Masked and expectant, a steady flow of visitors crossed into Times Square at 42nd Street and Broadway last Sunday afternoon, snapping photos as soon as their feet touched the pedestrian plaza at the base of the square’s famous namesake building. Few seemed to look up now at the fabled ball, perched almost anonymously atop One Times Square.
It was a pleasant 52-degree-day, with blustery wind causing havoc with hair strands, as Michelle, visiting from the Netherlands (she did not want to give her last name), tried to keep her blonde hair away from her face while asking a passerby to take her photo by a giant illuminated American flag mounted against a wall. She wore two masks and seemed surprised that there were so many people moving about, after all she had heard about how badly the city had been affected by the pandemic.
“Everything is normal here,” she said, turning, gesturing to the groups of families, couples and young adults laughing and chattering around her. “I like it here; I didn’t know it would be like this.”
To her right, three costumed Minnie Mouse characters appeared to convince every passing family to pose for photos and quickly hand over several dollar bills before moving on to the next sight. Couples sat up close, talking, on the three-level bench structures scattered around; a group of young women took turns posing for pictures and politely declined to speak when asked where they were visiting from. Back at the flag, several older women waited for a chance to get their photo taken by the in-demand backdrop. To their left, a young woman in dark jeans and black baseball cap turned backward, appeared to be rapping as a one-man recording team with camera equipment filmed her.
Minus all the masks, this could have easily been any pre-pandemic March weekend at the Crossroads of the World, New York City’s most visited tourist attraction of more than 360,000 daily visitors up until 2019.
Yet, depending on who you ask, Times Square is definitely on its way back - or not.
A red-jacketed, tour bus promoter for one of the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing tours, sounded annoyed when asked how business was going.
“People don’t have jobs, they don’t have money, what do you think?” he said. “It’s very slow, only a little bit better than before, people aren’t buying.” He walked off without giving his name.
Two blocks away at 45th Street, a souvenir street vendor, who repeated that his name was Larry-just-Larry, spoke animatedly about how much he loved his job, and how he has been selling the same New York-emblazoned clothing items and accessories for over 30 years.
“Oh yes, business is definitely picking back up,” he said excitedly. “Yes, yes, everything’s good, things are going good.”
The leadership at Times Square Alliance, a non-profit organization that promotes and maintains the area, appears more cautious in their optimism, but still encouraged as New York turns the corner on the coronavirus pandemic that held the city hostage for more than a year. Their numbers show that pedestrian traffic has leveled off to about a third of the usual crowd, still a big improvement over the eerie emptiness last spring.
At its peak, just before the virus stopped visitors in their tracks and the neon billboards still cheerily flickered and flashed their messages to deserted streets, 50 million of the more than 60 million annual visitors to the city found time to go by this glitzy national treasure.
While the lights of Broadway are still out, there are blips and starts at other entertainment venues and occasional pop-up performances by Broadway actors and dancers that keep theater watchers hopeful. The Disney Store was open, with a line of families waiting outside to get in. Nearby, at the Olive Garden restaurant, there was also a line of mostly young families with restless children in strollers, waiting up to 30 minutes to dine.
Not far from the red TKTS steps at the northern boundary of Times Square, gift shop owner Sharif Kabir lamented that his sales were down, and he wasn’t making enough to cover his $10,000 monthly overhead.
“I used to make $40,000 and more,” he said, sighing. “But the government is going to help, give us some help.”