I have to admit that the first time I visited New York, I hit a lot of the tourist must-sees; the Empire State Building observation deck, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, and visiting Times Square. As a first-time tourist, Times Square felt exciting: there were hordes of tourists and local theatre-goers, gawking at the neon advertising signage, and buying cheap souvenirs and dining at middle-American chain restaurants like TGI Friday’s. While wowed at the time, I came back with a feeling of disappointment. There was little “square” to Times Square, and really, there was no reason to pass through except changing subways or walking to the Port Authority Bus Terminal or to a nearby Broadway theatre.
But the square was put back in Times Square in this year’s Memorial Day long weekend (one week after Victoria Day weekend, May 23-25, 2009) as part of a trial project. Broadway was closed to all traffic for five blocks through the heart of the area, and a similar measure was taken at Herald Square, at 34th and Broadway. The closed off pavement was eventually painted a terra cotta colour, and more permanent bollards and directional signage were erected, making it likely that this will be a permanent fixture in Midtown Manhattan.
Tables and chairs are put out every morning (and caged up in the late nights) and have quickly become a popular meeting place, a spot to enjoy a snack, or just take a short rest in the hustle and bustle. But before any sense of New York envy kicked in, I remembered that this feels like a more constrained version of Dundas Square in Toronto, which has had simple patio furniture for several years now, attracting summer crowds, and which also serves a very simple function. The overall redevelopment of Yonge and Dundas has been at best a mixed blessing, but the square is now undoubtedly one of Toronto’s most successful public spaces.
The Dundas Square redevelopment was sold to Torontonians as our very own Times Square, complete with neon and video advertisements, entertainment, dining and shopping. To an extent, our permanent square has worked. Children enjoy playing in the fountains, and it is a very popular meeting place in the summer. While Times Square has the cache and hoards to give it it’s unique energy, there is some enjoyment in the slight irony that New York has used an idea from our “Times Square” for the “real thing”.
Of course, Toronto has flirted with pedestrian malls before, including Yonge Street in the 1970s (I am not sure that it would work again, even now). While it’s hard to think of a location that would draw as much of an all-day crowd in Toronto than Yonge and Dundas, there might be some opportunities for smaller scale street closures. Front Street in St. Lawrence Market, or Queen West (with allowances for streetcars) may be the best locations for such a bold intervention here.