Condemning the Public in the New Times Square
Almost everybody rightly celebrates Times Square’s revival as one of New York City’s greatest recent success stories … it was sleazy, blighted, and crime-ridden; today it … bustles with tourists by day and night, and world-spanning corporations such as AMC, Disney, and Viacom prosper within it.
—William Stern, former New York City police commissioner, City Journal, 1999
The scheme had all the elements of a Joe Orton black comedy: a multi-billion-dollar real estate deal that piously packaged public morality and profitable mathematics under the banner of Times Square cleanup, and an unbelievable rerun of discredited 1960’s urban renewal.
—Ada Louise Huxtable, “Times Square Renewal (Act II), a Farce,” New York Times, October 14, 1989
The name “Times Square” refers both to a location within the city and to an icon. Stretching north to Fifty-third Street, south to Fortieth Street, east to Sixth Avenue, and west to Eighth Avenue, Times Square includes roughly twenty-five blocks of the borough of Manhattan.1 Two of the most famous streets in the United States cross here: Broadway and Forty-second Street. Once known as the Great White Way, Broadway is home to American theater. Forty-second Street, once called the Dangerous Deuce, is infamous for its history as the city’s vice capital.2 Each New Year’s Eve, most North American televisions are tuned in to watch the Times Square ball drop, signaling the first party of the year.
The redevelopment of Times Square began in the mid-1970s and continues today. Over a thirty-year period, cheap restaurants, second-run movie houses, small business offices and peep shows, and low-rise buildings were replaced with theme restaurants, toy stores, television studios, and hotel towers. The transformation included a renaming of the district from “Times Square” to “the New Times Square.” Millions of tourists pass through every day to see the stories-tall neon and LCD signs and to visit megastores such as Toys-R-Us, which features a giant indoor Ferris wheel.
Both City Hall and Federal Plaza were well-defined physical locations attached to important government buildings. In each case, government officials used regulation and discourse to control the public of the space. But what about public spaces that are not bound by publicly owned buildings? What is the role of government agencies in determining appropriate uses and therefore appropriate public bodies across much larger geographies— geographies bordered by private, not public, buildings? This chapter addresses not a set of steps or a plaza, but several city blocks. Like the steps of City Hall, Times Square’s public was transformed through the use of regulation and law. Like Federal Plaza, Times Square was transformed through design. The Times Square story shows that the combination of law and design transforms public space much more powerfully than either element in isolation.
In Times Square, the letter and practice of law combined with the rhetoric and practice of design define, delineate, and reproduce imagined and actual public bodies and public spaces. Unlike at City Hall, the laws in play in Times Square did not relate to the right to speak but to the right of the state to forcibly purchase private property for projects deemed to be “in the public’s interest.” Unlike Federal Plaza, the redesign of Times Square was not limited to one plaza or even one design field. At Times Square, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, and graphic design were all employed. The questions raised by the Times Square case are complex. How do laws governing the taking of private property relate to public spaces? Do questions of access and use relate to both small-scale public spaces and across entire portions of a city? How do varied design practices generate public spaces and public bodies? How do we compare the rhetoric of law with the rhetoric of design?
Demolition and the Public’s Interest
The Times Square redevelopment process was tumultuous, complex, and controversial. It spanned the tenures of three city mayors and two state governors. In Reconstructing Times Square: Politics and Culture in Urban Development,3 Alex Reichl describes how key players—including then-mayor Ed Koch, the New York Times, and real estate corporations—manipulated key demographics to build and sway a tenuous coalition. Historic preservation4 and design were important carrots that Koch and his team waved in front of the noses of well-educated, white, middle-class constituents; constituents who, Reichl notes, might have otherwise sided with local Times Square community groups and business owners who criticized the project. After all, Koch’s plan to condemn and demolish almost three city blocks of largely minority-used shops, apartments, and restaurants and to replace them with offices for white-collar (and white-skinned) workers would have stirred dissent among many well-off, liberal New Yorkers.5
While promises of a new and improved cultural district in Times Square helped convince some New Yorkers of the benefits of redevelopment, Times Square property owners reacted to plans for the condemnation and demolition of their properties with over forty lawsuits. These lawsuits and the court decisions that followed indicated that eminent domain—the law itself and its application—legally define the public’s interest and physically transform both private and public spaces. Eminent domain law ties the material demolition and rebuilding of a neighborhood to a moral argument about the public good.
