Times Square: crossroads of the world and battleground for different visions of public space.

Colin W.

Times Square: crossroads of the world and battleground for different visions of public space.

Back in the 1950’s when local activist Jane Jacobs’ David took on Robert Moses’ Goliath in a historic fight over city planning, questions rose over how the world’s most famous city should be designed. Moses, the powerful and autocratic city planner, upended entire communities to build highways and other public works. Jacobs, the feisty critic from the Lower East Side, wrote the influential book The Death and Life of American Cities and became a liberal icon.

Four decades later, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton, his police commissioner, went to war against ‘disorder’ and low level ‘quality of life’ offenses in the city. Squeegee men became public enemy number one. All sorts of New Yorkers, from the homeless to street artists, also became targets. Influenced by the desires of business leaders who wanted Times Square cleansed of graffiti and ‘vagrants’, the policing of non-violent behaviors and offenses eventually became the bedrock of the NYPD’s strategy across the city. The era of Broken Windows policing was born.

While Broken Windows is often cited as a conservative contribution, championed by the likes of Giuliani and the right-wing Manhattan Institute, its co-founder, George Kelling, has pointed to Jacobs’ writings as an early influence for the 1982 article that started it all. Did Jacobs’ desires for neighborhood mechanisms of surveillance and order really mirror Kelling’s conservative penchant for disorder-fighting?

No Backspace is City Limits' new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more.

No Backspace is City Limits’ new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics. Click here to read more.

Bernard Harcourt, perhaps the most well-known academic critic of Broken Windows, doesn’t think so. “It’s exactly the inverse,” he says. “Jacobs argued that street life, real urban street life with all its warts and defects, but vibrant for that reason, makes city life thrive and secure. It’s the vibrant urban setting — the kind of space that Broken Windows Theory reflexively treats as disorderly — that makes for a safe and enriching experience: when people are hanging out at street corners or on the stoops, peddling their wares, engaging each other. Broken Windows Theory sanitizes and purges the urban space of its vitality, replacing the bustling city life with police patrol and misdemeanor arrests. I can hardly think of two conceptions of urban life that are farther apart.”

But while the policing of the public space has consistently targeted along racial and class lines, there is also the question of how neighborhoods change and who is left on those street corners. In a recent article for Salon, Peter Moskowitz touches on consequences, unforeseen or not, of the Jacobs vision of urban neighborhoods:

“Seemingly every Jacobsian paradise, from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco to the newly revitalized parts of Detroit and New Orleans, is mostly white and well-off. Governments (no doubt swayed by the urban planners whose graduate programs hew to Jacobs’ philosophies) spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow.”

In this regard both conservative law and order and liberal-minded urban planning leave poor communities of color in the crosshairs. Deemed disorderly and unlawful, poor people of color become the primary recipients of enforcement. At the same time, urban planners, most of whom are white, design a city that becomes increasingly attractive to the white and well off. The pressures of displacement begin. Neighborhoods gentrify, leading to a change not only in rents and costs of living, but of standards and neighborhood norms. The loud block party once perfectly normal in Puerto Rican Bushwick becomes a quality life issue for a gentrified Bushwick, where white neighbors may now call 911.

Public spaces, a theoretically shared space, become battlefields.

The contributions of Jacobs have laid the foundation for an urban planning movement that has hardly stopped to ask people of color what they want. The lure of an up and coming neighborhood draws in white gentrifiers. But the question of what makes a good neighborhood has different answers for different peoples and cultures. A bustling Harlem street with unlicensed vendors selling movies and Malcolm X posters is a vastly different Harlem than one with artisanal ice cream shops and a Whole Foods Market.

While there’s much complexity and history to unpack, a few recurring battles public space are worth noting.


Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a modern day Robert Moses in his own right, began the city’s embrace of a biking culture modeled after European cities. Despite widespread opposition early on, Bloomberg hammered through an age of bike lanes, disappearing traffic lanes and a bike-sharing program named after a giant financial institution. Strategically positioned public plazas with café-styled decor stunted vehicular traffic in the name of pedestrians. His crusade for bicycles continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who began the Vision Zero traffic safety initiative.

Originally rolled out in Sweden, Vision Zero’s New York City iteration made zero traffic-related deaths the goal. Kelling and Bratton, the duo who implemented Broken Windows twenty years prior, were invited speakers at a forum on transportation safety hosted by Transportation Alternatives in 2013. They were joined by another speaker from the Manhattan Institute.

Kelling compared Vision Zero to Broken Windows crackdowns on fare-beaters, recalling a recent news story that cocaine had been discovered during a traffic stop. “I like it when police are having contact with citizens,” he gushed. Bratton, who would be tabbed to return to the seat of NYPD commissioner less than a month later, promised the bike lobby more attention to safety on the streets. “Similar to what occurred in the 90s on crime, more can be done to deal with this issue,” he said.

I know of no research that shows police enforcement of traffic laws reduces traffic fatalities. And of course there has never been conclusive research that ever proved the premise of the Broken Windows theory, that enforcement of low-level disorder reduces serious crime. Still, the outsized influence of bicycling advocates is worth noting. That, to me, has something to do with biking being largely, though not exclusively, a white fascination. The ramifications for the NYPD’s favored and most likely targets of enforcement–people of color–were hardly considered, if at all.

