Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.