The first time I walked by Times Square a few years ago, I didn’t think very much of it. The place had already gone through its transformation from seedy to touristic and the place felt mainly like a scaled up version of Piccadilly Circus, taller buildings, more lights and more traffic. It possessed no qualities to make you want to stop and experience the space, but rather functioned as a backdrop to the idea of the city, a typical scenography space with no life of its own.
On my return last week, the space had gone through a gargantuan transformation. Streets had become pedestrianised, people were standing still on these and staring upwards with vacant looks on their faces. At first I figured some kind of super-villain had taken over the city and hypnotised everybody, you know, like in the comic magazines. Then I looked up and saw the giant Television screens on the facades, even an auditorium with no stage but facing the screens.
Looking back down again, I noticed families sitting around tables, watching and listening and discussing the shows with friends, cops or basically anybody standing nearby. In a sense the place has been turned into a giant living room, or a temple to the gods of television depending on the level of cynicism applied.
I have a hard time making my mind up about this space. If we start with the positive view of it, as the living room of the city. Times square has become a place where people feel at home and enjoy the spectacle without fear or suspicion, an otherwise far too common ingredient in our relationship with the city. People behave like they would in their home in front of their own television set, but in urban setting. The space turns the home inside out and puts it in an urban setting. It is a setting everybody knows and the rules and behavioral patterns are clear to everybody, making it an easy space for people to appreciate and experience the spectacle in some form of unity that crosses the borders of your standard urban tribe.
It doesn’t really matter that they’re all tourists, they are all just humans together enjoying a spectacle together that they would otherwise have enjoyed separately at home. Perhaps something good will come out of this, it is always a good thing to me when people choose to do things together and in public rather than in private. In that sense this is a new type of public space, where the private space of the home has become public. This is a very comfortable way of creating public space, and an interesting one.
With a more cynical approach on the other hand, the new Times Square reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984, just take a look at this, and compare it with the image above. It is very easy to read the space as a space of open mass-indoctrination, of hypnotising people, telling them what to think and how to consume themselves happy. In a sense it displays very openly all that is wrong with television and what a powerful weapon it is. The agenda for the space, and for how it is used is set not by the participants in the space, but by somebody else somewhere else with their own agenda. This prospect becomes really frightening when you walk by the nearby Newscorp building and read their news-ticker for instance.
In that sense, Times Square is no public space at all, but rather something potentially like a permanent mass-meeting. A very strange space where the TV-personalities and spectators are replaced but the meeting goes on. In that sense, it’s a great relief that this space is in cosmopolitan New York City rather than somewhere with a more homogeneous population; the heterogeneity of NYC should keep the space from being abused to any greater extent, at least for the time being. It is however a very powerful space, and I suspect that sooner or later somebody will discover this and use it for something that I’d rather they didn’t.
I am, as I mentioned above, extremely ambivalent to this space. Public life is good by definition, to create contact between people is always a good thing. On the other hand is this a space that appears so easy to abuse, but that’s probably just my skepticism to television talking, go and have a look and make up your own minds.
The average American household apparently has a television set turned on four eight hours and eighteen minutes daily, so it’s no wonder the place is packed with people and will be a success.