Mayor de Blasio today announced a new multiagency task force that will address the "growing problem" of "topless individuals" and costumed characters in Times Square, and told reporters that he's considering the "option" of bulldozing Time Square's pedestrian plazas as a way of addressing the alleged problem.
"I believe, fundamentally, in addressing quality-of-life issues at their root," he said.
Co-chaired by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, the task force will "study the legal and oversight issues associated with regulating topless individuals and costumed characters." However, announcing the topic in Queens today, the Mayor was sure to lead with the ladies. "I am unhappy with what's happening in Times Square in relation to the painted women," he said. "I don't like it, and I'm going to do something about it."
Because both female toplessness and panhandling are protected under New York law, that "something," will likely manifest as new regulations aimed directly at these Times Square performers. "Right now, the laws in place don't give us all the enforcement capacity we deserve," de Blasio said. "What's happening with those individuals needs to be regulated like a business, but we need to identify the appropriate regulations."
"The media has done a good job of documenting that this is not simply a matter of individuals expressing themselves," de Blasio said, adding that he believes that the women, who call themselves desnudas, are an organized group working together for profit.
One of these women, who spoke with us earlier under the alias Kara James, denies that the desnudas are part of any large-scale operation. "The majority of us work for ourselves," James told us yesterday. "One of the girls works with her husband. The rest of the girls work for ourselves and we hire people, usually our family and friends, to look after us, paint us, look after our belongings, that kind of thing."
The mayor went on to propose a drastic change floated by Bratton earlier today. "I'd prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was," the Commissioner said on 1010Wins, of Times Square's pedestrian plazas. "The [panhandling] activity is not occurring anywhere else in the area."
"Commisssioner Bratton and I have talked about that option," the mayor said. "We’re going to look at what the pros and cons could be. You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems."
The pedestrian plazas, widely enjoyed by tourists and praised by "complete streets" advocates as a dramatic safety improvement (according to the DOT, they've helped cut pedestrian injuries in Times Square by 35%), were introduced by the Bloomberg administration in 2009. They quickly drove some NY Post columnists mad. While running for mayor, de Blasio initially praised the pedestrian plazas in Times Square and Herald Square, then changed course, saying he had "mixed feelings" about them. "I'm a motorist myself, and I was often frustrated, and then I've also seen on the other hand that it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry," de Blasio said in 2013.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito immediately rejected the notion of nixing the pedestrian plazas—a spokesperson for her office said, "The City Council is considering its legislative options, but the Speaker believes in and supports keeping pedestrian plazas." Councilmember Dan Garodnick concurred.
Transportation Alternatives Director Paul Steely White stated this afternoon, "Back when Times Square was devoted primarily to cars, people walking through the area had to step into traffic to escape the narrow and overcrowded sidewalks. Why would we go back to those dangerous times?"
— Second Ave. Sagas (@2AvSagas) August 20, 2015
it is antithetical to #visionzero to suggest cars and trucks be reintroduced to the most pedestrian rich intersection in North America
— Paul Steely White (@PSteely) August 20, 2015
"Our lawyers believe squarely that constitutional rights demand that we address this situation in a legal manner. There are real First Amendment issues here," de Blasio said this afternoon. Later, however, the mayor hedged slightly, conceding that the act of tip solicitation while topless has a First Amendment "element."
While de Blasio admitted that new legislation could take several months to go into effect, he assured reporters that "there will be plenty of arrests" (indeed, they've already begun), and that the NYPD presence will be "felt deeply" in Times Square, effective immediately.
Pressed on whether the "quality-of-life issue" he perceives in Times Square is rooted in women being topless or women being aggressive for tips, de Blasio said that the aggressiveness he perceives is the "core problem." However, he added that, "As a human being and a parent, I don't think it's appropriate for women to display themselves this way."
James, the desnuda we spoke with, was dismissive of the task force. "If they feel like they need to waste the government's time, fine, do it," she said. "I think de Blasio thinks we’re criminals, like we’re afraid of him or something like that. We're not criminals. We're not doing anything wrong. So why would we be afraid?"
"Obviously if we keep getting harassed out there, we’re not going to want to do this anymore," she admitted. "They'll win that way. It's just completely unfair."
The topless task force is scheduled to report back on its initial findings by October 1st. Around that time, the change of seasons will likely begin to have an effect on Times Square's topless "problem."