Times Square Alliance Demonstrates Steadfast Devotion to its Iconic Destination

A joyous New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the Alliance’s signature celebration, fully returned for the arrival of 2024. | Photo by Michael Hull
The Red Steps in Duffy Square, empty at the height of the pandemic. | Photo by Eileen Stukane

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Founded in 1992, the Times Square Alliance is a Business Improvement District (BID) that came into being as Times Square was emerging from a transformation. Streets that were seedy and scary were now dotted with entertainment venues and retailers respectable enough for the whole family. In 2008/2009, pedestrian plazas arrived and helped usher in an era when actually the notion of lingering in Times Square was something to be embraced instead of avoided (for tourists, at least).

Today, sponsored by a watchful Alliance, a multitude of high-profile public programs—Valentine’s Day 2024’s Vow Renewal Ceremony on Duffy Square’s iconic Red Steps, for exampleprovide visitors with even more Instagrammable moments, amidst one of the planet’s most recognizable and enduring photo op destinations. Now, with the pandemic no longer driving travel and tourism, Times Square is reinventing itself once more.

The Times Square Alliance is the fourth and longest-running BID in our Chelsea Community News (CCNews) series examining the ways in which downtown Manhattan BIDs are repositioning their respective areas to meet the challenges and seize opportunities of this post-pandemic era. (To access previous entries in the series, click here for Flatiron/NoMad, click here for the Meatpacking District, and click here for Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen.

New Yorkers may not be aware of the extent to which BIDs are reshaping neighborhoods. These alliances of property and business owners (76 of them throughout NYC’s five boroughs) unite in a defined geographical area to keep it clean, beautified, and safe. They create marketing events, facilitate capital improvements, and encourage business development.

The Times Square Alliance BID holds NYC’s theater district and famed Restaurant Row within its borders, which extend from West 40th to West 53rd Street. | Image via nyc.gov

The Times Square Alliance encompasses New York City’s theater district. The BID’s northern boundary is West 53rd Street, and its southern side is West 40th Street. Eastward, the BID almost touches Ave. of the Americas, while the western boundary is basically Eighth Ave., although all of Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Aves.) is in the BID.

A Post-Pandemic Conversation On The Red Steps | The Red Steps at the northern edge of Father Duffy Square (W. 47th St. & Broadway) is a destination—the TKTS booth is housed below on street level—and a perfect place to observe a New York City of bright lights and endless action. It was also the ideal venue for sitting down with Thomas Harris, President of the Times Square Alliance, a man who has been focused on energizing the streets that had a ghost-like emptiness during the pandemic. In those days of isolation, as Harris says, “People were home. They were missing public space, missing what the norm was. It was important for us to bring Times Square to them. So our signature events, we managed to do online.” Solstice Yoga in Times Square and Songs of the City performances kept the gregarious spirit of Times Square alive online.

The number of people in Times Square dropped from 365,000 a day to 35,000, and as Harris explains, “Those 35,000 were essential workers who helped us all through the pandemic. We recognized that the world was out there showing Times Square and how we went through the pandemic. We were sort of symbolic of the pause—but we also wanted to be symbolic of the resolve in our city, of our great country, and of the recovery… So, we were here and we found it’s so important to get back to basics. We reaffirmed the value of our mission which is to make Times Square clean, safe, and desirable for all. [The Alliance has 70 Sanitation Associates and 33 Public Safety Officers.] We create a great, safe, inviting environment, people will come back. We started celebrating the milestones of people coming back. The first time we passed 100,000 visitors [in a single day] to Times Square, we celebrated.”

The day of our talk, Broadway was teeming with people in and around Father Duffy Square. Overseen by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, Duffy Square is the triangle of Times Square between West 46th & 47th Streets, spanning Broadway & Seventh Ave. A statue of Father Francis P. Duffy, a famed WWI chaplain, stands in front of a Celtic Cross at the base of the Red Steps. Farther south, closer to where West 46th Street is aligned with the square, a statue of George M. Cohan, an early 20th century actor, songwriter, playwright, and producer, greets visitors.

Pedestrians surround the statue of George M. Cohan, a theater great whose figure stands at the southern tip of Duffy Square. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance

Harris describes what he calls “The Three Cs of the recovery:” 1– Concern about COVID was addressed through continuing sanitation and safety methods. 2–Crime. “We showed that the Police Department cared and doubled up their efforts to bring resources to Times Square.” 3–Convenience. “What we wanted was to create this great experience so people wanted to be in Times Square.” For a brief pop-up period, the Alliance installed a Ferris wheel in Times Square. Harris reports that the Alliance is “doing over 80 performances in Times Square that are going to surprise and delight people.”

