If you visit Times Square on a daily basis, you may realize that most of the time, Times Square is not where it is supposed to be. In other words, it is a common situation to be in Times Square and yet to not see Times Square. Sometimes, you must take Times Square with you to Times Square and let it go, setting it free. Of course, it is a possibility that this situation could happen to you the first time you go there but once visiting Times Square becomes part of your daily routine it becomes inevitable.
This morning I saw a bunch of people scamming a family. Is that Times Square? Well, I guess it depends. If, later today or in a couple of weeks, you were to ask someone from that family either what Times Square is or how what it was like to be in Times Square, they might relate their experience and then a version of Times Square, as a place where people are scammed, will be externalized, and circulate. Of course, it will depend on the capacity and resources that version has for making connections and maintain its relevance.
Whilst this is pure speculation, I am sure that family is not the first group of people to be scammed in Times Square and that their version, or a similar one, is already online, waiting to be actualized. A quick search on Google proves that I am right. There are more than 800.000 results and this only refers to videos related to being scammed in Times Square. Here are some of their titles: “New York worst’s tourist trap: Times Square, Scams, Frauds, and more”; “NYC Travel Guide, worst three scams of Times Square”; “Crazy!!! Scams in NYC Times Square | Fake Disney Characters 2016.”
Visiting Times Square daily implies watching the same scenes happening again and again. The characters and settings may vary but the constant repetition creates the effect of compressing everything together producing the sensation that one is seeing the same event over and over, time seems to be circular. Unpacking Times Square, from this perspective and from this particular location (these words were written in the Starbucks located below the Bloomberg billboard at the corner of Broadway and 47th Street) gives the impression that this location is the result of the imbrication of two different timelines:
- The first element is a stable one that is composed of the simultaneous repetitions of many situations. Those situations, despite being sometimes assembled from different elements, provide a sort of structural homogeneity in terms of agency and performativity: People taking selfies; screens advertising; barricades shaping the pedestrian zones; pigeons gathered near the kiosk in front of American Eagle; crowds going back and forth; the same man silently holding a sign about Jesus; costumed characters following and being followed by tourists.
- The second element is an effervescent one (Delgado, 1998) created by each situation’s particularities. Despite giving the impression that Times Square is a stable collection of repeated cases, the encounters happening there are also shaped by sporadic associations and by particular intensities. A man offering free hugs punching a tourist in the face because she did not tip him; a company launching a new brand of chips through an activation campaign; a computer that needs to be restarted displaying a blue screen error on a billboard; thousands of bees flying around a corner and hovering over a hotdog stand, a bomb threat.
The challenge with working on Times Square, and what makes it so enjoyable, at least from my perspective, is the ability one must have to notice the most minimal details of each linkage, describing all its possible features and relations (as determined by the possibilities of the ethnographer) without neglecting the other connections happening at the same time. In the end, I see myself like a tailor spinning fine thread, creating multi-layered patchwork quilts. This is an alternative definition for doing an ethnographic study of a public place.
Delgado, M. (1998). La Sociedad y la Nada. Manía, 4: 243-272.