In short, the public space we call city streets become an expanded arena for policing and a prize for white biking advocates. During a community hearing in Brooklyn last month where a diverse crowd of people generally disapproved of plans for new bike lane, one black pastor questioned how the city could prioritize bike lanes when people couldn’t even afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.


A controversial police tower was set up in Jacobs’ Lower East Side neighborhood last year. The city had responded to stories written by the New York Post and an Observer editorial about the condition of Tompkins Square Park (site of a historic protest and clash with police in 1988 over the issue of public space and gentrification). “Going to the park? Don’t trip on a bum”, read a headline from the always classy Post. The Observer editorial featured doomsday-esque hand-wringing over homeless sightings that signaled a return to “the bad old days.” It’s no small coincidence that the Observer‘s publisher (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law), Jared Kushner, has extensive real estate holdings in the neighborhood.

Tabloid-led efforts like these pushed the de Blasio administration to move aggressively on the issue. For years the city had often relied on police to deal with the homeless population–the calling card of Giulianism. When Pope Francis paid East Harlem a visit last year, the police again swept out homeless people. An assortment harassment techniques, like awaking a sleeping homeless person, instructing them to ‘move along’ or confiscating (and disposing of) their possessions may not show up in the stat book but produces a chilling sweeping effect. The legality of such methods has been challenged by groups like Picture The Homeless.

The coercion of people out of a public space? That may not sound very progressive but it continues to happening under Mayor de Blasio.

Times Square

The crossroads of the world. The ultimate public space in the world’s most famous city.  And, lest we forget, the most prized real estate on the planet.

Times Square has long been at the center of debates over the city’s heartbeat and character. In the 70’s and 80’s when the area saw more grit than glamour, calls for order from the city’s elite bellowed down Broadway. Private-sector leaders like Gerald Schoenfeld, chair of the Shubert Organization, a historic theatre company that still owns 17 Broadway theaters today, began clamoring to fight ‘disorder’ long before the Broken Windows theory. George Kelling would cite him as an early influence.

The ideas spread across the city, including nearby Bryant Park, which for years now has been privately managed. Another concept that germinated from Times Square was the business improvement district (BID), a public-private partnership that saw business owners take on roles traditionally reserved for the public sector. The Times Square Business Improvement District, perhaps the world’s first BID, is now known as the Times Square Alliance. BIDs today are often the primary source of complaints about ‘disorderly’ conditions that might affect a nurturing business climate.

Perhaps predictably, today’s TSA, with the help of local tabloids, has very publicly sounded the alarm over a new concern: performers and vendors. What began with hysterical front page stories about allegedly violent Spidermans went on to include Victorian dismay at topless, painted women known as “Desnudas”. The city council passed bills this past April confining performers and even ticket sellers to designated “zones” in Times Square.

Performers, many of whom are immigrants, were rightly upset, pointing out that this would effectively undermine their livelihood. During a raucous hearing earlier this year, one performer called city officials “fake liberals” and claimed the city was “the most fascist, prudish city alive!” The legislation would govern public plazas throughout the city, not just Times Square. But at least one performer at the council hearing, a Cuban immigrant dressed as Batman, pledged to be the first one arrested for refusing to enter one of the designated zones.

Of all the battlefields, Times Square may be the most important in its platform and what sort of expectations for public spaces become normalized.

In City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s longtime quarterly magazine, John Tierney wrote passionately about what Times Square should and should not be. Tierney, a libertarian commentator and columnist for the New York Times, had once advocated the area be transformed into a “pedestrian paradise” that, carless, would be “like the ones at the hearts of European capitals.” But Tierney’s longing for a euro-paradise had not yet been completely fulfilled, he argued. The very libertarian argument that “city bureaucrats are usually the wrong ones for the job” of managing public space translated into a predictable prescription: privatization. More private sector involvement where “a city relinquishes responsibilities to a private group unfettered by municipal bureaucracy and union contracts,” Tierney demanded.

Tierney’s ideas, along with the aggressive policing strategies started under Giuliani (and continued under de Blasio), pull the city towards a privatized, beautified New York that’s lost its soul. The pleasing aesthetics of Bloomberg’s pedestrian plazas and the Jacobs vision for neighborhoods offer a model too narrow for a city too diverse to embrace euro-centric standards or white-led urban planning.

While Jacobs was right to fight the excesses of Moses 60 years ago, who will challenge the unelected power of business interests and the private sector today? It used to be that we imagined government was a check on that power. The screeching hysteria of newspapers, and the willingness of elected officials to defer to them, not only reinforce criminalization but also show who’s really in charge.

All of this spells out a terrible scenario for many poor and working class New Yorkers who have little say in how public space in the city will look for them or their children. Will getting out the vote or attending community hearings change this dynamic? Unlikely. Protests that remind us there can be no planning without justice may lead to new doors. But perhaps the simple reminder that New York’s edge and its innate “disorder” is what made it New York could go a long way. A homogenized, privatized and gentrified city that places people in zones is no city at all.