Expanding a corner in Times Square. First approach

Around seven and a half in the morning, a man dressed red is dragging a kind of metal rack with wheels around the northern part of Duffy Square. The rack contains twenty-two chairs and sixteen tables. All of them are metal painted red. He stops near the TKTS booths and starts to organize first the tables and then the chairs. Two chairs per table. It looks like he knows by heart the exact position where each table should go. Patiently, table by table, he organizes them into two imaginary beelines of four tables and eight chairs each. Then, a little bit more to the south, he repeats the same activity one more time. 

Using a professional camera and headphones, a young white man located in the intersection of Broadway Avenue and the W. 47th Street is recording the screens that are above the Mexican restaurant Dos Caminos at the 1567 Broadway. He looks so concentrated holding his camera and capturing the electronic advertisements that are continually changing; nothing around seems to disturb him. The ads are part of a set of preset commercials, programmed by some worker of the Clear Channel Spectacolor, a brand division of Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, that is the owner of the screens that this man is recording.

Clear Channel Outdoor is a company specialized on “billboards, digital billboards, airport signs, and other outdoor advertising options” (“Where we are,” n.d.) with a presence in 48 cities around the United States, and in 22 countries across Asia, Latin America and Europe. This company is one of the seventeen options for launching an ad on Times Square’s screens. They offer 23 products (either screens or group of screens) for publishing an advertisement in this area. The price of a campaign depends on (1) the kind of screen(s) and (2) their locations, as wells as on (3) the time and (4) frequency those ads are displayed.

However, the screens are not only for big companies. One can also broadcast a personal message “in almost real-time or scheduled for later in the day” (about us, n.d.). Big Sing Message LLC. is a company that offers an online service for publishing either, texts, pictures or videos on three specific locations around the Square: The Waterfall and the Crossroads both at 7th Ave & 42nd St, and The Triple Play at 49th St and 7th. The process looks pretty easy. The first step is going to its website called iDisplay, choosing a location, time and date, uploading the message we want to publish, and paying the price for it. 15 seconds cost $34.50; half a minute, $49.50; one minute, $89.50; two minutes, $169.50.

Three decades ago, the image of a solitary, relaxed and focused man, recording something in this place of Manhattan was not possible to conceive. The now familiar-pedestrianized-full-of-tourists-restaurants-cameras-screens-hotels-and-trending-stores spot was until the middle of the 90s to dangerous and wild for being there, early in a random morning, on a workday, just recording a screen. Right now the man is using a tripod: same objective, different technique, and position.

Coming back to the old times of Times Square, when this place was a vast red district in the heart of New York City, is relatively easy. Due to the significant amount of information one can find online about those days, having an idea of the spirit of Times Square before its —depending on the point of view— Disneyficationrevitalizationvanillification (or the never old fashioned), gentrification doesn’t require a significant effort. Youtube will be our departure place for this first immersion. 

A user on this network called Tom O published a documentary made by the filmmaker Charlie Ahearn titled Doin’ Time in Times Square. “Shot from his window, the forty-minute video includes everything you’d expect from candid 1980s Times Square footage—slow mo knock-out punches, neon XXX signs, plenty of cameos from the NYPD, and chaos. The chaos, however, is interspersed with quiet scenes from inside the apartment where all the audiovisual product was filmed. This documentary has been described as ‘the home video from hell,’ and it was projected at the New York Film Festival in the 1990s.” (Tom O’, 2015. Video description).

The documentary starts with the signal on the facade of a porn theater. “For adults only” can we read there. It’s dark outside, and few people are walking on the sidewalk. At the background a [police/ firemen/ ambulance] siren is setting the scene. (00:53). W. 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. An angry guy, holding a bible and using a megaphone, is yelling to a group of pedestrians that are just ignoring him. (1:33). The next scene is Ahearn’s wife, the painter Jane Dickson, carrying on their first kid. (2:27). The family’s cat is watching a discussion that is happening on the street. A group of people is yelling, and eventually, the confrontation scales to a fight. Two police cars came. We can see one person being arrested — Next scene: the first birthday party of the couple’s son.

The apartment of Charlie and Jane was located on a high floor on a building that does not exist anymore. Now, in this place, the Westin New York at Times Square, a 45-floors, and more than 850 rooms hotel, is —since 2002— the 162.2 meters skyscraper that is decorating this corner in the limits between the Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen. The Westin is part of an offer of more than 40 hotels around the area. This area is hosting the 41 Broadway theaters, home of the most famous musicals around the world, but also a place full of stores and business, with a huge gastronomic offer of more than 160 restaurants and 34 different cuisines (Dining, n.d.). The street food spots are not counted here. 

The man dressed red is still dragging the now empty metal rack. He continues going down to the W. 46th St. but before reaching the street, he stops to say hello to other workers gathered in the middle of the Square. It is a group of five people. One of them, an old white man is wearing the same kind of red uniform than the first one. An overall and a cap, both labeled with the logo of Times Square Alliance (TSA), a public-private not-for-profit organization founded in 1992, that “works to improve and promote Times Square – cultivating the creativity, energy, and edge that have made the area an icon of entertainment, culture, and urban life for over a century”. (About the Alliance, n.d.).

The old man is a cleaner. Cleaners are a group of people —70 Sanitation Associates (ibid)— and objects that are continuously walking, around the domains of TSA, in the form of ‘unities.’ The extension of land controlled by the Alliance is “most of the territory from 40th Street to 53rd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues, as well as Restaurant Row (46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue)” (Ibid). A cleaning unity is composed of a person and a set of tools. There is the classic one: a person + a mobile trash can + a broom and a dustpan. There is also a lite version of the classic one: a black garbage bag instead of the trash can. Other unities are equipped with just a spatula or a rag and a soap bottle. A two-way radio is always present in any one of the unities.

Two men, of the group of five, are also members of the Alliance. Their uniforms are red too, but a quite different: instead of an overall, they are using a red polo shirt and black pants. They look like they are from a superior level in the Alliance. The three men dressed red are just watching two workers repairing the sidewalk, and also saying hello to other red dressed workers that are crossing the Square, including the one with the rack: —What’s up? —What’s up, man? [handshake and hug]. Everyone continues with their labor. 

The other last two people who are repairing the sidewalk, a man an a woman, are not working for the Alliance. They are specialized workers hired directly by the City. They do not have a specific dress, but both are sharing the safety norm of having an adequate attire for doing their job. He is wearing a helmet and a pair of work gloves. She is using a reflective vest. They have delimited the area under repairing using orange traffic cones and metal barriers; a “do not cross” yellow tape is decorating the place.

The activities of maintenance and repairing in Times Square are 24/7. There is always —at least— an anonymous cleaning unity walking across the area. Most of the time, they are imperceptible among the crowd of tourists, screens, lights, and street performances. This place is always up for visitors, however, they are arriving a little bit late. The time with the most density of bodies is after 10 am, until, more or less, two in the morning. Of course, this uses to change depending on the day, especially on weekends and holidays. Nevertheless, in general terms, early in the morning, the reds are more visible than on the rest of the day.