Mayor Bill de Blasio promised Tuesday that his administration would rein in topless women, begging mothers, costumed characters and others who hustle passersby for cash at New York City tourist hubs such as Times Square.
Committing to take action "soon," de Blasio said he would seek "creative ideas" and deploy "all the tools available" to enforce current laws and potentially enact new ones without running afoul of free-speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"This situation is going to change. This is what I'll guarantee you. I'm not going to tolerate it. We're going to change things," he said during a City Hall news conference. "This is a situation that I don't accept, and we will deal with very aggressively."
He said that city agencies, including the NYPD and the Department of Consumer Affairs, are formulating a new approach for handling Times Square, which has become an epicenter of costumed characters and topless women in body paint seeking tips in exchange for posing for photographs.
One idea is to regulate the street hustlers as businesses subject to city rules, de Blasio said.
"Let's face it, the women in Times Square, or the furry creatures in Times Square, are engaged in a business," he said. "We believe that that opens the door for us to enforce the way we would any other business."
Asked about the proliferation of the topless women, de Blasio said, "it's wrong," but later added: "I think the bigger challenge, around First Amendment rights -- that's going to take more work, because it's a thorny area. It's part of our national history."
De Blasio also said he was disturbed at reports that mothers are begging with their children, and urged people to call the authorities when they spot such activity. If "there's any chance that a child is being abused, that child should be reported," he said.
The administration's crackdown found an ally in Randy M. Mastro, a Giuliani-era deputy mayor, who says the city could combat the nuisance by charging people under criminal statutes -- for behavior like assault and harassment -- or civilly, for breaking the city's rules on street vending.
Regardless of whether hustlers charge an upfront price or demand only a tip, Mastro said, "I think that is a distinction without a difference, because they're attempting to make their living by harassing people into paying them to pose for photographs."