`NEVER go near Times Square." That advice is the first of 10 rules for "How to Survive New York" now appearing on one of the city's best-selling T-shirts.
Times Square, long famous for the bright lights of Broadway, but increasingly viewed as a dangerous place, is fighting back.
Business leaders are waging an unusually broad and intensive effort to restore the reputation of this unique neighborhood that attracts 20 million tourists a year. Flanked by a mix of colorful super signs, this vibrant "crossroads of the world" is, after all, the heart of the city's theater district and the site of the world's best-known New Year's Eve celebration.
Times Square's newest revitalization effort includes a team of 41 unarmed but fully trained public safety officers chosen from 650 applicants. They began work two weeks ago. Connected by radio to a central dispatcher, they chase away the organizers of three-card monte, help the homeless find food and shelter, and answer tourist queries.
"They're walking encyclopedias of information," insists Thomas Walsh, a former top city police officer who supervises the team. Another 50 cleanup workers, who stash their brooms in one of the area's vacant movie theaters, supplement regular city services by sweeping area sidewalks and curbs and by removing graffiti. "Everything helps," says the manager of a Times Square souvenir shop called "Looking Good."
The Times Square revamp, which also includes a strong promotional push, is more comprehensive than most past efforts. In a lengthy process of public hearings and surveys, the majority of property owners in this 12-block area agreed to form the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) this year.
The New York Times took the initiative, and the newspaper's publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., is chairman of the new district. The BID is one of 24 such public-private partnerships in the city and one of some 1,000 nationally. Property owners are assessed a certain percentage of the value of their land and asked how they want the money spent.
In Times Square, where the new BID works with a $4.5 million annual budget, top concerns were crime, inadequate sanitation, and the growing number of street people.
The City Council, which collects the fees and turns them back to the BID, approves and oversees spending plans. All must complement rather than replace city services.
ONE of the Times Square district's strongest assets in the view of its president, Gretchen Dykstra, a communications specialist and former teacher, is its potential for coordination. BID leaders are talking about the possible transfer of used sheets and towels, for instance, from area hotels to neighborhood social agencies.
Similarly, the contractor who hires and supervises the BID cleanup crew is required to recruit most workers from the Manhattan Bowery Corporation, a nonprofit social-service agency.
Both cleanup workers and public-safety officers stay in coordinated radio contact with an operations center in a Broadway office building. Tom Drake, one of the dispatchers who sits at a speaker radio, juggles calls about everything from bus routes and museums to traffic mishaps. He also monitors a police radio and can relay calls to police at any time. Jamie Hardison, a former military policeman and now one of the safety patrol, says the job is "fun.... "Nobody really gives us a hard time except for the
Four new hotels have opened in the district in the last two years. Still, the recession has taken its toll in Times Square as it has elsewhere in the city. Office space abounds and some property owners have filed for bankruptcy.
"Tenants are still out there, and I think we're all waiting for the space to fill up," says Rebecca Robertson, president of the 42nd Street Development Project, the state development subsidiary in charge of overhauling that area. Several theaters showing triple X-rated movies were closed there when a stretch of property was condemned for redevelopment. Some are to be reopened for other uses beside new office and retail space when the economy improves.
Bill Daly, who heads the Mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement, says he has seen a marked change for the better in the Times Square area over the last 15 years. Some 23 Eighth Avenue massage parlors have been closed. Crime on 42nd street has dropped dramatically in the last two years. "People just don't remember how bad things used to be," he says.
Ms. Dykstra says she also remembers the city as a "far more frightening place" when she moved here in the early 1970s. She considers her job easier today than it would have been a few years ago. "Times Square is an eclectic neighborhood, that's for sure," she says, "but things seem to be getting better."