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Abby Lembersky

Can the Arts Choreograph the Chaos of Times Square?

by Abby Lembersky Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Ask any first time visitor to New York City to list the items on their itinerary and you’ll undoubtedly hear “Times Square”. The neighborhood has become a must-see tourist destination and now seems to personify the city that never sleeps. On the flipside, ask any New Yorker to name their least favorite part of the city and they’ll almost certainly list Times Square in their top five (if not at the very top). The crowds of tourists and throngs of vendors and costume characters give the neighborhood a distinct chaos that, to many New Yorkers, embodies the worst place on earth. When I lived in the city before moving to Madison for my MBA, I avoided the neighborhood at all costs, venturing here only for the theater and spending as little time on the street as possible. That was, of course, until this summer when I elected not only to spend every day in the district but to work for the Times Square Alliance - the very organization that runs the neighborhood. 

The Times Square Alliance is a non-profit Business Improvement District (BID) that works to improve and promote Times Square. They provide core neighborhood public safety and sanitation services; promote local businesses; encourage real estate and economic development; advocate to City Hall on behalf of their constituents; and coordinate a number of major events - like a little something called New Year’s Eve. In recent years, the Alliance has spearheaded a campaign to transform the district, starting with a redesign that closed lanes of vehicular traffic and made way for pedestrian plazas along Broadway from 41st - 49th Streets. The lengthy construction process ended late this spring, and resulted in paved plazas complete with outdoor furniture, picnic spaces, food kiosks, and ample space for enjoying the neighborhood. Now that the space is complete however, the Alliance has begun the uphill climb of cultivating a true sense of place. Their goal is to challenge and change the persona of the neighborhood and rebrand Times Square as a hub of creative vibrancy that is by and for New Yorkers. I was brought onto the team just in time to explore whether or not they can effectively engender this change.

I’m working on the Events and Programming team at the Alliance and implementing a pilot series of daily live music concerts on the pedestrian plazas. We run two series, Broadway Buskers and Notes from the Underground, that aim to showcase the best of the city’s talent. Our musicians come from the pits of Broadway shows and from the subway stations across the city and are showcased in a casual setting at the crossroads of the world. Through these concerts we want to convince New Yorkers that Times Square can represent the very finest of the city’s passion and creative culture, and in so doing we want to increase their likelihood to spend extended time in the neighborhood. Essentially, we’re trying to increase the stickiness of Times Square and foster the economic benefits of that stickiness.

My work feels incredibly relevant to my Bolz Center experiences. Not only am I collecting evaluative data and observations on the successes and challenges of the piloted series, I am also presenting recommendations for improving the marketing, branding, and curatorial content to make future iterations of the series more impactful. Additionally, the Times Square Alliance is a very fluid and nimble organization so not a week goes by without a conversation with colleagues from Public Art, Economic Development, Policy, Planning and Research, etc. These conversations examine how the organization can best leverage arts and programming to accomplish our strategic goals and further the economic health of the neighborhood. It reminds me of the ways I’ve worked with classmates across specializations in the MBA program.

To be perfectly honest, I never imagined enjoying Times Square. However, I now consider myself incredibly lucky. There is never a dull moment in this work and I wouldn’t have it any other way.