all street performers who respect the public and obey the rules.

The press conference was picketed by members Transit Workers Union 225, which represents hawkers who sell tickets to tourists for tour bus rides. The workers told Playbill.com that said the law would cost them jobs, something Tompkins disputed.

The Alliance released tweets it had received with anecdotes about harassment by the costumed characters (none of whom were in evidence during the press conference). A typical sample: Estefania Ayala tweeted, "Times Square is only a fun experience if you enjoy being groped by grown men in knockoff Disney character costumes."

New York Magazine reported that the pace of arrests has been picking up in recent months, which may have prompted the City Council hearing.

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