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New York Post

 

The Threat To New York City's Public Spaces

July 28, 2014

By Nicole Gelinas

Can New York keep its public spaces pleasant? To see the importance of policing “nuisance” crime, consider three key areas in Manhattan — Times Square, Bryant Park and the Columbus Circle fountain.

When then-Mayor Ed Koch wanted to turn part of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza in 1982, theater mogul Gerald Schoenfeld warned it would “become a place for vendors or three-card monte operators.”

Twenty-five years later, Mayor Bloomberg did it — and Schoenfeld’s prediction has come true.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton joked to a Broadway Association lunch this month that “there is no longer a Broadway. It is…a trailway.”

Cookie Monster, Elmo and other characters soliciting, er, donations are the “unintended consequences of a well-intended act,” Bratton said.

That doesn’t mean Bloomberg was wrong. By the mid-2000s, annual visitors to New York were up by 17.4 million over the 1990 level; tourism’s up another 10 million since.

And almost everyone who comes to town stops by Times Square. With other added foot traffic from workers from new office towers and commuters from new apartments to the east, tearing out the pedestrian plazas would be untenable.

But so is the disorder that now plagues the square.

Consider what happened last Thursday night around 6:45.

In town from Denver, Troy, 50, and his daughter Sarah, 20, were walking on the sidewalk (not the plaza) at 47th and 7th when someone giving out “free” CDs crammed one into Sarah’s hand. As the tourists walked away, the man and his companion asked for a “donation.” Troy took out his wallet to give him $2. “He looked in my wallet,” Troy said. “He said, ‘You can afford to give me more.’”

So Troy handed over more.

Asked if he felt pressured, Troy laughed “yes.”

George Kelling pioneered the theory of “Broken Windows” policing — of combating “nuisance” crime to prevent worse offenses — and now advises the NYPD.

He warns that “just like squeegee-ing” in the ’90s, “there’s implicit extortion and intimidation” in the Times Square hucksters.

Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance sees it “again and again and again.” A “naďve or vulnerable” mother with a child, or a group of young women, will start off “amused and engaged,” he says. Then they face a demand for money — and find themselves surrounded by more characters.

“Cumulatively, these smaller acts of aggression and boundary-crossing” are harmful, he warns.

What to do? The topless painted ladies, pamphleteers, hawkers and CD “donors” have their legal rights; the cops can’t just haul them off. Lawmakers are trying to figure it out.

But no serious person is saying we shouldn’t do anything — proving that maintaining control of an urban space still matters.

That’s not true just of policing. Part of Broken Windows is showing that law-abiding people care about the physical space, too.

Bryant Park, another dense public space, succeeds in part because it’s so perfectly kept that it sends people cues as to how to behave. “Attention to detail” is critical, says Dan Biederman, head of the private group that runs the park. “We can’t have litter, we can’t have graffiti.”

Times Square is not Bryant Park. People come to Times Square to see crazy stuff.

Still, the concept holds. The part of Times Square that works better — if not perfectly — right now is the completed pedestrian plaza.

Every table that the city has put out is occupied by people doing what they’re supposed to do: eat, rest, people-watch. The big red “sitcase” by the TKTS booth is also a successful “place.”

But the rest of the square is a mess. “One of the disconcerting features at the moment is there’s so much construction” to build the rest of the plazas, Bratton said.

Barriers are random. Walking directions are unclear. Traffic agents are overwhelmed, not in control. Sidewalks are covered in gum, and paint everywhere is chipped. Buildings are covered in scaffolding. Hot-dog trucks block walkers, as do tour-bus on some sidestreets.

Can’t the city find assertive ambassadors to direct traffic? Having a person in authority cheerfully telling people to move along when a light changes until they get to a place where they can hang out would reduce frustration.

Temporary construction at a much more modest public space, too, reminds us that broken-windows theory matters.

These last few years, the small Columbus Circle park has become a great place for New Yorkers (not tourists). But now, the fountain is off (being renovated), meaning fewer people sitting on the benches. Skateboarders moved in, using the little park as a skate course.

The boarders have taken over most evenings, making it miserable to even scurry through.

Skateboarding in the park is illegal. Yet nobody kicks them out — and residents have given up asking.

When you can’t sit in your neighborhood space without being scared that an illegal skateboarder is going to land on you, that’s disorder.

It’s startling how quickly a nice place can become a menacing one, because the surroundings have deteriorated and lawbreakers have taken over.

Original Source: http://nypost.com/2014/07/27/the-threat-to-new-york-citys-public-spaces/

 

 
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