Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Mayor de Blasio announced a tentative plan to purge Times Square of its “aggressive” costumed characters.
Every morning, 41-year-old Juan Aria, from Colombia, pulls on a foam crown and a sweat-stained, seafoam-green smock. For 20 years, he’s posed as the Statue of Liberty on a Broadway intersection dotted with theaters. “I work for tips,” he says. “Whatever you want to give, that’s good for me.”
Aria estimates that a shift lasts eight, nine, or ten hours—however long it takes him to net $100. (He’s part of a larger company that takes a cut of his total.) He guesses that he meets 5,000 people a day. When we spoke on a sweaty July weekend, his voice was raspy underneath his mask.
Aria seems polite enough—even perched on a makeshift pedestal and stilts, he doesn’t come across as threatening. Still, his days as Lady Liberty could be in for a big change. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that he plans to crack down on brazen nudity and aggressive panhandling among topless and costumed characters, who tend to congregate around Times Square. He pledged to work with city agencies, including the NYPD and the Department of Consumer Affairs, to formulate a plan to reign in some of the hustlers’ antics without mowing down free speech rights, Newsday reported.
This move comes on the heels of a bill drafted by New York Senator Jeffrey Klein that seeks to penalize panhandling with children by slapping repeat offenders with a felony charge.
Accusations of aggression
Another report details the costume characters in Midtown “shaking down” tourists for cash. In one “scam,” Minnie Mouse poses for a photo, which Mickey walks over to join—then the rodents demand $20 apiece. The Times Square Alliance clarifies that these actors aren’t licensed or regulated by the city, and that tipping is not required.
Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, echoed Sarrel’s fear about aggressive solicitation. He told amNew York:
"There are hundreds of people a day being made to feel uncomfortable or worse, and it's just not being dealt with."
Times Square’s flashing billboards and congested sidewalks can leave even the most intrepid tourist unsteady and exhausted. And to stand out among all of the excess, some costumed panhandlers have resorted to raunchier getups. How do you top something that’s already so over the top? Dozens of young women peel off their shirts, coat their torsos in body paint, then pose for topless photos with passersby. Cindy Fox, who works Times Square as the bikini-clad Naked Cowgirl, explained to the Wall Street Journal:
“If you’re standing out there and you don’t have your boobs entirely out, it’s not like a novelty anymore.”
Characters on the move
Feeling persecuted in Midtown, costumed characters such as Spongebob Squarepants have migrated south, moving their business to the Coney Island boardwalk, the Brooklyn Paper reported. (On one recent visit, I spotted Elmo and Cookie Monster ambling around Surf Avenue, looking worse for the wear in matted costumes.) Some local business owners are less than welcoming towards the new attractions. Michael Sarrel, a manager at local eatery Ruby’s, told the paper:
“People are intimidated having them here, begging for tips. Sometimes they get aggressive.”
The characters, some feel, are a sensory overload. And in an environment doused with the sickly sweet odor of cotton candy caramelizing in the sun and the wailing screech of rickety roller coasters, that’s not nothing.