Condemnation in the Public’s Interest
Eminent domain in the United States is the power of the state to take private property for public use. Owners whose property is taken must be compensated. Inherent to the idea of eminent domain is that it is right for the state,
One would imagine that in a country in which private property has a privileged status, the conditions under which property can be taken would be clearly delineated and defined. However, this is not the case. The description of eminent domain in the New York Consolidated Laws provides more detail on rules for the just compensation of property owners than on what constitutes appropriate public interest.7 It is not that terms like public interest are broadly defined in the statute. Rather, they are almost undefined. Section 103 of the Consolidated Laws states that a public project “means any program or project for which acquisition of property may be required for a public use, benefit or purpose.” The vagueness of the statute gives the legislative branches of state and local government wide latitude in evaluating individual projects. Judges, for the most part, have refused to rule on whether a project is of sufficient public benefit to warrant the taking of private property.
In their project description, the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC)8 listed, in vague language, reasons why the use of eminent domain on Forty-second Street was in the public interest:
Whereas, The Project Area is marked by street crime, substandard and insanitary [sic] conditions, uses that inhibit the general public’s use and enjoyment of the Project Area, and physical, economic and social blight which contribute to the growth of crime and delinquency and impair the sound growth and development of the Project Area and of the City as a whole; and … Whereas, The redevelopment of the Project Area is in the best interest of the City in that it will remove blight and physical, economic and social decay and replace them with a variety of new uses which will result in commercial and economic expansion, cultural and entertainment rejuvenation and improved public services and facilities, to the betterment of the Project Area in particular and the City in general.9
It is important to note the use of the term project area. Terms like community or neighborhood are not used in eminent domain discourse. In this way, the new, the redeveloped, the expected are favored over existing relationships and social networks. Project area also implicates a project that will occur across this area, which itself implicates design.
The UDC also made an implicit distinction between the current public of Times Square and an idealized public that existed elsewhere. The UDC
One legal reason for condemnation stipulated in the Consolidated Laws on eminent domain and used in Times Square was “blight.” The UDC used the term “blight” paired with “decay” to describe the conditions present in Times Square that made redevelopment necessary. Given the UDC’s argument that the physical and material conditions present in Times Square had to be changed in order for the social and economic conditions to change, blight was a uniquely useful term. Blight can refer simultaneously to objects and to processes of a material, social, or medical nature:
Blight 1. gen. Any baleful influence of atmospheric or invisible origin, that suddenly blasts, nips, or destroys plants, affects them with disease, arrests their growth, or prevents their blossom from “setting”; a diseased state of plants of unknown or assumed atmospheric origin. 2. Specifically applied to: a. Diseases in plants caused by fungoid parasites, as mildew, rust, or smut, in corn. 3. Applied to affections of the face or skin: a. An eruption on the human skin consisting of minute reddish pimples, “a form of Lichen urticatus.” 4. transf. and fig. a. Any malignant influence of obscure or mysterious origin; anything which withers hopes or prospects, or checks prosperity. b. spec. An unsightly urban area (cf. BLIGHTED ppl. a. 1b).11
Blight is “baleful”; blight inspires fear. It can be of “atmospheric … invisible … obscure … mysterious … unknown origins.” The onset of blight happens “suddenly.” It “blasts … destroys … arrests … withers.” It “checks prosperity.” Blight is also ugly; it “prevents blossoms from setting,” consists of “minute reddish pimples,” appears “unsightly.” Blight connects “withered hopes,” “check(ed) prosperity,” and “mysterious origins.” The presence of blight indicates specific remedies. Blighted and decaying plants are treated
When applied to Times Square, the blight label was difficult to contest because the image of Times Square as dirty and dangerous is embedded in American minds. Similarly, the idea that poor people, and especially poor people of color, are bad, dangerous, and immoral and that their conditions/problems may be contagious is not something particular to a New York brand of racism. Following the logic of the blight argument, the removal of blight and the buildings and people that are part of it would allow a new, healthy, and moral public to take its place. By stating that the project area was not meeting its economic potential, the UDC indicated that this new public also needed to be wealthier. The new commercial interests would need a new/different public body to market to and sell to. This new public needed to be wealthy enough to spend $100.00 on a Broadway show or $40.00 on a new sweatshirt, rather than $5.00 on a second-run movie or $10.00 on a T-shirt. As Samuel Delany, author of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, has argued, pre-redevelopment Times Square was one of New York City’s few affordable entertainment districts. By increasing the “profitability” of the neighborhood, the UDC would put Times Square entertainment venues out of reach of many New Yorkers.
