Inside a meeting room at the Marriott Marquis today, elected officials gathered with representatives from Times Square businesses and as well as residents in the area to discuss quality of life issues. At the top of the list: Those costumed characters who roam Times Square to pose with tourists... or become embarrassing tabloid fodder.
Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance, the neighborhood's business improvement group, opened the meeting with a few anecdotal statistics: When Alliance staffers walked eight blocks, they were solicited 55 times—some of them perfectly fine, but that number still drew surprise. And a third of Times Square Alliance constituents felt less safe with the costume characters, some of whom have been accused of harming children and parents alike.
One idea is to regulate them, which has been talked about for at least a year. City Councilman Andy King is proposing a bill that would offer a licensing system; he told the Wall Street Journal, "I am particularly concerned adults are dressing up in kids character costumes and pretty much harassing or even begging for money to take a picture." Some characters will keep holding the child until the parents pays up.
At the meeting, Tompkins said a 16-year-old tourist from Connecticut wrote to the Times Square Alliance, to say that costumed characters intimidated her and her friend (also 16) into giving them money, even suggesting the girls go to an ATM. Other people have complained to the Alliance about being touched inappropriately. Tompkins emphasized that Times Square is a still a place for the First Amendment to thrive, calling it a "town square" but "Quirky is fine...creepy is not."
There are bigger issues: Panhandling is Constitutionally protected, so Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer warned that any regulation would have be looked over carefully. But she added, "I want the costumed characters to go away" (she's okay with The Naked Cowboy, though). According to the Journal, one of the costume characters even said he would be in favor of regulation, if it can help get rid of the bad eggs.
City Councilman Corey Johnson supports regulation as well, and pointed out that panhandling is one thing, but a person wearing a mask or costume as another character seems like a totally different issue. Johnson admitted he wasn't a lawyer or Constitutional expert and said he wanted change to occur in a "respectful and Constitutional way" because Times Square is "our face to the world."
The Broadway League's executive director Charlotte St. Martin claimed that many New York-based theatergoers are seeing fewer Broadway shows because they don't feel as safe. The Marriott Marquis' general Scott Nadeau said some of his guests have complained about threatening costumed characters.
One area resident of 20 years who would only give his first name, Gary, suggested that there be designated areas for the costumed characters. He added it's not very clear to tourists that they should tip, pointing out that some visitors to Times Square will take dozens of photos with numerous characters and will give one dollar total. "Tourists," he said, "are... you know...."
It's true: The interaction between the characters and tourists is an awkward dance. The characters beckon tourists for a photograph. The tourists take pictures. Then the characters ask for money. In one exchange we saw, a Minnie Mouse and Puss in Boots insisted that two women pay them by pointing to a tag and a bag that said "TIPS"... and it wasn't enough that only Minnie was paid. Then Minnie came for us:
The general manager of the new Hyatt in Times Square, Richard Morgan, discussed a few of his quality of life issues (when 45th Street is closed down for street fairs, the hotel has to change its entrance strategy) and declared, "Tim, there's going to be a new Spider-Man in Times Square... Because the old one is still picking up his teeth after trying to take my two-year-old niece out of my wife's arms the other day."