Why NYC is reining in Times Square Spider-Men, 'Desnudas'

In the wake of a heated debate about aggressive behavior by some performers, the City Council approved a bill on Thursday to restrict them to designated zones.

Rickey Rogers/ Reuters
A costumed worker dressed as a Minion tries to convince a tourist in Times Square, New York City to take a picture with him on April 7, 2016. The City has passed new restrictions on the assortment of costumed characters, painted naked women and ticket sellers who cater to visitors in the Square.

New York’s costumed Elmos and Spidermen and scantily-clad "Desnudas" who pose for tips will no longer be free to wander Times Square in search of customers, the City Council said Thursday.

The council voted 42-1 to restrict the characters to several designated zones, each about the size of a city bus, where they could still pose for customers' photographs, after receiving complaints that some were aggressively soliciting business. Other areas of the plaza would be made into off-limits "flow zones" for pedestrians. 

City officials said they hoped the rules could uphold the more orderly, family-friendly image of the Square, hard-won after years of a seedier atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s. 

The growing number of costumed characters  had frightened some tourists and annoyed locals in the past few years, a controversy heightened last summer by the appearance of the Desnudas, women in bikinis or body paint whose numbers in the Square have taken off since 2013. 

"Not only was this uncomfortable, but their body paint rubbed off on my suit," one man wrote to the Times Square Alliance, which helped write the bill, of being cornered by two Desnudas. "This creates an atmosphere that I do not want to bring my kids around."

Other popular costumes include Marvel comic book heroes, Disney characters, and the Sesame Street crew.

"I never imagined I'd be doing this," Ricardo Rodríguez, clad as SpongeBob SquarePants, told The New York Times in 2014. "But if you think about life as a rich experience, the money will come."

While the performers should be able to make an "honest buck" in the plazas, "people should be able to walk through Times Square without being harassed and harangued," Corey Johnson, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, told the Times.

At least 16 performers have been charged with crimes including assault and forcible touching since January, according to police, who arrested 15 in 2015. That year, the Square had more than 300 people posing for tips. 

Before settling on the approach of creating designated "activity zones" for the workers, city officials had considered a variety of approaches. Last summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would consider removing the plazas entirely, spurring criticism from transit groups who said the plazas had improved traffic safety.

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton took a hard-line approach, saying he wanted to "dig the whole [darn] thing up," while Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the Desnudas undermined the all-ages feel which the city had aggressively promoted.

Mayor De Blasio, a Democrat, has supported the restrictions and is expected to sign the bill, the Times reports.

But the performers say the law could threaten their livelihoods by forcing them to remain in the designated zones.

Keith Albahae, who poses as a green-haired Joker character, said at a hearing last week that he and his fellow performers "do not harass people or block traffic." Mr. Albahae said some visitors complain because they do not realize that they are expected to tip in exchange for a photo with the creatures, characters, and ladies of the Square. 

Others raised free speech concerns. "I have a right to walk in a public space in my Spider-Man costume," Abdel Amine Elkhezzani, who came to City Hall dressed in his costume to protest the law, told the Times.  "If somebody wants to take pictures with me, that's their right."

Business groups argued it was a larger quality of life issue. "It really is a compromise to recognize that there are people earnestly earning a living, but also that there's been some real problems that just like any other commercial activity you need to regulate it," Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, which helped write the bill, told Reuters.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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