The UDC was also never able to prove that the presence of pornography businesses in Times Square caused its higher levels of crime.14 In an effort to hold on to their property, some Times Square building owners offered to upgrade facilities and to switch from pornographic to “legitimate” theater.15 These offers were refused.
In the forty-two lawsuits resulting from the UDC’s bid to use eminent domain in Times Square almost all the property owners argued that the redevelopment project was not based on suitable public interest and that the proposed project would suit private interests much more than it would create public gain. Judges repeatedly refused to discuss the public-interest question because, they stated, the legislative body had already proved that the project was in the public interest and it was up to the courts to decide if appropriate processes had been followed and if owners were justly compensated.16 As Lynne B. Sagalyn notes in Times Square Roulette, over fifty-six lawyers were involved in condemnation hearings and litigation regarding just compensation even after some property owners had accepted the state’s
Part of the challenge of writing about the development of Times Square is that it took place over an almost thirty-year period. During that time, proposals for what should be done and by whom swung from the construction of four white, monolithic towers designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee,18 to the New Times Square we see today, with its dazzling array of advertisements that wrap a stylized mix of tourist traps, offices, and entertainment venues. The designers who conceived the idea were graphic designer Tibor Kalman and architect and urban designer Robert M. Stern. The UDC brought in Kalman and Stern when it became clear that a glut in the New York City office-space market had made the Johnson and Burgee plan unfeasible. Kalman and Stern brought a new set of ideas and images to the project at a crucial time—when condemnation and demolition were well underway but new tenants and new visitors had not been courted in large-enough numbers. Articles in the New York Times and Crane’s Business Weekly described the scale of the project and the importance of developing short-and long-term strategies for exciting and reassuring potential investors:
The New York State Urban Development Corporation condemned about 34 buildings and moved out 236 tenants to pave the way for the project it abandoned last week. Over the next six months, the agency hopes to come up with a new plan to revive the area as a shopping, tourism and entertainment center.19
State and city officials are shelving major elements of the long-delayed 42nd Street Development Project and, instead, studying short-term solutions for eliminating the sex shops and attracting retail development… . Officials are considering ways to keep stores operating on the sites of the four skyscrapers planned for the eastern end of the project. In the past year, the state Urban Development Corp. has cleared two of those sites of almost all of their 230 tenants. But planners now say they will not begin construction until anchor office tenants are found, which might take years in the current economic climate. Harold Holzer, a UDC executive vice president, acknowledged that planners were now considering short-term solutions. “We’re examining a way to ensure the rejuvenation of 42nd Street no matter what the market,” he says.20
Kalman, one of the most famous designers of the late twentieth century, may be best known for his controversial ads for Benetton, and for editing Benetton’s magazine, Colors. In 1989 he cochaired an American Institute of Graphic Artists conference called “Dangerous Ideas,” at which he advocated for an end to wasteful product packaging and irresponsible messages in advertising. Because of this work, Kalman gained a reputation as an “entrepreneurial leftist” designer.21
KURT ANDERSEN: “Do you think your involvement with planning the new 42nd Street had a big effect on what turned out?” TIBOR KALMAN: “I mean, personally—I want to be very sure of how I say this … I feel totally responsible.”22
Kalman’s claims to have been “totally responsible” for the transformation of Times Square, was part humor and part truth. He was the project’s self-ascribed guru and saw this work as part of his larger professional mission:
Returning to New York in 1997 after a three year stint as full time Colors editor in Rome and a battle with cancer, Kalman has re-established a leaner M&Co. with a new mission—accepting work only from what Kalman refers to as “non-commercial” clients (including the 42nd Street renewal project, which continues apace), Kalman’s post Colors M&Co. has redefined its priorities. Gone are the “logos, brochures, motels, tomato sauce or corporate bullshit,” says Kalman. Now he takes on only work that matters to him and has found a way to make commercial art serve society, the ultimate client.23
It is interesting that Kalman considered his work in Times Square to be for society and not for corporate interests,24 particularly when his comments on the success of the project refer specifically to the kinds of tenants that chose to locate in the New Times Square:
To me, it’s amazing that Disney is now going to build two hotels on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street. It’s astounding.
