Reconsidering Times Square

Jack Berman / Getty Images

New Yorkers have long avoided the garish jumble of cars, tourists, and hucksters at the center of their city. Can the latest, pedestrian-friendly redesign lure them back?

On a warm spring night, as a grass-fresh breeze penetrates even into the heart of New York and the lights of the skyline merge with the sunset glow, I sit on a barstool in the middle of Times Square and say, “Hello!” into a microphone. A few people resting at café tables cock an eye in my direction, wondering if I’m just another huckster they can safely ignore. In a sense, I am: I’ve come to promote my new book near the kiosk managed by the Strand, the venerable East Village bookstore. Luckily for me, the new Kebony-and-steel chairs scattered around the plaza are too comfortable to give up, and the tired visitors figure they might as well listen.

To most New Yorkers, a literary event in Times Square might seem about as incongruous as a flock of goats in Rockefeller Center. This is a round-the-clock spectacle that’s also an office park; it’s a place where nobody goes because it’s too crowded. A decade ago, the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue was a dangerous knot of cars and pedestrians. Just before curtain time, theatergoers overflowed into traffic lanes, where immobilized drivers jammed their horns. But New York was coming to the same conclusion as cities all over the world, from Copenhagen to Hong Kong: The best way to restore civility is to turn some central zones over to pedestrians and redesign the streets so that those arriving on foot, by bike, or behind a wheel could all peaceably coexist.

Now, after six years of construction, the effort to pedestrianize the chaotic heart of a chaotic city has hardened into a permanent feature, designed by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recent expansion. Curbs have vanished, and with them the psychological border between sidewalk and pavement. Bikers ride along a lane that’s raked, discouraging pedestrians from invading it. When the crowds clear, the pavers become visible, in a syncopated rhythm of small and long, mottled and dark, some studded with nickel-sized metal disks that catch the play of colors from the screens above. A set of tough but movable tables and chairs helps to separate thoroughfares from clearings where people can linger and chat or just peruse their phones without causing a pedestrian pileup. Long, contoured benches made of glossy black granite give Times Square a new street-level glamour. These details are as quiet as the screens are garish, and they are easy to miss.

The job of luring New Yorkers back to a place they had surrendered to tourists is not yet complete—that would require better food options, for starters. But Snøhetta’s design aims to treat the square as a great bustling stage, directing chorus lines of high-speed pedestrians around the perimeter while opening up zones for more slow-mo activities like book readings, say, or art installations and yoga classes. Last spring, the Times Square Alliance hired a Broadway cellist who played Bach for anyone who cared to stop and listen. Some members of the impromptu audience ignored the player. But many sat quietly listening as the ecstatic music eddied out into the loud, bright plaza, summoning a sudden hush.