Dear Jake,

My tween niece is planning a trip to NYC for NYE and is BEGGING me to take her to Times Square for the Ball Drop. I've tried to explain to her all the reasons this is a bad idea, but her and her mother insist I must escort them into the heart of darkness. What do I do???


Uncle Hates Fun

Dear UHF,

Times Square on New Year's Eve combines so many enjoyable things — the thrill of being penned in like livestock for seven or eight hours, the challenge of not peeing on yourself, the fumes wafting out of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, all set against the dulcet tones of Mariah Carey lip-syncing her Christmas Album. How could you take a pass on something like that?

Like all Natives, I've long despised Midtown, and these feelings are based on many terrible experiences there, including multiple New Year's Eves spent in the belly of the beast. Back in the late-90s, before the War on Terror, you could still roll in 35 minutes before the ball drop, if you knew which exits from the 42nd Street Station had the fewest NYPD cops standing outside. I was barely 18 and so of course I was rolling fully loaded with a fifth of the only alcohol I could afford: Southern Comfort, from the one sketch liquor store in the South Slope that sold to minors. After about a half hour of shivering, I'd consumed most of it, and at a solid 120lbs, I straight up passed out and face-planted in the middle of 7th Avenue. None of my friends noticed, and I didn't come to until the ball had come down and the crowd had started to move, at which point I had the unique perspective of watching the festivities as dozens of feet stepped on my face.

After that I avoided the neighborhood like the plague, except during those unlucky years when various jobs forced me to work there. For one 18 month stretch I was pushing paper at the IBM Building on Madison and 57th, and feeling pretty depressed about the life choices that brought me to that point. To cheer myself up I used to go take walks in Central Park during lunch, and sometimes I'd find myself over by the Zoo, where even the animals seem unhappy about having to be in Midtown. I got lucky after that, and found work mostly downtown or in Brooklyn, but a few years ago, an improbable series of events led us to move the Gothamist office to 53rd and 7th, and the next 8 months or so were so miserable that it likely soured me on the neighborhood for the rest of my life.

Things at the office were going south pretty quick that year, so once again I found myself taking long walks at lunch. I was struck by the sad state of street life in that part of Midtown — desperate vendors trying to con tourists into overpriced tour bus rides, finance guys literally stepping over the homeless outside the 53rd Street B train station, the few sickly trees dying from the delivery truck exhaust. One particularly miserable day, choking down my roast beef sandwich from one of the three Prets on the block, I actually saw them loading Robert Indiana's Hope sculpture into the back of a truck and driving it away. That seemed like a metaphor. A few weeks later the company's new owner shut us down.

I didn't spend much time there again until a couple weeks ago, when Jen Carlson asked me to get some photos for her Midtownaissance project, and I spent the day knocking off a punch-list of locations, from Grand Central to MoMA to Bryant Park to Penn Station to Billymark's West on 29th and 9th. In between I had plenty of time to contemplate my relationship with the neighborhood, and I came to the conclusion that while it was still awful, I'd misjudged the cause of its awfulness. It wasn't the crowds, lack of light and trees, general filth, or the tourists — that was all a symptom of the root disease, which is that Midtown is currently organized around a traffic scheme which prioritizes cars and trucks above people.

Crowds? That's because three-quarters of the quite wide avenues and streets are reserves for environment-destroying vehicles mainly used by the wealthy, while the common man is forced onto narrow sidewalks. No trees? That's because there's no room for them because of the crowds. Filth? Well, you try running a street-cleaner down one of those streets when they're occupied by 50 gridlocked cars. Even the tourists would be more bearable if they weren't so penned in. Think about it: what really annoys you about them is how they stop to look around at their phone maps or to admire the store windows, right in the middle of the sidewalk while you're trying to get through. If the sidewalk was twice as wide, you probably wouldn't notice them at all.

That would leave you more time to consider the good parts of Midtown that generally get drowned out by the chaos. The museums, all the holiday store windows, the Broadway shows, ice-skating rinks, a million bars from the old Irish places that are still hanging on, to the swanky cocktail bars like The Campbell. Hell, even Rockefeller Plaza has some stuff to recommend inside — the Lego Store has a great mini-model of the neighborhood, and the concourse underground has a surprisingly wide variety of affordable lunch places. The other week I found myself on the Empire State Building observation deck at dawn, looking northwest as the sunrise reflected off all the skyscrapers in the neighborhood. And you know what? Above all the bullshit it was beautiful.

Midtown would be nice all the time if we got rid of most of the traffic. The right move would be to ban all private cars from the neighborhood, with very few exceptions for the elderly, handicapped, and others who could show an actual need for piloting a five thousand pound hunk of metal into the busiest part of the city. Cabs and buses would still be let through, in designated lanes which would be mostly free from traffic. The rest of the space, probably 50% or more on most blocks, we'd give back to people, to walk, bike, or just hang around in new pedestrian plazas, complete with actual trees. We know this would work: think how much nicer Times Square is since we choked back some of the traffic there during the Bloomberg administration.

We'll get a taste of this utopia soon: today Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "a major temporary expansion of pedestrian space on the streets around Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall." Starting on Black Friday, partial closures of 49th and 50th Streets, 5th and 6th Avenues will give tourists more room to walk, and is such a manifestly obvious and necessary first step towards solving some of the neighborhood's problems that the only people who could possibly oppose it are die-hard car lovers and anti-pedestrian dead-enders.

A map we saw at the NYPL from the 1970s proposes a pedestrian mall on Madison Avenue

Anyway, I probably still won't be spending much time in Midtown — this might sound crazy, but whenever I'm walking around there I have this major anxiety that a nuclear bomb might just go off at any time, and it doesn't really abate until I'm a few stops away on the train, headed towards Brooklyn. But the neighborhood does have its selling points, and for the rest of you, a few of these small changes could actually make it a decent place to hang out. Until then, try to avoid it unless you're forced to go there by visiting relatives. Do it for them, while meditating on the fact that to truly love New York, you need to love every part of it, even those spots like Times Square on New Years Eve that are manifestly insane and inhumane. Maybe that will help you pass the time waiting for the ball to drop — but I'd pack a pair of Depends just in case.

In solidarity,


N.B. if you want to see the whole neighborhood at once, the Empire State Building is a good option, especially given the recent renovation, but the better choice is still Top of the Rock, where you can photograph the Empire State Building against the south Manhattan skyscrapers, and also get a close up view of the new Billionaires Row monstrosities against the backdrop of Central Park.