And that something like Condé Nast would build in Times Square. So it’s been an incredibly fabulous experience.25
Kalman’s design work included everything from reimagining the way the New Times Square would eventually look from block to block to creating onetime art installations and ad campaigns during key moments in the redevelopment process. For example, Kalman codified new lighting requirements based on the energetic visual qualities of the old Times Square. He also set up a temporary sign outside of the police headquarters that read “EVERYBODY.”26
Kalman saw one of the most important components of his role as the creation of a new image for the New Times Square. Early drawings produced by Kalman’s office bear a strong resemblance to Times Square as it looks today.27 The drawings included a cacophony of layered flashing signs, an image that must have been welcomed by the UDC at a time when most of the lights along Forty-second Street were out because the buildings had been condemned. Kalman described a sketch his office produced depicting a portion of Forty-second Street near Seventh Avenue:
It was very much what we wanted to do. I mean, I had always had this love for vernacular, and the fundamental concept of Times Square and 42nd Street was to make 42nd Street look like it should look … with a lot of action on the street, with a real sense of democracy on the sidewalks. Once we had a vision, which is what those drawings represent, all we had to do was to translate those drawings into guidelines.28
Kalman translated the look of pre-demolition Times Square buildings and streets into guidelines for the design of new buildings on cleared parcels. He allowed the UDC to maintain the image of Times Square as a unique and diverse neighborhood while they dismantled and severed existing social networks and activities. The “skin” Kalman codified would make it appear as if the buildings behind all the signs were as detailed and complex as the signs they were covered with, when in fact the opposite was true (Figure 3.2). Through eminent domain, the UDC took smaller parcels from many owners and regrouped them to be sold to larger corporate interests. Because of Kalman, the New Times Square would “look” democratic.
But even after Kalman had come up with the new image for the New Times Square, it would be years before the image would become reality. Another design concept that could be implemented in a shorter time frame was needed to maintain the image until it was fulfilled. When the last of the old tenants finally left in 1996 and demolition was slated to begin, it was clear that expanses of Times Square would be covered with construction fences. Much of this reconstruction would happen along West Forty-second Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. However, there were still porn shops and other “blighted” businesses along portions of Eighth Avenue. Seventh Avenue was a different story. The city had successfully courted corporate tenants, including MTV and Disney, and was under pressure to make sure that the image of the New Times Square was “clean, safe and friendly.”29 Design proved key to bridging the long expanses of time opened up by the eminent-domain process and to developing the impression of transformation, even before the transformation was complete.
