City Council Contemplates Corralling Times Square Characters

Spider-Man and the Dark Knight, aka Abdelamine El Khezzani and José Escalona-Martinez, in Times Square. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Spider-Man and the Dark Knight, aka Abdelamine El Khezzani and José Escalona-Martinez, in Times Square. Photo by Jackson Chen.

BY JACKSON CHEN | When they’re not fighting crime in their respective comic book universes, the teenage web slinger joins the grizzled protector of Gotham City in entertaining tourists in Times Square with marvelous photo opportunities.

Down the way, more flocks of cartoon characters are hanging around the chaotic corners of the Crossroads of the World. As hordes of people course through Times Square, the costume-clad crews connect with the many tourists looking for a goofy photo with an iconic backdrop.

After they’ve snapped their shots with the mishmash of pop culture icons, tourists often end their interaction with tips, even though many signs and nearby police officers warn they’re not obligated to.

Spider-Man, whose real identity is Abdelamine El-Khezzani, is careful to offer up the preface that he works off tips before striking a pose alongside children, slinging a makeshift spider web at the camera and declaring “Justice is served!”

For Spider-Man and his cohorts, however, justice hangs in the balance as the City Council looks at legislation intended to bring some order to the disorganized scene of wandering sightseers and tip-hungry characters.

“It’s chaotic, difficult to pass through, and increasingly unpleasant for tourists and New Yorkers alike,” said Councilmember Dan Garodnick, whose largely East Side district captures a portion of Times Square. “We want to both preserve the quirkiness and edge of Times Square while also allowing people to avoid the chaos if they want to.”

Times Square’s pedestrian plaza currently has few regulations and sometimes turns into the unofficial stage for unruly incidents between costumed characters and tourists.

Most recently, El-Khezzani was involved in an altercation on Sat., Mar. 26 with a Virginia family on the corner of 45th St. and Broadway. According to El-Khezzani, the Virginia family— later identified as Rodney Merrill and Margaretta Patman — walked away without compensation after promising Spider-Man a tip. El-Khezzani said he called the mother — who accuses the costumed character of kicking her — a liar and the father a chicken, and was subsequently punched in the throat by an upset Merrill.

A screenshot of video footage documenting a Mar. 26 altercation between Spider-Man (Abdelamine El-Khezzani) and tourists visiting from Virginia. Facebook via Jose Escalona-Martinez.

A screenshot of video footage documenting a Mar. 26 altercation between Spider-Man (Abdelamine El-Khezzani) and tourists visiting from Virginia. Facebook via Jose Escalona-Martinez.

After the family walked away, El-Khezzani approached nearby cops to address the situation. Both parties were then charged with assault after disagreements to settle it outside the legal system. According to El-Khezzani, his court hearing is Wed., Apr. 6, and was lumped together with a previous accusation of assault.

Since incidents of physical altercations and aggressive panhandling popped up on the media’s radar, becaming a commonplace storyline, a lengthy public task force process has culminated in Councilmember Corey Johnson’s Intro 1109, announced on Wed., Mar. 9.

L to R: The NYPD's Times Square Unit Commanding Officer, Captain Robert O'Hare, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, DOT Assistant Commissioner for Intergovernmental and Community Affairs Jeff Lynch, and Executive Director of Citywide Event Coordination Management, Michael Paul Carey. Photo by Jackson Chen.

L to R: The NYPD’s Times Square Unit Commanding Officer, Captain Robert O’Hare, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, DOT Assistant Commissioner for Intergovernmental and Community Affairs Jeff Lynch, and Executive Director of Citywide Event Coordination Management Michael Paul Carey. Photo by Jackson Chen.

“Times Square is known around the world for its bustling, quirky, and slightly chaotic atmosphere,” Johnson, a West Sider who shares Times Square with Garodnick, said in a written statement. “But when certain individuals cross the line and harass, swindle, and take advantage of pedestrians, the city must take action.”

Under Johnson’s bill — co-sponsored by Councilmembers Garodnick, Ydanis Rodriguez from Upper Manhattan, Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, and Brad Lander of Brooklyn — the Department of Transportation (DOT) would be given authority to designate pedestrian plazas through consideration of an area’s need for open space, its ability to be maintained, and its surrounding environment.

The bill also gives the DOT’s commissioner, currently Polly Trottenberg, the ability to establish general rules of conduct for pedestrian plazas throughout the city and specific regulations tailored to certain plazas. Times Square is clearly what the bill has in mind in terms of tailored regulations, though it is not named specifically in the legislation.

Abdelamine El-Khezzani outside the City Council's chambers before speaking at the Mar. 30 hearing. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Abdelamine El-Khezzani outside the City Council’s chambers before speaking at the Mar. 30 hearing. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Though overall authority will reside with the DOT as the designating body, community boards, councilmembers, borough presidents, and non-profit organizations can submit proposals for pedestrian plazas.

To generate more support for the bill, the area’s business improvement district — better known as the Times Square Alliance — held two rallies that showcased the numerous tweets and testimonials of verbal abuse or inappropriate touching from both locals and tourists passing through Times Square.

And shortly after, on Wed., Mar. 30, the council’s Transportation Committee held its initial hearing on the controversial bill, which will either calm the area or endanger jobs, depending on who’s speaking.

Kicking off the hearing, the DOT presented a rough draft of the three designated areas of Times Square. According to Commissioner Trottenberg, the agency wants to create “flow zones” that establish a clear path for pedestrians and a general use area for scheduled events and sightseers looking to take in the atmosphere.

