When infrastructures fail

Since the conception of the original project for the redevelopment of Times Square in 2009, the presence of bollards for separating vehicular areas from pedestrian ones was a priority. The particular geography of the zone and its new spatial recomposition, as well the national and local perspective on security after 9/11, demanded significant improvements in the main public open spaces and city landscapes in terms of safety and protection.

Times Square was armored with bollards and barricades which blocked all the possible critical points remaining after the pedestrianization of Broadway. Some of these structures, strong barriers made of concrete, were designed as temporary elements but nobody cared about removing them. Although they were not imagined as stable elements inside the Square, they proved useful, not only as protection but also to allow tourists to take a seat or to use them as platforms for taking better pictures.

The heavy multi-shaped devices projected an image of this area as a safe pedestrian location until 2017 when a car drove three blocks along the left, northbound, sidewalk on 7th Avenue between 42nd St. and 45th St. The entire infrastructure created around the idea of protecting the walkable spaces failed on the afternoon of May 18 when an undesirable object transgressed the purpose and being of the sidewalk, momentarily turning it into something different.

A car travelled across a space delimited for pedestrian usage producing an alteration in the ontology and usefulness of a particular technological device, the sidewalk. A sidewalk is a sidewalk in so far as it allows the safe and continuous circulation of pedestrians. However, for some minutes, the sidewalk vanished. Using almost all of the materialities and affordances the environment provided, the car —a maroon Honda Accord— transformed the walkway into a roadway. Suddenly, the horrified pedestrians were turned into the exogenous elements of an emergent and momentary car lane that confronted the previously stable version of that zone.

Aside from the car and its driver, it was the bollards and barricades in the area which played the most significant role in the transmutation of the space from sidewalk to roadway. They did so paradoxically, by both action and omission. First, the incident was only possible because the contingent elements were insufficient to prevent the incursion of the vehicle onto the sidewalk. The external device found a hole in the pedestrian area’s security system and quickly transmuted the ontology of this circulation infrastructure. This time it was not a linear and simultaneous ontological co-presence but, the temporary emergence of a third element, of the transmutation of the whole being of an element which occurred without it losing its material integrity.

Secondly, these two kinds of elements, bollards and barricades, were also responsible for ending the whole situation and returning the sidewalk to its previous ontological state. The Honda finally crashed into a group of bollards near the Marquis Hotel. Sadly, along its path, the vehicle left one dead and 22 injured. After a period of transition, the original being of the flattened device was restored. I visited Times Square four months after this incident and the place where the car finally crashed was still awaiting repair.

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During the summer of 2019 a portion of the sidewalk where that situation happened was renewed. Some of the pavement was removed and replaced by a mixture of materials. New bollards made of hard plastic were also installed along the sidewalk.  This action was part of a strategy implemented by the city administration to reinforce the security around some public open spaces in New York. On January 2, 2018, mayor de Blasio stated that the city planned to spend $50 million on installing metal bollards. Times Square would receive more than a thousand of these devices.

Most of the bollards in Times Square were designed and installed by a company called Calpipe Security Bollard to minimize any possible security threat or terrorist attack. The devices were also required to be easily removable by the authorities to facilitate the movement of emergency vehicles and other kinds of supporting transportation elements. “Due to the high traffic and heavy pedestrian presence in Times Square, there were many safety and security requirements that had to be met during the design and manufacturing stage of the project. The bollards had to be removable and lockable so that authorized vehicles could access the protected area, without compromising the security of the system.” (Securing Times Square, n.d.).

The bollards are not, however, the only security elements preventing possible collisions and transgressions of zoning. In various parts of Times Square one can also find large plant pots which serve as barriers for pedestrian zones. Some of the furniture also serves a delimiting function and separates the plazas from Seventh Avenue. These elements are thw large black granite benches which are located at the edge of the pedestrian area. Their primary function is to divide both environments, separating flows and preventing unnecessary encounters. The metal bollards remain officialdom’s favorite recourse when creating defensive structures to preserve the pedestrian version of the Square.

In a random conversation with a police officer outside the American Eagle store, we talked about bollards, barricades and other elements with the same function. I told him that every time I came back to Times Square, I had the impression that the area was looking more like a military location due to the large number of bollards and the powerfully armed police officers. “We (the police officers) are here just for the tourists taking pictures with us”, he told me, “The real force is on the ground (he indicated the bollards) as well as (he pointed at the surveillance cameras distributed around Times Square) in the air.”