What happened and how it happened. New York, summer of 1997: plans were being finalized for the complete reconstruction of the entertainment district around 42nd Street, from Broadway west to Eighth Avenue. Tibor Kalman, in his role as architectural and cultural guru of the 42nd Street Development Project, suggested that since the whole area was about to be swathed in construction fences, something should be done in the spirit of Times Square to make the fences decorative, a form of entertainment in themselves. Tibor proposed that the fences be covered with poster-sized portraits of the denizens of Times Square, whomever they proved to be, as a way of giving the sidewalks back to the people who used them.30
Photographer Neil Selkirk produced 1,000 images from photos taken on a Saturday and a Tuesday in March 1998. The people who were photographed were asked for their name, where they were from, and why they had come to Times Square that day. Kalman described the people of New York as
a unique, shifting, flowing community of the world’s citizens who love New York: those who are curious and excited by cities, sidewalks, entertainment, history, architecture, democracy, shopping, sex, electricity, advertising, commercialism, and most of all, watching the antics of strangers.31
The day before the shoot, nervous that no one would want to have their picture taken, Kalman called a few publicists who encouraged their celebrity clients to show up with promises of having their faces printed on huge posters. As a result, Selkirk’s photographs include a smattering of celebrities
We set up a white backdrop in the doorway of the ruinous old Times Square Theater. In front of the backdrop we placed a simple, height-adjustable metal frame. A table was set up where the subjects would fill out the requisite permission forms, declaring name, address, and reason for being in Times Square … the first tentative passerby paused to see what was going on. They stepped up to the frame one by one and looked into the camera. Suddenly there was a line, then a crowd. The extraordinary thing about the whole event was the euphoria that surrounded it. There was a warmth in the air, a sense that everyone was being appreciated for being exactly whoever they were. We made no requests regarding anyone’s appearance, and no one was turned away; we were unwittingly creating and participating in a celebration of just being.32
Selkirk’s photos are beautiful. Each person was shot from the shoulders up, so their face fills the picture. The expressions range from silly to stoic. Most people are smiling. Looking at the slightly watery eyes and reddish cheeks of some of the faces—one can almost imagine what the weather was like the days of the shoot. The photos together show a group of people from a range of ethnicities and ages all shot against the same white backdrop. There is even a photo of a dog.
In the final images, a bright red button was added to everyone’s shirt. On the buttons is printed each person’s name, hometown, and reason for being in Times Square. Across the top of each poster the person’s first name is printed in large red letters. Roman, from Brooklyn, “was walking.” Eva, from Hillsborough, NJ, “came to see the construction.” Carlos, from the Bronx, “was on patrol for the Guardian Angels.” Lilley, from Branford, Connecticut, “was going to see Ragtime.” The posters were hung carefully on the construction fences. They were evenly spaced and the subjects’ eyes were almost at the eye level of people walking past. They appeared to be shoulder to shoulder, a sort of chorus line of faces. Amid the row in front of the soon-to-be Madame Tussaud’s wax museum was a sign the same size as the posters that read “The People of 42nd Street.”
Kalman’s work in Times Square supported and promoted larger economic and political processes. As Kalman himself wrote, “In focusing on its artistic and formal qualities, history has neglected the graphic design’s role as a medium—each artifact marks more than a place in the progression of artistic sensibility. Each also speaks eloquently of its social history. All you have to do is learn the language.”33 The “language” of Kalman’s work is contradictory. It appears inclusive and egalitarian. However, setting appropriate reasons for being in a public space is a way of justifying exclusion. If you are not in Times Square to see a show, why are you there? If you are not in Times Square to shop, why are you there? Constructing a public with appropriate desires and activities, printing their faces on huge posters and hanging them on the “walls” of a public space is a material way of marking out a social territory.
The posters were of individuals but were produced and presented as a public body. Together they formed a kind of whole, an “e pluribus unum” (of the many, we are one): a statement found on every U.S. coin. Although
The “moral” overhaul that the posters underwent becomes even more troubling in light of the new morality of the New Times Square. The Dangerous Deuce was not transformed into a family-friendly pseudo-environment. The New Times Square contains exploitative images of women and narratives that condone violence.34 New billboard ads capitalize on the “tawdry” image of the old Times Square, as even a brief sampling of advertisements shows. For example, a Buffalo Jeans advertisement photographed in 2001 bears a striking resemblance to a photograph of a blow-up doll in a pornography shop window taken in 1984 (Figure 3.5, Figure 3.6). A Puma advertisement featuring Pamela Lee also indicates that women’s bodies are still currency in Times Square (Figure 3.7).
