Times Square becomes a pedestrian zone

New York City’s famous Times Square became free of cars this Monday.

This is the latest in two decades of radical changes to what used to be a dirty, dangerous, but uniquely vibrant part of one of the world’s greatest cities. City officials have blocked traffic from 42nd to 47th Streets at Times Square and between 33rd and 35th Streets at Herald Square in a much-anticipated move we first reported on back in February.

The traffic jams are being replaced by pedestrian plazas and more shops. The hope is to attract even more visitors to New York City’s iconic square by getting rid of noise, pollution, and frequent accidents. New Yorkers celebrated Monday with a big block party and setting up lawn chairs in the middle of the road. The city plans to have various events and street performers every night in the coming weeks to attract more people to Times Square.

Old-time New Yorkers like yours truly have fond memories of the old Times Square, full of seedy bars, seedier adult shops, and crumbling movie houses where you could watch a double feature of martial arts films for two bucks. I saw my first Jackie Chan film in Times Square, my first zombie picture, not to mention countless Z-list action flicks. Ah, the Eighties!

But not everyone liked Times Square at its decadent best. It was too close to Broadway, where accountants from Omaha wanted to see musicals without being reminded that the world isn’t like it is in A Chorus Line.

First to go were the movie theaters, replaced one by one by adult video centers, as if the area didn’t have enough of those already. No more blaxplotation or ninja flicks, just hard core. Then the porn shops got shut down. Times Square began to look like Disneyland. Now the squalling, bumper-to-bumper traffic has gone the way of the dodo. The armpit of New York has been replaced with the outdoor equivalent of a shopping mall. Progress? Well, it’s certainly safer (how I survived my teen-aged trips to the old Times Square still amazes me) but I can’t help but think that by killing Times Square, New York City has lost something.

Every city has its grotty area. Amsterdam has its red light district, London has Elephant and Castle, and New York had Times Square. The thing is, these neighborhoods are often really interesting and alive. The red light district in Amsterdam has some of the city’s best architecture. Elephant and Castle has an amazing variety of African shops and restaurants. Times Square has. . .well, had. . .an exciting street life and a variety of movie houses for every taste. And no, I’m not talking about the adult stuff. Back in the day, all sorts of people went to Times Square, everyone from well-heeled businessmen up to no good, to curious teenagers like I was, all the way down to street hustlers and petty thieves. That’s what I liked about it. Now it’s tourists and the middle class. Aren’t there enough places like that?

Any other old-time New Yorkers out there have any thoughts on this?

Mezz vs. orchestra: It’s the people around you

I settled into my seat at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in Manhattan on Saturday well in advance of the curtain’s rise. My wife and I were eager to see “God of Carnage,” which had received great reviews and featured a high-profile cast. For a change, we had seats in the mezzanine section – rather than our usual preference for orchestra. It wasn’t a big deal, and we were prepared to accept the greater distance from the stage. By the end of the show, however, we vowed never to sit in the mezzanine section again. The people around us made the difference.

I see it all the time, and I know I’m not alone. A busload of tourists stumbles onto the sidewalk and crowds around the theater‘s doors. Some push; others linger. Both fail to understand the concept of forming a line … or joining one that already exists. Or, a group of people who live a mere hour from the city spend six months planning their annual trip into the thrilling metropolis and can’t contain their excitement at being able to see an actual celebrity working. You are noticeable a mile away, and yes, you’re being judged.

So, if you are headed into Manhattan to enjoy a Broadway production, please heed the following advice. You’ll make the experience better for everyone. Most of it is common sense, but unfortunately, there are people out there who need a detailed list.

Don’t be loud; don’t linger
As I climbed the stairs, I was stuck in the middle of a crowd of nine people who made their annual trek from New Jersey into Manhattan to get a bit of “culcha [culture].” They screeched as they plodded about how they should be featured as the Real Housewives of New Jersey, poking each other about their respective shitty marriages. The conversation kept them from taking their seats efficiency, causing a logjam that stretched all the way back to the entrance. So, while we were treated to diatribes about their husbands, guests out of earshot were stuck in place without even knowing why.

Advice: Shut up, and get to your seat quickly. Talk when you’re settled in … and do so quietly.

Arrive on time
This seems as though it shouldn’t need to be said, and I’ve only rarely encountered it when sitting in the orchestra section. Yet, in mezzanine, it’s more common. A man arrived around five minutes after the production started, had trouble getting to his seat in the dark and tripped over my foot (okay, I’m not entirely innocent here). He was the punctual half, though. His companion arrived 15 minutes later and made an even bigger scene.

Advice: Do I have to spell it out? You know when the show starts: plan accordingly.

Don’t clap when the curtain comes up
Yes, when you see the likes of James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden on stage, it’s exciting. Your urge is to applaud, to slap your hands together as violently as possible. Meanwhile, what are James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden doing? They’re talking! And, we can’t hear them! Let the actors perform. That’s why they are on the damned stage.

Advice: If you just want to see celebrities, hang around outside the theater and wait for them to arrive or depart. Otherwise, watch and listen. That’s the whole reason you spent $70 a ticket.

Don’t talk during the show … duh
Again, does this really need to be explained? For some reason, the people down in the orchestra section have figured out that the actors do the talking; the audience does the listening. In the mezzanine section, however, the actors do the primary talking, and the spectators provide a running commentary. Guess what? Everyone knows that James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano. They don’t need to be reminded. And, it’s no better when you complain about the nine New Jersey housewives in front of you who have been talking through the entire play. Are you really any better?

Advice: Shut your mouth, and remember that the only people who should be talking are (a) paid to do so and (b) told what to say.

That’s all it takes – four simple rules. I know it seems unwelcoming of me to dump all this on you, but if you exercised even a shred of common sense this article would be unnecessary.

Now, if you live in New York – or did at one time – here’s the best advice of all: sit in the orchestra section. At the risk of being called a New York snob (as my wife and New York snob friends have done already), you’ll have a better time if you join the other New York snobs who … guess what? … are there to enjoy the production.