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Times Square activity zones in effect, Elmo not tickled

Costumed characters pose for photographs and solicit tips

Costumed characters pose for photographs and solicit tips from inside one of the new Designated Activity Zones in Times Square in Manhattan on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. The Department of Transportation started painting the zones, about 8 feet by 50 feet, earlier this month. Violating the new designated activity zones could result in a civil or criminal penalty, or even an arrest. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A pair of Elmos stood on the corner of 42nd Street on Tuesday morning posing for photos and working the passing crowd, neither seeming very tickled by the teal painted rectangles on the ground meant to contain their business. They ignored them.

As the day wore on, the costumed characters seemed to huddle more in the “techno-teal” activity zones and leisure areas next to them, on the first day of the city’s enforcement of the new “Designated Activity Zones” in Times Square. Each Department of Transportation-designed zone, about 8 feet by 50 feet, is intended to separate the square’s pedestrian traffic from the dozens of costumed characters, ticket sellers and desnudas, and anyone else performing for a tip or selling something.

Many of the zones simply remained empty.

“I think it’s stupid and violates my civil rights. It’s a joke,” said Steven Clark, who dresses up as Elvis and has been doing so in Times Square for five years. “I’m going to lose money.”

If Tuesday is any indication, the new zones seem poised to significantly cut down on the number of photos the characters take and, concurrently, the money they make in tips.

One afternoon earlier this month, amNewYork observed 73 people over the course of an hour seeking photos at the corner of 46th Street, with two Elsas, three Olafs, four Spidermen, a Minnie and Mickey Mouse, a Superman, a Hulk and a Cookie Monster. Fifty of the tourists were seen giving some sort of a tip.

But on Tuesday afternoon, several characters huddled in the “techno-teal” activity zone and the “chill zone” leisure area at the same spot, waiting for someone to come inside and snap a pic. A total of 35 photos were taken in about an hour, a large number of which came courtesy of a pair of desnudas who shouted at passers-by: “photos, pictures.”

Of those, 24 tipped — one offering only a handful of coins.

In terms of enforcing the new rules, the NYPD says it’s undergoing “an education campaign,” with the goal of full compliance. Violating the new zones could result in a summons or even an arrest.

A city official said this is actually “the first phase of light-touch enforcement, and we will be ramping up as needed in the days and weeks to come.” The new zones, intended to crack down on aggressive commercial activity in Times Square, were approved by the City Council in April.

A spokesman for the DOT said the agency is monitoring who follows the new rules and how they are received.

“We are ready to make adjustments as needed with the NYPD,” the spokesman said in an email. “This is a trial and error period.”

Several costumed characters on Tuesday said they weren’t going to abide by their new constraints. But many did, begrudgingly.

Paul Carpenter, who has performed as a magician and hypnotist in the city for 15 years, said he doesn’t know how he will be able to conduct his performances, which he said can gather up to 150 people.

“It’s a bit deplorable,” he said. “It’s upsetting that in this country I’m being told where and when I can perform. This absolutely doesn’t work for me. I can’t work here.”

The rules aren’t a hardship for everyone. Robert Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, a Times Square staple, said he’s been standing in the designated zones ever since they were painted, and has seen an increase in his tips.

“All the people flow now. That makes more people come through here and more opportunity for money for the people who are in the box,” Burck said.

“The people also who come along, they stay on their side too, which kind of makes you feel like you’re on a stage,” he added. “Now it’s given us validation.”

Burck, who said he was skeptical of the zones at first, never asks for tips, but accepts them and places the money into his guitar when they are offered. He said he makes about $100 an hour.

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, who advocated for the new zones, said in an email the group was “generally pleased with the initial level of enforcement and compliance; we will continue to monitor implementation and expect that there will likely be some adjustments in the early stages.”

New Yorkers who work in Times Square have noticed the difference, manifest in a calmer and less aggressive vibe.

“People are more at ease,” said Eric Otero, 33, of Glendale, Queens. “I think it’s a great thing. It adds some class to Times Square — as much as you can.”


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