Kalman himself was disappointed with the ads and signs in the New Times Square, but for very different reasons. In a Metropolis Magazine interview in 1998, Kalman emphasized the importance of design to the success of the New Times Square, specifically the emphasis on bright lights and lots of advertising. But, he added, “I think the street looks like hell now… . Everything is brand-new. It’s like a new pair of jeans—stiff and awkward, with everybody just trying to follow the rules. But they will break in with time. The market will create the proper cacophony by itself.”35 Kalman was right in saying that “the market” would continue to “create” Times Square, but completely wrong about the implications. Instead of “breaking in,” the New Times Square constantly renews itself with new billboards and advertising “spectaculars” (Figure 3.8). It seems outrageous that someone as corporate savvy as Kalman would imagine that companies in Times Square that spend larger and larger portions of their budgets on brand creation and maintenance would ever allow their public faces to “break in.” In fact, the diodes on the Panasonic LED screen are checked nightly to make sure that the image is perfect.
Advertising in Times Square is so costly because it reaches the millions of tourists and the odd New Yorkers who bother to look up, as well as the worldwide audiences of networks like MTV, ABC, and CBS. It’s also hard to imagine cacophonies erupting in the New Times Square, where megacorporations overlay the geography of streets. Times Square Studios, home to ABC’s Good Morning America and episodes of 20/20, is owned by Disney. Disney also owns ABC. The sports bar ESPN Zone is named after the popular cable television station also owned by Disney. Across Broadway from the Times Square Studios is the studio for MTV. Around the corner from MTV on Forty-second Street is a huge set of billboards for CBS. Both MTV and CBS are owned by Viacom, one of the major owners of Times Square outdoor advertising space. The content showed on the giant Panasonic screen is fed from CNBC, which is co-owned by NBC and Microsoft.
Kalman was wrong when he said that time and the market would bring about a looser, more vibrant social life in Times Square (or even a convincing visual image of one). The “invisible hand” of the market, as guided by the UDC, has instead spurred new rounds of condemnation, eviction, demolition, parcel consolidation, and reconstruction in New York and in other cities in the United States.36 One of the most vocal boosters of the Times Square model was former New York Governor George E. Pataki. Touting the “rebirth” of Times Square as a model for urban redevelopment, Pataki toured Forty-second Street in May 2001 with the governors of Connecticut, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. During the tour, Pataki invited the three governors to “come back with their families to enjoy the excitement that is the new New York.”37
The Times Square story, whether you view it as a triumph or a tragedy, is unquestionably one of transformation. Geographers and sociologists have written about the politics that drove the transformation.38 Architects have lamented the “Disneyfication” of the resulting image. Legal scholars have argued about the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one set of private hands to another. But the ways in which the transformation was contingent upon design practices has not been explored. At Federal Plaza, design was used to create a new physical environment that supported only a very specific set of uses tied to a particular idea of what public space and public life should be. While design in Times Square resulted in a physical transformation, design practices occurring throughout the redevelopment process proved crucial. A poster campaign is not the same as a plaza redesign. But it is a potent way of marking appropriate public bodies and promoting appropriate public activities.
Ironically, renewal projects patterned after the “success” of Times Square happened in Times Square. Just months after Pataki invited other governors to return to the area with their families, the UDC argued in court that the blocks immediately adjacent to Times Square were home to “an
The same year that Pataki toured Times Square with visiting governors and that condemnations for the new New York Times tower began, Michael Sorkin published his book Some Assembly Required. In a chapter titled “Times Square: Status Quo Vadis,” Sorkin writes, “it is terribly true that the demise of Times Square, its conversion to another version of the recursion of Vegas … must be blamed squarely not simply on the energetic advocates of sanitized fun but on our own failures to propose a better idea.”40
What designers can imagine and promote depends on what they believe “counts” as design and what they believe needs to be changed. However, even if designers proposed better ideas for Times Square, significant political and economic barriers to their implementation would remain. Therefore, how much blame can comfortably rest on the shoulders of a designer like Kalman? Conversely, should Kalman only be faulted with a “lack of imagination”? Perhaps we can only blame Kalman for being either too naive, too self-delusional, or too insincere to realize that he was doing anything but creating a Times Square–like skin for what amounts to a large-scale, state-brokered, taxpayer-funded corporate takeover of a portion of midtown Manhattan. Kalman’s work at Times Square is even harder to swallow because he set himself up as a socially minded leftist graphic designer.41 In this particular project, Kalman provided aesthetic fixes for the problems encountered by the UDC in the redevelopment process:
Got huge expanses of fence because you condemned an entire neighborhood? Not a lot of people around because most of them were chucked out of their stores, homes, and theaters? Put faces on posters.