But it’s the proposed “designated activity zones” (DAZs) that have caught the ire of costumed characters, street performers, ticket sellers and Broadway show promoters.

According to Trottenberg, there would be eight DAZs that measure roughly 10 feet by 50 feet and would accommodate the approximately 300 total solicitors. The commissioner added that the DAZs would be subject to some “trial and error” and the agency would make adjustments as needed with help from the NYPD and its Times Square Unit.

For tour bus ticket sellers and Broadway show promoters, the zones would corral them into cramped and hostile environments. Many of the ticket sellers, who work solely on commission, said they’d be caged into a small area with competition just a few feet away from each other.

Spider-Man throws his web for a fan, while the Dark Knight looks on. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Spider-Man throws his web for a fan, while the Dark Knight looks on. Photo by Jackson Chen.

The Broadway show promoters, who provide marketing for the various plays nearby, felt they should be exempt from the legislation. According to Tim Wooster, co-founder of the Broadway marketing company theatreMAMA, his 60 employees don’t fall into the category of “financial or commercial action” because they’re offering discounts and advertising for Broadway shows.

Wooster’s business partner and co-founder of theatreMAMA, Michelin Hull, agreed with the notion that there needs to be a change for the better in Times Square — but maintained that a bill restricting his employees’ actions was not the answer.

“If you take that right away and you take these public sidewalks and make them private,” Hull said, “what’s going to happen is this squishing effect where everyone’s competing.”

As for the costumed characters and other performers who fill Times Square, they are similarly worried that the Council effort could compromise their First Amendment rights, along with their livelihoods.

“This is a public space, we are free people,” said El-Khezzani, the spirited Spider-Man of Times Square. “We show our freedom of expression in this public space.”

El-Khezzani, who’s been a costumed character for 12 years, said regulating a public space where everyone has freedom of speech and expression makes no sense.

Joining Spidey, the Times Square’s Dark Knight — aka José Escalona-Martinez — said no new regulations should be able to override his constitutional rights to express himself.

“This is a public place which allows any cartoon characters, any tourist to walk freely, dressed in whatever [way] they want to dress,” Escalona-Martinez said.

Putting their feud to the side, Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, joined the outcry of costumed characters.

“We have a First Amendment right to look the way we want,” the Joker said, whose real identity is Keith Albahae. “Let’s be clear what the real problem is: The real problem is about looking different.”

While they’re adamant on protecting their freedom of expression, the comic book heroes and villains acknowledge there have been problems with some costumed characters.

According to several news outlets, incidents have ranged from Junior Bishop — also dressed as Spider-Man, as well as the Incredible Hulk — facing charges of felony assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct, and aggressive panhandling, to infighting between Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty over tips, and a trio (Minnie Mouse, Cookie Monster, and Olaf from Disney’s “Frozen”) allegedly boxing in a tourist until they paid up.

The NYPD’s Times Square arrest records include addresses from the far away Galactic Empire, the friendly Sesame Street, and even Ellis Island, where Darth Vader, Elmo, and the Statue of Liberty were all slapped with charges of aggressive panhandling.

“When more characters came into the square, there’s where the problem started to evolve,” El-Khezzani said. “Some characters, they get greedy, then police start getting involved and people get arrested.”

He added that the recent visibility of the desnudas, or topless women who are costumed in body paint, have stoked demands that the city better regulate behavior in Times Square.

With so much rowdiness unfolding in public view, the Council worked with city agencies and the Times Square Alliance to figure out a solution to what was widely seen as a growing menace.

Last August, Mayor Bill de Blasio created a task force to address concerns voiced by Times Square stakeholders. In October, the task force released several recommendations, including the creation of a dedicated NYPD detail for the area and empowering the DOT with the authority to regulate pedestrian plazas such as Times Square.

According to the Alliance, the task force’s proposed solution is reflected in the DOT’s most recent draft and involves creating three distinct regulatory zones within the zone’s pedestrian plazas. A civic zone would be designated for public events and programming, flow zones would allow for unimpeded pedestrian traffic, and designated activity zones would make space for “constitutionally-protected solicitation for the immediate exchange of money for goods, services, or entertainment.”

“We have proposed specific areas for you to be able to pass through Times Square without interference,” Garodnick said, “where you would not encounter tables, chairs, or hawkers of any type.”

But the costumed characters and street performers feel the legislation too broadly categorizes them, lumping the bad eggs in with those who obey the law.

“There’s no reason, after 16 years, that I have to be plugged in with the characters and the new girls who have been here, like, two years,” said Robert Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy.

Naked Cowboy, Robert Burck’s alter ego for 16 years, and two admirers in Times Square. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Naked Cowboy, Robert Burck’s alter ego for 16 years, and two admirers in Times Square. Photo by Jackson Chen.

Burck and El-Khezzani agreed that the NYPD and city officials should be targeting the troublemakers who are relentless in seeking tips, while not punishing people who maintain friendly interactions with people traveling through the area.

“Where there’s been problems, just solve the problem where it’s at,” Burck said. “Don’t blame everybody for it.”

But Johnson and his fellow Council co-sponsors feel the proposed legislation will create a better functioning, less intimidating Times Square that is fair to all.

“It is possible to respect First Amendment rights while protecting pedestrians from scams and aggressive panhandling,” Johnson said. “This common sense legislation is the right fit for Times Square.”

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