Zap! Pow! Yikes! City Council Corrals Costumed Characters

An artist’s rendering of the designated zones the DOT is likely to impose on Times Square. Image courtesy NYC DOT.

An artist’s rendering of the designated zones the DOT is likely to impose on Times Square. Image courtesy NYC DOT.

BY JACKSON CHEN | The City Council has voted to give the Department of Transportation (DOT) authority over the many pedestrian plazas that have popped up in recent years, leading the costumed characters of Times Square, who worry about the new law’s impact on their activities, to look to legal action to protect their civil rights and livelihoods. And at least one prominent faux superhero has vowed defiance.

On April 7, 42 of the Council’s 51 members voted to approve the pedestrian plaza bill introduced by Corey Johnson and Dan Garodnick, whose districts converge in Times Square.

“We need to bring some order out of the chaos in Times Square,” Garodnick said. “The costumed characters have become a black eye for New York City, and we need to crack down on the bad actors who ruin the edgy and exciting vibe that makes Times Square unique.

Following the council vote, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the pedestrian plaza bill into law on April 21.

“Our pedestrian plazas are popular among tourists and New Yorkers alike,” de Blasio said. “They attract business for the surrounding establishments and create a safe space where people don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic.”

The new law grants the DOT power to create regulations for the city’s 53 pedestrian plazas, including the heavily trafficked Times Square. A draw for locals, tourists, and costumed characters, the area will now include three kinds of zones to regulate conduct and traffic flow through the Crossroads of the World, the DOT said.

In their presentation before the Council’s Transportation Committee on March 30, department officials outlined a draft proposal that created pedestrian flow zones where foot traffic could pass through unimpeded, general use areas for events and sightseers, and “designated activity zones” where all commercial activities — including the photo-taking that costumed characters conduct with tourists in exchange for tips — would take place.

“We are putting into place, what we believe are constitutional safeguards to ensure that commercial activity can take place and pedestrians and tourists can move freely on these plazas,” Johnson said.

Not all councilmembers were pleased with the proposal, as five of those on hand formally abstained and one voted against the bill. 

Brooklyn Councilmember Robert Cornegy, the naysayer, argued that the costumed characters help make for a more vibrant New York City. Critical of previous attempts to regulate costumed characters, Cornegy said this time around he is still “not convinced it will do no harm.”

He added, “I feel strongly that we should not regulate or police any New Yorkers out of harmless activity that they rely on to keep money in their pockets and put food on the table. Don’t knock the hustle.”

But facing an overwhelming majority in favor of the new regulation, the Spider-Man of Broadway and W. 45th St. vehemently voiced his opposition and his determination to carry out civil disobedience.

“I’m not going to follow these rules, to be in the box,” said Abdelamine El-Khezzani, Spidey’s alter ego. “It gives me limitations to move around. What if I just want to walk around in my costume?

El-Khezzani said being corralled into the designated commercial zones would cut into his livelihood because he often approaches tourists. If contained in a zone, he said, many of the costumed characters and ticket sellers would be ignored. The inevitable result, he predicted, would be more hostility and tension in the area.

“They want to shove us like a box of oranges, like sardines,” El-Khezzani said. “They just want us to starve that way.”

Robert Burck, whose professional outfit is quite nearly his birthday suit, was equally concerned about the type of environment the zones would create.

“If you had 30 people in the box, it’d be like piranhas,” said Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy.

Despite some hesitation, Burck said he plans to cooperate with the DOT’s regulations. But, the costumed characters fuming about the vote have their eyes set on legal action against the Council.

“I’m prepared to sue the city… other characters with me are ready to sue the city,” said El-Khezzani. “They can pass this law if they want. I’ll be the first one to get arrested… I’m going to fight until the last minute.”

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