Although the Alliance likes to keep an element of surprise as to when an event might pop up in Times Square, one of its regular happenings (since 2012) has been Midnight Moment, which the Alliance website describes as “the world’s largest and longest-running digital public art program.” From 11:57pm to 12am, each month a contemporary artist’s work appears on more than 92 digital displays from West 41st to West 49th Street, and this happens 364 days a year. A variety of other events in the Square can be found here, on the Alliance website.

Of course, New Year’s Eve is the signature event in Times Square, when at midnight a ball of 2,688 crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 LEDs, descends to mark the passing of the old year and the start of the new. “The world comes together to look at Times Square for that one moment in time when the ball drops and we ring in the New Year,” says Harris. “It’s the peak moment of my year to stand on the Red Steps at midnight with my work family, with my family. It’s the culmination or the bringing together of hard work, family, friends, and it really is the most meaningful time of the year.” (For the monthly calendar of events in the Times Square Alliance, click here.)

Asked about whether he feels it is the BID’s job to fight crime, Harris responds, “I think it is. I think that it’s important. It’s our mission. The Times Square Alliance was started when Times Square was dirty, dangerous, and people were terrified. We have evolved in our mission but it’s always important to remember that clean, safe, and fun are the three things that are most important.”

November 9, 2023: South Korean pop phenom JungKook performs on the TSX indoor/outdoor stage. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance

Community First and More | In 2021 the Community First Initiative, a homeless outreach program, was spearheaded by Harris in partnership with Midtown Community Justice Center, which helps to divert people from the criminal justice system to the social services system, Breaking Ground, which is focused on helping those who are homeless, and Fountain House, an organization involved in mental health services for people in crisis.

The Initiative was the result of the Alliance noticing an uptick in the number of people in need of assistance on the streets of the BID during the pandemic. “We wanted to be mindful that our neighborhood, our City couldn’t recover and leave those most vulnerable behind,” said Harris. “We also realized that there was a gap in services that the city provided. We have an extreme ownership in solving challenges that exist in our neighborhood. We also see ourselves as a connector. We have a very pure mission, to have Times Square clean, safe, and desirable for all—and by all, I mean those in need of assistance.” The number of unhoused people sleeping on the streets of the BID has been greatly reduced through the work of the partnership’s commitment to help the homeless. Harris also notes that Times Square is reporting near record lows in crime.

When asked whether the increased migrant population in New York City had affected the environment in Times Square, was there more panhandling in the district, he was clear: “What we see is they [migrants] are not asking for handouts. They’re oftentimes vending on the streets, selling products. They have not been straight-up panhandling, but they have been selling chocolates, selling fruit, things like that… It’s clear that they want to work and right now they’re being forced to work on the fringes. It would be great if we could find ways to get them authorized to work so that they can become productive members of society.”

In a recent phone interview to ask his opinion of the January 27 attack of officers by a migrant group in Times Square, Harris said, “That was a horrible incident. It was the convergence of a couple of failed policies, failed immigration policies, challenges with our criminal justice system—and then, unfortunately, a demonization of the police where they don’t get the respect they deserve. And this played out in the video.” Harris is a retired NYPD officer who worked in Brooklyn. “If you come to this country to make a better life for yourself that is great, our country was built on immigration. But don’t come and violate our laws and beat up our police officers. That will never be ok.”

New Ventures and Technology are Changing Times Square | According to Harris, in 2019, the year before the COVID shutdown, 92 percent of the stores in Times Square were open. Then, almost overnight, in 2020 only 13 percent were open. “There was a challenge to our retail that happened long before the pandemic. The pandemic exacerbated our challenges, but we have gone back to 87 percent of our stores being opened in Times Square. We never had 100 percent of our stores open. There’s always a turnover, but we’re pretty close,” he says. “We’ve seen people with a great deal of faith in Times Square double down on their investment.” Eateries such as Bond 45 with its Bar Bond Below in the Edison Hotel, Virgil’s Real Barbecue, and Mermaid Oyster Bar are a few of the prominent restaurants in the BID that held on and reopened as early as possible.

Then there is Jasmine’s Caribbean Cuisine, newly opened by Jasmine Gerald and her partners on West 46th Street’s Restaurant Row at the height of the pandemic in 2020. Gerald was in the beauty business when she happened into the space at 371 West 46th Street and decided to take the risk. She had some restaurant business in her blood, though, since her mother ran a French restaurant in the Virgin Islands. Her mother joined in as one of her partners.

