The New Times Square

Can you see me now? On the Forever 21 webcam, Times Square

I just got back from a stroll through Times Square. Now, as a New York resident going about her daily lunchtime routine, I would normally avoid Times Square at all costs, zigging and zagging down side streets in an effort to circumvent the crush of humanity clogging sidewalks and intersections. News that an errand involves a trip along Broadway anywhere between 42nd and 50th Streets has tended to elicit a deep sigh and a mental run-through of best times and routes; theater outings have involved scooting in and out of subway entrances on the district’s perimeter.

Although today, following a late morning meeting a few blocks north on Broadway, I found myself turning toward the heart of Times Square, thinking, “Let’s see what’s going on there.”  Truth is, I’ve found myself actually wanting to walk through Times Square ever since a segment of Broadway became a pedestrian-only zone a year or so ago. The idea that New Yorkers greeted with profound skepticism has transformed Times Square — in a good way. The crushing crowds have been spread out and some breathing room injected. Office workers rushing to find a decent lunch don’t slam into tourists who have stopped short to look upward; visitors taking snapshots in front of the building where the New Year’s Eve ball drops can take their time, sitting down at one of the little bistro tables set up in what used to be a lane choked with taxis and buses.

For once, I can understand. There really is something thrilling about being able to sit smack in the middle of Times Square, to pull up a chair and take in the never-ending parade; to actually stop a minute, sip a latter from the Starbucks across the way and absorb messages from the amazingly bright billboards. Just as there’s something thrilling about being able to actually walk (safely) down the middle of Broadway in the pedestrian lane that runs from the 50s down to Macy’s-Herald Square at 34th Street.  (Funny thing, though, most people still stick to the sidewalks, even in the busiest pre-theater hours. Old habits die hard.) I actually wanted to linger and use the free wi-fi touted on banners all around.  I wanted to stay and watch the chefs taking part in the International Chinese Culinary Competition being feverishly covered by a Chinese television network, even though I’d never heard of such a thing.  It was always hard to get near such special events in Times Square before, but the more open space makes it easier to linger and interact.

I was especially struck by it all, since I’d just come from a meeting with the head of digital strategies for one of New York’s largest performing arts venues.  Some of those very topics had been part of our discussion: how to engage visitors; how to open up the institution to new audiences; how to best utilize digital media; how to make it more interactive, inviting, exciting. Nearly every performing arts group in New York and elsewhere is still grappling with those questions, questions for which there are no universal solutions.

But perhaps some inspiration might be right in the backyard, in the form of a walk through Times Square. Yes, it’s commercial to its core. But there, marketers have learned from social media that most of us like nothing more than feeling like an insider, and seeing our own faces. Hence the digital billboard on the American Eagle Outfitters store that invites visitors to come inside for the opportunity to get their photo and message up on the big screen and the Forever 21 signage that projects a real-time, street-view webcam. People stop on the street opposite, find themselves in the view, and snap away at their own images.

What do the billboards have to do with the selling of actual product?  Very little, perhaps, but those photos of the Forever 21 sign, and the fan Tweets included on it, make their way to parts of the globe that have never heard of the youth-oriented clothing store. The people in them have a document of the time their photos were seen at the crossroads of the world.  And there’s nothing like being a part of that in-crowd.  You want to post if on Facebook immediately.

And just like social networking, it all happened in what seemed the blink of an eye. The concept to turn part of Broadway into a pedestrian mall had been floated from time to time, but the actual implementation came so quickly that it took New Yorkers, and even those involved in logistics, somewhat by surprise. There was an announcement that one lane would be closed to traffic, and a few days later it happened. There wasn’t even time to procure appropriate tables and chairs; city workers were dispatched to nearby hardware stores for lawn furniture. Amazingly, the cheap lounge chairs mostly stayed in place. The rather radical idea wasn’t debated, surveyed, or market researched to death. The city, with the blessing of a mayor determined to ease traffic congestion, took a leap of faith.

Sitting in the middle of Broadway, on one of the sturdier bistro chairs that were delivered some months later, I thought back to the meeting, where some frustration had been expressed at how cautiously much of the performing arts world continues to approach digital initiatives. Large arts organizations have long been compared to large ships: any turn can be a slow maneuver. Who would have thought that the city of New York could maneuver like a tugboat in comparison?