Times Square has never been a Square. Not geometrically, because as Broadway sashays across the perfect grid of Manhattan, and passes 7th Avenue, it creates a series of trapeziums. It has also never been a square in terms of its urban function.
Squares are pauses in the traversal of cities. To locals and visitors alike, squares are places to watch the city while they catch their breath a little. Like Tiananmen Square in Beijing, they may be political spaces. Or, like Trafalgar Square in London, they might be living landmarks of the city’s history. But most importantly, they are places where people celebrate and encounter other people. Squares are not traffic conduits. It is unnecessary for cars to either congregate or meet other cars. Squares are public spaces for pedestrians.
There are a number of squares in New York City. All of these, with the exception of Times Square, are parks. Even Columbus Circle, with its busy traffic turnabout, has recently become a park, complete with benches and fountains. Yet none of these squares will ever be considered representative of New York. That function has always been performed by Times Square. Because of its consumerist glitz, the world outside sees it as a synecdoche for the city itself. With the busiest subway station in New York, it is also the nerve centre of the city. A study conducted by Gehl Architects/Urban Quality Consultants in 2007 found that the Times Square area had more pedestrian users than any other public space in the city. If ever New York had to have a true Square, this is where it would be.
Many voices were raised against this move. Businesses in the area felt that it would affect their sales. Others opined that diverting traffic onto 7th Avenue would create bottlenecks. Some journalists weighed in with the notion that banning traffic was a distinctly un-New York idea. One even suggested that the experience of Times Square wouldn’t be the same without the honking of cabs. Over the following working days, the New York Times reported that traffic flowed smoothly along 7th Avenue, without any obvious bottlenecks. New Yorkers and tourists alike rushed to fill this new public space that was made available to them.
The only hitch was the kind of chairs provided at Duffy Square. The TSA had supplied lawn chairs, but promised that those would soon be replaced. Having nothing left to complain about, newspaper columns insinuated that the chairs were unsuitable, which somehow cast doubts on the whole exercise. When the chairs were replaced, the replacements were deemed unsuitable as well. The jury is still out on what exactly would be the perfect chair for Times Square.
In the meantime, Times Square has held its own. It is now a curious urban experience: a tiny oasis of calm for people to sit down and look at the chaotic drama unfolding around them. Before this, Times Square could be experienced on foot only twice annually, on New Year’s Eve and at the Thanksgiving Parade. Being able to do it every day makes the place seem festive throughout the year. Banning the cars and allowing pedestrians to take over Times Square has finally made it a square.
You can read the New York Times article mentioned above, here.