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Without crowds, is Times Square really Times Square?

NEW YORK — A tour bus agent desperately tried to discern which passersby were New Yorkers and which ones were out-of-towners. Newlyweds from Maryland, hoping to celebrate their nuptials with a special dinner, had to settle for McDonald’s. Four homeless men sat on a sidewalk, sharing cigarettes and a pipe filled with marijuana.

This is Times Square, jarringly quiet beneath flashing billboards. Times Square needs a crowd, which is as much a part of its character as the incessant lights.

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“Look around,” said Ronnie Boyd, 54, from Brooklyn, who has been selling souvenir hats and T-shirts on the sidewalk in the area since 2004. “Without the Broadway shows, the office workers, the tourists, the crowds, you got no Times Square.”

The throngs of visitors — the trademark of the famous neighborhood for more than a century — are gone. The air is no longer thick with the aroma of hot dogs and roasting nuts. Broadway theaters are closed. Office buildings are nearly vacant. And there is an eeriness to the emptiness, helping to stir the faint fear that Times Square could slip back to its 1970s self, a seamy neighborhood known for open crime, drugs and sex shows.

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The neighborhood’s transformation — from gritty to “Disney” — was a significant chapter in the city’s revitalization, even as detractors criticized the new Times Square as losing its edge. Times Square has an outsize share of the city’s economic activity, despite occupying only 0.1% of the city’s land mass, said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, the area’s business improvement district.

Before the pandemic, the square, where Broadway meets Seventh Avenue from 42nd to 47th streets, helped to draw a crush of tourists to the city. A record 66.6 million visited the city in 2019, with many making their way to a show, the New Year’s Eve ball drop or to a little patch of sidewalk just to stand beneath all those lights. That level of tourism is not likely to return until 2024, according to one forecast.

Times Square is now a microcosm of the city’s struggle to survive the pandemic, as restaurants and businesses close and residents lose their jobs. There are no crowds to shield and disguise the population of homeless people living there on the street.

“Times Square has always been New York on steroids, so whatever is happening in New York City is amplified in Times Square,” Tompkins said.

Beginning in August, overnight counts tallied by Times Square Alliance reported that the number of people sleeping on the street in Times Square was roughly double the 2019 levels, and many are “much more aggressive with passersby or are ignoring social distancing,” Tompkins said.

Despite the shortage of tourists, Ruth Njuguna, a tour bus agent, still searched for likely customers, passing out pamphlets and wearing a placard around her neck bearing her name, “Miss Ruth.”

“People came from all over the world to Times Square, and now they’re just not coming,” she said.

Before the pandemic, willing tourists would buy up to 100 tickets a day, Njuguna said, which allowed her to support her two children in the Bronx and send some money home to relatives in Kenya. Now, there are days when she may sell merely two or three tickets.

Visitors have slowly returned, especially on nights and weekends. And the district has reemerged occasionally as a central gathering spot for events such as Black Lives Matter protests and celebrations after President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was declared.

Still, the district feels empty by Times Square standards. About 108,000 pedestrians pass through the area each day compared with 380,000 before the pandemic. Over the extended Thanksgiving weekend, Times Square had a third of the usual foot traffic, the alliance said.

Tompkins said it was still unclear whether December would bring a holiday bump, given the pandemic restrictions.

The office towers largely remain empty, and most of the hotels in the area have closed, at least temporarily, including the 478-room Hilton Times Square, as have stores like Old Navy and the U.S. Polo Association. Restaurants such as Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe, and Dave and Buster’s have not yet reopened.

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From March to the end of October, at least 26 of the 46 hotels in the Times Square area shut, at least temporarily, the alliance said, and 39 of the 151 retailers closed, as did 84 of the 162 restaurants. Of the two multiplexes on 42nd Street, the Regal has closed permanently and the AMC Empire 25, the top-grossing theater in the country, remains closed because of city restrictions on movie theaters. The annual New Year’s Eve ball drop, which draws crowds of more than 1 million, will be held without live spectators this year. Broadway theaters will remain closed at least until June, and few believe any substantial comeback in the area will happen before that.

Formerly known as Longacre Square, Times Square was renamed in 1904 after The New York Times moved its headquarters to a newly erected building at what is now One Times Square, the site of the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop.