Jasmine Gerald at S’Aimer NYC, her newly opened restaurant/cocktail lounge on West 46th Street’s Restaurant Row. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance

“We opened up for a month and we ended up closing down because we couldn’t have any patrons. We had to do everything, takeout and delivery—but the word spread in the community. The Times Square Alliance, Tom Harris, everyone [at the BID] was so helpful spreading the word,” recalled Gerald. Through social media and word of mouth people returned again and again, until they were finally told they could dine in. “I just wanted to spread love. I wanted people to feel that even in the trying times, we were having a moment. They could come to a space that felt like they were away in the Caribbean. I wanted to be part of bringing New York back. I wanted people to feel comfortable, to feel like they were away on vacation,” she said, noting the presence of a DJ and a steel pan player. “People feel the love and say, ‘This food tastes like my grandmother’s or my auntie’s. It reminds them of home.”

Jasmine’s Caribbean Cuisine was so successful that in 2023, Gerald opened S’Aimer NYC—which means Love of Everyone—across the street at 338 West 46th Street. Described on its website as “an upscale restaurant and lounge,” S’Aimer NYC’s menu offers a fusion of French and Caribbean cuisines and, on certain nights, live entertainment. It’s like a 21st Century speakeasy.

Another newcomer to the BID in 2022, RiseNY offers three interactive experiences (one will lift you 30 feet over a virtual NYC). | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance

In the BID today, restaurants exist alongside post-pandemic technological thrills. In March 2022, RiseNYC opened where Toys “R” Us used to be at 160 West 45th Street on Broadway. Designed by Running Subway Productions, an entertainment production company that introduced “Van Gogh, The Immersive Experience,” RiseNY is a three-part happening: Film, Museum, and The Ride. Part One, visitors enter a replica of a turn of the 20th century City Hall subway station to a watch a documentary by Ric Burns and James Sanders about the growth of New York City from 1904 to the present day. RiseNY is filled with heightened visual and special effects throughout, starting with the film. Part Two, a recreated subway car brings everyone to seven interactive museums that delve into different aspects of New York City: finance, skyscrapers, television and radio, fashion, film, music, film, and Broadway. Part Three is The Ride where two passenger benches, each holding 23 people, rise 30 feet in the air under a 40-foot dome and in mist and breeze, everyone flies over a simulated New York City and its landmarks.

Another destination, the Museum of Broadway, delayed by the pandemic, opened its doors in November 2022. The 26,000-square-foot museum at 145 West 45th Street offers immersive videos about how and where New York City theaters came to be. There is also a backstage look at the equipment needed to make a Broadway play, and the actual costumes, artifacts, set designs, posters, for a multitude of classics like Phantom of the Opera, Annie, West Side Story, among many more.

Perhaps the greatest recent transformation to Times Square has occurred at 1568 Broadway at the corner of West 47th Street.  Where the Embassy Suites and Double Tree Hilton Hotel once stood, a complex called TSX (Toronto Stock Exchange) Broadway is a 21st Century marvel. First, it is a 46-story hotel that is Tempo by Hilton, but at the base of the hotel tower is a massive 18,000-square-foot wraparound LED brightened digital billboard. Within the billboard TSX Broadway partner TSX Entertainment has created a cantilevered 4,000-square-foot outdoor stage that is only visible when a performance is taking place. Post Malone made a surprise appearance and performed on the stage for a delighted crowd last summer. Also, the more than a century-old Palace Theater was moved from its original location and lifted 30 feet up to be part of TSX Entertainment, which leases eight floors in the building. Live shows, restaurants, retail stores are going to make this venue a world unto itself.

Perhaps a historic strength of Times Square is that with all the newness of its businesses and billboards it still stands as a center of communication, the original reason for its existence when the New York Times moved into its new headquarters at 1 Times Square in 1905. Today, television networks ABC and CBS are across the street from each other in Times Square broadcasting their morning shows, and the NASDAQ MarketSite billboard information carries on…

A social distancing reminder is hardly needed in a Times Square that has few visitors during the pandemic. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance


Thomas Harris, President of the Times Square Alliance. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance


A new arrival in a changing BID, the Museum of Broadway opened in 2022. | Photo courtesy of the Times Square Alliance


Note: This editorial content was made possible through a grant from the West Side Community Fund, in support of Chelsea Community News’ expansion into neighborhoods previously on the periphery of our editorial coverage area: The Flatiron/NoMad and Meatpacking Districts; Hudson Yards; and Hell’s Kitchen/Times Square.  To learn more about the West Side Community Fund’s 2023 Grantees, click here and click here.

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