Why Times Square

Why Times Square? This concern is a prevalent question that people ask me every time I talk about this research study object. Times Square now, the most stable version we have of this place, looks like a location where one cannot find anything serious for conducting academic work. On the one hand, it seems like an infertile field utterly dependent on external forces. On the other hand, it looks like an exhausted and packed-and-sealed location under the label of either gentrification-Disneyfication or the official one of revitalization. The usage of each one of those two terms will depend on who is telling the site’s story. However, Times Square is acting like a finished object in both versions, a black-boxed location without so much to offer.

I decided to carry out a piece of research on Times Square due to a personal interest I have in New York City, a place that was also the location of my master’s research too. But, mostly, I chose Times Square because it represented a challenge derived from four misconceptions[1]: (i) Times Square is an aseptic artificial tourist spot, (ii) that is a matter of something else, where (iii) there is nothing to do and (iv) there is nothing to see. Those misunderstandings about that place were detected once I started to talk, across different scenarios, about the possible research topics for my doctoral studies and, again, once I announced that Times Square would be, at that time, the study object of my work during the next four years.

However, as time passed and my work was being transformed, I try to make that challenge a bit more interesting by adding a new layer of complexity. Instead of just conducting a study focused on “what can one say about a place that seems so volatile, ethereal and insignificant, in terms of academic relevance,” I went through a speculative exploration which the main objective was: “what can one learn from a place like that —Times Square now—to develop an experimental sort of ethnographic practice mixing urban studies and STS.”

When I talk about Times Square now, I am referring to the resulted space after Broadway Avenue’s pedestrianization, between the W. 42nd and the W. 47th streets[2]. The process of restructuring this place started in February 2009 as part of a supposed temporary plan that aimed to reduce traffic congestion and improve the air quality and decrease the pedestrian-car accidents in Midtown Manhattan. The idea of pedestrianizing Broadway was initially proposed for one year, but after some evaluations, the Bloomberg administration made it permanent. The whole process of transforming Times Square formally ended in April 2017.

In the beginning, the intention of taking out the cars from that portion of Broadway and making Times Square “a pedestrian plaza” was a controversial decision. And it was in that way because most of the local business owners and some people from the media were —temporary— opposed to make Broadway a pedestrian pathway. The first group was concerned about the fluency of buyers to their stores, and the second was complaining about, more or less, the decision of “turning the Crossroads of the World from the vibrant, frenetic, center of the universe into a butt-littered suburban parking lot. [The pedestrianization of Times Square was considered] an idea so ferociously dumb”. (Peyser 2009, May 27).

So, this is the geography, the arbitrary location (Candea, 2009), I decided to focus on as the primary study object for writing this dissertation: The bunch of stabilizations and effervescences happening from 2009 to 2019, the one after and during its process of pedestrianization, the one before and during my doctoral studies. However, along this dissertation, other Times Squares will also be deployed and maintained in the shape of versions. Those versions represent historical situations —situation, an acronym from the situated temporal association— in the way they are, and Times Square itself is, more in terms of time than in terms of space. Nevertheless, this work aims to be neither a historical product nor using History as its primary source. I consider it important to clarify that because one can be accused of falling into two misunderstandings. The first one is to incur in the perpetuation of some historical and social determinism, primarily related to the transformation of places in contemporary agglomerations: what we can call from a critical or “pessimistic” side as gentrification or, by an official and a “positivist” one, as renovation.

The second misunderstanding is that this kind of writing is related to historiography. And it could be understood in that way because I am not prioritizing enough the elements and situations I collected “in the field.” Instead, I am tracing a sort of symmetric scenario where any “external” source is allowed. And one of those “external” or “second-hand” sources is the historical materials about Times Square that are also occupying a significant space inside this work.

Despite many other topics, reflections, and essays, the main discussion this piece of research aims to deal with is related to the question “what can STS learn from Times Square for doing urban ethnography?” This issue will organize all the other inquiries and explorations deployed along this document. That inquiry is also acting as a guide that is open enough for experimenting with different strategies for grasping and representing a bounded spatiality. Simultaneously, it is specific enough for conducting all those constructions into a joint and coherent threat.

There is also a double condition related to the selection of geographical Times Square as the field of this piece of research. On the one hand, we have a delimited artificial site, easy to locate on a map and a temporal frame: this is our own demarcation of the field. On the other hand, we have a place that is composed of many different sites happening simultaneously. In other words, going to Times Square is constructing a bounded provisional ethnographical location over an always fluent multiplicity.

That double condition and composition of Times Square are projecting and recognizing the complexity of the particular, situating and limiting our sight through the proposal that “only partial perspective promises objective vision” (Haraway 1988, 583). That partial perspective over specific spaces creates a unique temporal location composed of elements semiotically related despite that perhaps they are not near either geographically or temporally.


[1] I expand those four misconceptions in a section called The surprising lack of interest in this place. That section, composed of four passages and four vignettes, is a detailed extension of this one. The idea of putting those misconceptions in a sort of individual space obeys only to a didactic idea —based on elaborating a better structure for this work— of extending a discussion regarding a personal situation of confrontation of theory and reality that happened once I decided to work on Times Square.

[2] As we will see around all this project, this demarcation of Times Square worked only as an initial attempt to be located and to frame that set of stabilizations I am about to describe here. Nevertheless, a deeper exploration of Times Square will reveal that its limits are diffused outside. The only way of bounding a place like this one is through the elaboration of a virtual and outdated version of the place.

References

Candea, M. (2009). “Arbitrary Locations: In Defence of the Bounded Field-site”. In Falzon, M. (Ed.) Multi-Sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research, 40-61. London: Routledge.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 577-599.

Peyser, A. (2009, May 27). “Real NYers ‘malled’ by incredible dumb idea”. New York Post. Retrieved from: https://nypost.com/2009/05/27/real-nyers-malled-by-incredibly-dumb-idea/.

and tagged Learning from, Pedestrianized Times Square, Times SquareEdit “Why Times Square?”