By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Elmos, Supermen and painted women of New York’s Times Square have little time left to roam free. On June 21 the city will corral them into special zones, set up to thwart aggressive behavior by tip seekers in the crowded Manhattan crossroads.
In keeping with the garishness for which Times Square is renowned, work crews on Thursday coated parts of the pavement in “techno-teal” paint to mark the “designated activity zones” where costumed characters, bus tour ticket sellers and other sidewalk solicitors will be confined while they ply their trade.
At present, they have free rein to operate in the area, slowing the flow of pedestrian traffic and annoying many of those who pass through Times Square.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said New York City Police Department Captain Robert O’Hare, who heads a new Times Square police unit in charge of enforcing the restrictions. “They’re constitutionally protected to perform out here, but there are rules, there are guidelines.”
Street performers and their advocates have come out against the rules, saying they will infringe their free speech rights and ability to earn a living.
The restrictions, approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio in April, come after a year of wrangling by local politicians and business owners who say tip-reliant performers have risen sharply in numbers and become more unruly in recent years.
“There was a history and a long record of people being very aggressive in approaching tourists,” said Tim Tompkins, president of area business group the Times Square Alliance.
In the past two years, incidents have included a Spider-Man punching a police officer and a topless performer, wearing only underwear and body paint, being arrested for drug possession and prostitution.
Oscar Rodriguez, 32, who works performing for tips as Batman’s nemesis The Joker, said the restrictions would make it more difficult for him to provide for his family.
“This is my job, it’s a good job,” said Rodriguez, who is originally from Colombia but now lives in the New York borough of Queens. “It will affect my family because I’ll have no money.”
The new rules will allow costumed characters to continue posing for pictures and hugs with passersby, but only if tourists approach them inside one of the eight zones measuring 8-by-50 feet that the city is setting up. O’Hare said he did not yet know what specific penalties violators would face.
Starting next week, city Department of Transportation workers will set up tables and hand out informational material about the Times Square rules. Signs marking the zones will also be put in place.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Tom Brown)