Worried your new Times Square will look sterile and monolithic? Break up the monotony with some colorful signs.
While this chapter addresses very different parts of the redevelopment process, from the initial condemnation to the experience of being in Times Square today, understanding the limits and powers of design is central to
Even this new ruling, which limits the right of property owners to fight against eminent domain, upholds property owners’ right to financial compensation. The ruling highlights the fact that while property owners have the right to financial recourse, the rest of us—tenants, workers, patrons, passersby— have none. While building owners may take their money and go elsewhere and have rights to timely compensation, everyone else just has to go. This is not to say that the law ignores them. In Times Square, the existing public was legally defined as the problem: something to be removed. To many Times Square visitors today, it would seem that the removal has “worked.” Based on conversations with friends and family, middle-class people certainly feel safer in Times Square today. But is Times Square safer as a result of the process of redevelopment? Do middle-class white people feel safer in Times Square simply because there are more people like them there now?
It is also difficult to prove that any decrease in crime in Times Square is a result of the specific approach to development taken there: condemnation, parcel aggregation, and the creation of large corporate office spaces and franchise retail spaces. As mentioned, the city was never able to make a convincing argument that there was a correlation between crime and porn shops. Also, if we argue that Times Square is a much safer place to live, work, shop, and relax after redevelopment, have the people who used to work, shop, and relax in Times Square in the 1970s and 1980s benefited from this change? For example, is life better for the children, men, and women who were sex workers in Times Square? Odds are the answer is no. Sex workers who used to work in Times Square moved to other areas of the city. Their safety at work was not helped by the change in Times Square. Making their work safer has little to do with the physical places they work in and everything
So what should have happened in Times Square? First of all, the city should have worked with existing residents and existing building owners and nearby Hell’s Kitchen residents to come up with a set of goals for what Times Square needed to become. If the city’s and the state’s main concerns were health, morality, and safety, as they argued in the eminent-domain proceedings, they should have started by asking how they could improve the health of the people who lived and worked in Times Square. The results would, I think, have been very different, and perhaps, from an urban design standpoint, boring and invisible. Perhaps it would have included more Single Room Occupancy Housing (instead of a reduction). Perhaps it would have included safe spaces for sex workers to bring customers. Perhaps there would have been treatment centers and job training. Perhaps they would have increased the number of police in the area, or used state money to help building owners convert their buildings into office space, live-work units, schools, or hotels.
Who knows what possibilities there were and what might have come out of a redevelopment process not driven by money and political alliances. It’s not up to designers to make these kinds of decisions either. The kind of imagining that Sorkin calls for (and I think he would agree) should have happened in concert with local community boards and neighborhood organizations in Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, and Clinton.
What if Kalman had refused the job (and a famous designer like him is in a much better position to do so than most) and instead decided to offer his services to neighboring districts? What if he had challenged the city to spend as much money in Clinton as it had in Times Square, but for the benefit of existing residents, workers, and property owners? Could his skills in imagining, representing, and promoting values and ideas through design have helped support the work of community groups?
While we must imagine alternatives to the Times Square redevelopment process, as Sorkin argues we should, we must also understand the power of the legal processes of urban design. We must be prepared to challenge plans that claim to be in the public’s interest by examining these projects and their moral claims. We must recognize the power of design to promote such plans by making places that look public, that look like they reflect multiple viewpoints, but are simply creating veneers.
Our imagined alternatives must therefore be accompanied by strategies for challenging the moral and economic arguments put forth by what are often, but not exclusively, state-corporate teams. We must find the points in the process (legislative, judicial) at which specific criticisms might stop or at least stall the layers of required approvals. We must recognize the differences between impressions of democracy and democratic practices. In the absence of these discussions, landscape architects, architects, interior designers, graphic designers, public artists, and urban designers may concretize—in built form, aesthetic representations, and programmatic systems—restrictive definitions of the public and public space.