The revenge of Times Square

September 10, 2015

Danny Katch, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation and lifelong New Yorker, asks why Mayor Bill de Blasio has it in for the poor Elmos.

THE NEW York City Police Department has announced a new unit to combat the latest menace to the good people of Gotham: Elmos, topless "desnudas" and the rest of the costumed crooks taking over Times Square. As Karl Marx once didn't exactly say, "History repeats itself: first as squeegee men, then as painted ladies."

Twenty years ago, the men who hustled for change by squeegee-cleaning windshields of cars stopped in traffic became public enemy number one in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's war on "quality-of-life" offenses. Giuliani's then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton introduced his now famous policy known as "Broken Windows," an elaborate metaphor about urban renewal in which people in poor neighborhoods represent busted windows that are to be replaced by fancy new ones advertising designer handbags and farm-to-table cupcakes.

Times Square was the symbolic home of Giuliani's war, and he has never tired of bragging about how he transformed an area infamous for peep shows and pickpockets into the wholesome and safe tourist trap that God had always intended. Critics sneered about the gritty setting of Midnight Cowboy being turned into Disneyland, but they had no idea that this was only the beginning.

Elmos on the march in Times Square
Elmos on the march in Times Square

Giuliani's successor, Michael Bloomberg, transformed huge swaths of the city into not Disneyland, but Potemkin Village: a pretend-town for tourists, business travelers and the mayor's beloved Russian billionaires. The new buildings in Bloomberg's New York weren't actual two-dimensional Potemkin façades, but they were mostly empty--"bank safe deposit boxes in the sky that buyers can put all their valuables in and rarely visit," as one analyst told the New York Times.

On the streets below, police stopped and frisked anyone who hampered the quality of life of rich people threatened by the idea of Blacks and Latinos not being stopped and frisked--making Bloomberg feel confident that he could remake Times Square as a pedestrian plaza where tourist dollars would be safe.

Ever since Bloomberg was replaced by Bill de Blasio and his populist rhetoric, there has been much wringing of elite hands about whether the city will go backward in its vigilance against the majority of its inhabitants. Every gang shooting--every doorman who doesn't smile--is ominous. It's in this climate that the tabloids are panicking about Latino immigrants infiltrating the Disney-fied Times Square--Ground Zero of the heroic Giuliani reconquista--ingeniously disguised as...Disney characters!

Like most liberals in office these days, de Blasio wants to have his police state and eat it too--criticizing over-policing even while he hires 1,300 more cops and brings back Giuliani's chief Bratton. The mayor champions the city's hardworking majority, but is cracking down on the immigrant workers who sweated out a living this summer performing in Times Square.

THERE'S NOTHING criminal about soliciting money while wearing a costume, but even if a few crossed some line, there should be no city in the world more tolerant of bending the law in pursuit of money. Our skyscrapers are filled with banks that cheated the global economy into deep recession. Our retail stores routinely rob employees of minimum wages and overtime. Even our baseball teams feature disgraced steroid cheats and Ponzi-scheming owners.

That's actually part of the problem. In a city where everything is for sale and real estate is expensive, street hustlers with nothing to lose and no rent to pay are dangerous competition. Trying to gouge tourists in Times Square? That turf belongs to the theater and restaurant industries, buster.

But the cartoon characters and desnudas also pose a deeper psychological threat for some. Like the crews of incredible subway dancers who face constant police harassment, the Times Square street performers promote the idea that every block of this city still belongs to all of us--a dangerous message that Giuliani and Bloomberg worked so hard to overcome.

I'm not nostalgic about street crime and seediness, but there's a lot about the old city we seem to forget. Public schools were less segregated, Blacks and Latinos made major inroads into good careers like teaching and transit, and the city university was free or close to it.

The working-class majority simply had more power: Unions could shut the trains down and leave trash piled up on the street; welfare payments were sufficient for people to be able to turn down jobs that don't let them schedule their child care more than a week in advance. Oh, and one more thing: In 1980, the top 1 Percent took home "only" 12 percent of the city's total income--compared to almost 40 percent today.

On the same day that the NYPD announced its new Times Square unit, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness released its finding that one in 13 New York City school children is homeless. That's a total of 87,000 homeless kids--something that would have been inconceivable in the "bad old days."

It's in this climate of heavily policed inequality that the Times Square street performers have stumbled into a political minefield. They may just be trying to follow the American Dream, but they are doing so in the very place that has come to represent the very different dream of a very different America: that the dark, poor, urban masses can be permanently pacified by low-wage work and high-intensity policing.

The desnudas and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles coming to 42nd Street to grab some of those tourist dollars show that this is an impossible fantasy, as have the protests in recent years by Occupy Wall Street, fast-food workers and Black Lives Matter--all of whom have made a point of marching on and taking over Times Square.

This latest Times Square controversy took place during the 50th anniversary of the historic 1965 Watts riots, and it's worth asking just how much different much of New York City looks today than the smoldering Los Angeles streets where Martin Luther King decried the "economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing and general despair" that "are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence.''

Those who are up in arms about costumed con artists in Times Square might want to pause and consider the words that James Baldwin didn't exactly write on the eve of the 1960s urban explosions: "No more Elmos, the fire next time."

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