After World War I, it became a cultural hub full of theaters, music halls and upscale hotels, as well as the city’s main gathering spot, but by the 1960s, the area had grown increasingly seedy — rife with sex shops, peep shows and adult theaters. It became synonymous with the city’s decline through the 1970s and 1980s as crime rates soared, before city and state officials in the 1990s took over the revitalization of 42nd Street.

Now, Times Square may feel sketchier without the festive crowds, but the sharp decline in visitors and workers has actually caused a drop in crime.

The total number of major crimes in the Midtown South precinct, which covers much of Times Square, has declined so far this year by nearly 22% compared with the same time period last year. With fewer visitors, the number of grand larcenies, which often involve electronics and credit cards, dropped from 1,718 last year to 1,026 so far this year.

The pandemic came down hardest on Times Square’s anchor block, 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, which is a shadow of its pre-pandemic self. The block had a 70% decline in pedestrian traffic compared with last year, according to a study conducted by the alliance.

Roughly 80% of its businesses are now closed or inactive, including theaters where “Aladdin” and “Harry Potter” were playing when the lockdown came.

“There isn’t a single block that went so quickly and so hard from everything blooming in full to everything shut down,” Tompkins said. “The city and state spent two decades and tens of millions of dollars turning it around. It was a major economic engine, and it has completely shut down.”

Alan Rosen owns two outposts of Junior’s Restaurant in Times Square that were among the busiest independent restaurants in the country last year.

Their kitschy New York deli décor lies darkened behind locked doors. Although indoor dining is permitted at 25% capacity in the city, Rosen has visited Times Square recently to “feel the vibe” and has decided he still cannot open because the area is too quiet.

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“There are people who say it’s going to back to the way it was in the ’70s,” Rosen said. He said he is not one of those naysayers, but rather believes Times Square will bounce back with the return of Broadway, tourism, hotel use and office workers.

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For now though, there are no crowds, and vulnerable people living on the street are more visible.

People who have no housing have been pushed out of the subway system since it began closing each night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for cleaning. To combat the spread of the coronavirus, the city removed thousands of people from crowded shelters and into hotels emptied of tourists.

Advocates say many homeless people have left crowded shelters on their own, taking their chances on the streets during the pandemic. In the hotels, two strangers generally share a room, an arrangement that can also spread the virus.

One of those new residents on the street in Times Square is Shakeem Lofton, 45.

He reclined on a blue blanket and a pillow propped up against a newsstand on Seventh Avenue near West 44th Street on a recent weekday and said he had left an uptown Manhattan shelter because of virus fears and had chosen this location because it seemed like the best spot to panhandle.

“I figured I’d be safer taking my chances on the street than sleeping next to all those people,” he said.

On another day, Benjamin Creel, 35, sat with three other homeless men who shared cigarettes and a pipe filled with marijuana. “A year ago, we couldn’t even be sitting here because the crowds were so thick — now there’s barely anyone on the sidewalk,” said Creel, adding that the number of new homeless people has increased.

“You’re definitely seeing more, that’s for sure,” said Creel, who said he had lived on the city’s streets, on and off, since first arriving six years ago after losing his roofing job in Elmira, New York, and going through a divorce.

His survival strategy involved panhandling with a cardboard sign bearing the message “I Need Weed,” which was both true and a good sales pitch, he said.

“Before COVID, I could clear 80 to 100 bucks a day on the street — sometimes you get a tourist to throw you a 20,” he said. “But with the pandemic, there’s no tourist and no festivities going on, and New Yorkers are struggling too, so I’m lucky if I make 10 bucks a day.”

Ismael Guillen, 25, and Jennifer Medrano, 19, from Pasadena, Maryland, stood in a nearly deserted pedestrian plaza near 44th Street on a recent weekday.

Perhaps nothing is more striking about Times Square than the sheer emptiness of it, compared to its pre-pandemic self, something that was not lost on the newlyweds.

The couple took a few rare days off from their jobs at Chick-fil-A for a brief honeymoon in Times Square.

“It’s definitely not what I expected, compared to the crowded Times Square you see in the movies and pictures,” Medrano said. Guillen said he had visited several times before, including ringing in 2018 on New Year’s Eve.

Knowing Times Square’s reputation for late-night activity, the couple went out after 9 p.m. one evening for dinner and tried the Hard Rock Cafe, Red Lobster and the Olive Garden, but all were closed.

They ate at McDonalds.

“It’s the same place, but it’s a totally different experience,” Guillen said. “It’s totally opposite of what it used to be.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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