Mayor de Blasio, perhaps punchy from another recent manufactured controversy, has taken the bait of the Daily News' campaign to rid Times Square of topless painted ladies, which hits the tabloid sweet spot of claiming to defend family values while running photos of nearly nude women on the front page day after day, and he is pledging to crack down.
Asked at a press conference this afternoon what he would think if he and his family encountered a topless woman covered with bodypaint in Times Square, de Blasio said, "I think it's wrong. It's wrong. It's just—look, as a progressive who believes in civil liberties and believes in our First Amendment, I understand the legal challenge here. But I don't think that's the end of the discussion."
The mayor pledged that he would figure out a way to discourage asking for a contribution in exchange for a photo, while abiding by the First Amendment, a piece of the U.S. Constitution he called "a thorny area." The First Amendment protects free expression, but it's actually New York courts' interpretation of the equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment and New York's constitution that enshrines women's right to go topless. De Blasio also said the NYPD would ramp up enforcement of existing laws, including ones regulating business, and consider new laws to further discourage the hustle.
"This is a situation that I don't accept, and we will deal with it very aggressively," he said. "Soon."
The mayor expressed frustration with the constitutional provisions that have kept the police from cracking down purely on the basis of prudishness.
"Our current laws do make it harder to enforce in the way we might like to," he said. "There is a First Amendment protection for begging. There is a First Amendment protection for painting yourself and displaying yourself in a certain fashion. It makes no sense, but I understand that is a First Amendment protection."
As the tabloid outrage drum beats on, the Daily News' editorial board has proposed converting all of Times Square into a park. Soliciting donations is banned by park rules, and such a move would effectively rid the tourist-clogged area of the women, who call themselves desnudas, and their Muppet-and-superhero-costumed counterparts. Also in the pages of the News, neighborhood groups floated the idea of creating a specially designated area for performers.
"All of these people say they are 'just trying to earn a living'—so were the three-card monte players 20 years ago," wrote Victoria Bailey, director of the Theatre Development Fund, and Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. "So regulate the honest player just like any other enterprise, and put the hustlers and con artists out of business."
A bill crafted in response to a similar wave of summertime media histrionics last summer would require anyone wearing a costume and soliciting money in New York to first pay $175 and apply for a license. The legislation was introduced in September, but is now stalled at the committee level.
The thing is, the desnudas and Elmos are a pure expression of the shiny-but-unfettered capitalism Times Square's billboards purport to represent. If you make the area around Times Square into an M&M-Store-anchored consumerist spectacle instead of an S&M-store-anchored consumerist spectacle, people looking to make a buck will shift their tactics. But there is money to be made wherever 400,000 tourists are constantly waddling by, and these street performers show that American enterprise won't be confined by some better business association's idea of what's suitable for kids—nor will the fashion billboards, for that matter. Now that this flag-painted-breasts thing has taken off, families from Minnesota have a new kind of story to tell about being cursed out over $5 in The Big City (aggressive panhandling is already outlawed, in case there was a question about how central nipples are to this latest controversy).
Looked at another way, de Blasio has traveled to Italy. The country's mores are allegedly so ingrained in him that he eats pizza with a knife and fork. Why is he so American when it comes to fearing breasts?