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Ambulantage et métropolisation

Keeping space public: Times Square (New York) and the Senegalese peddlers

Maintenir l’espace public : Times Square (New York) et les camelots sénégalais
Stéphane Tonnelat


Cet article questionne la nature de l'espace public physique et représenté (Télévision, Internet, presse) de Times Square à travers une analyse des techniques utilisées par les camelots Sénégalais pour vendre des souvenirs aux touristes. Tandis que de nombreux chercheurs dénoncent la « Disneyfication » de Times Square, autrement dit sa privatisation, l'observation des vendeurs de rue révèle un ordre social quasiment auto-régulé des flux de piétons, qui échappe au contrôle de l'institution pseudo-publique en charge du site : le Times Square Business Improvement District. Mais les difficultés rencontrées par les camelots révèlent encore un autre Times Square, moins public, constitué par l'accumulation d'images capturées par les grandes entreprises des medias et de la finance récemment installées dans les tours de bureaux surplombant le site. Cet espace pseudo-privé "propre et pacifié" (Mitchell and Staeheli 2006) ne s'accommode pas de la présence des camelots et les repousse dans les angles morts du site. Mais il dépend de la dynamique des flux, ménageant ainsi un espace pour les vendeurs et préservant la nature publique de l'espace physique de Times Square. Combien de temps ce compromis peut-il durer ?

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1Times Square is a singular crossroads of the New York City urban grid. It is made out of the narrow encounter between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, the only diagonal avenue of the gridiron. This encounter cuts out a specific public space, 5 blocks long, or about 500 meters, with a width varying from 25 meters in the center to 100 meters at each extremity. This unusual shape has given Times Square a nickname: the bowtie (Taylor 1991).

2Times Square is a busy space. On the Avenues' sidewalk, according to the Business Improvement District, pedestrians walk at rates varying from 2000 to 9000 persons an hour. The site is a huge commercial center, with more than 600 stores totaling about 150 000 square meters of sale space (BID 1998). Times Square also shelters one of the busiest subway stations, with 11 lines radiating towards the outer boroughs. Car traffic is also dense, completing the impression shared by every tourist of a space always in movement.

3But of course, the most famous dimension of Times Square is the spectacle of its gigantic and multicolored signage that dresses up the facades of all the buildings fronting the square. Since 1986, signage has been imposed by a local zoning law that forces developers to include a surface ratio of advertisement as well as other "cultural" guidelines. In 1998, a well-located sign, such as the giant Panasonic screen on the Times Tower, rented for about $2 million annually with maintenance costs of about $1 million (Boyer 2002; Sagalyn 2001).

4Such a popular and commercial success raises a number of issues regarding the management of flows, not only to prevent accidents between pedestrians and cars, but mostly to guarantee the best exposure of the site to the 1.5 million daily visitors. Pedestrians are a direct measure of success of the site, whose income derives chiefly from advertisement. The main social rule is therefore quite simple: keep moving! The Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), now called the Times Square Alliance, is the institution precisely in charge of the everyday functioning of the site. It is a gathering of land and business owners within a set perimeter, to which the City has granted the right to charge a tax in order to secure (50 private police), sanitize (50 sanitation workers) and promote Times Square (Tonnelat 2001).

5The "New Times Square," as the BID calls it, is a renovated neighborhood. Its old reputation as a seedy pit of sex and drug culture is still present in the mind of a number of visitors and gives them the edgy thrill of a "riskless risk entertainment" in a "sanitized environment" (Delany 1999; Hannigan 1998). It wasn't always safe however (Friedman 1986; McNamara 1994; McNamara 1995). Soon after the creation of the BID, the private police managed to dramatically bring down the crime rate. Since then, the BID police have taken on another mission. They serve as traffic agents. Sanitation and surveillance crews can be compared to the workers of a huge outdoor movie theater guiding viewers so as to enjoy a maximum pleasure with a minimum of discomfort. Visitors should not have to worry about practical issues such as where to step foot and watch out for their own belongings. This is how scholars of the "New Times Square" have been able to denounce the Disneyification of a place until then considered as a monument to urban excitement (Boyer 2002; Hannigan 1998). For Zukin (1995) and Sorkin (1992), it is the opening of the Disney Theater in the old Amsterdam Theater that signaled the transformation of Times Square into a "theme park." These affirmations compare Times Square to privately owned places such as Disneyland where entry is controlled by a fee , and behaviors closely monitored.

6Saying that Times Square is Disneyfied would mean that even though the streets are the property of the public administration, the influence of corporate companies is such that access is in fact restricted to some categories of the population for financial or cultural reasons, a move contrary to the definition of the public domain and possibly qualified as discriminatory. Times Square is not the only public place affected by privatization. More recently Don Mitchell and Lyn Staeheli (2006) have come up with the concept of pseudo-private space in order to describe other US cities downtown redevelopments, where homeless and other undesirable populations have been evicted by combined legal, economic and coercive measures. Is Times Square privatized? Is it a pseudo-private space or is it still a public space?

The Senegalese peddlers: between the law and the norm

7The observation of the Senegalese peddlers has allowed me to answer some of the questions outlined above. I have conducted fieldwork in Times Square from the Fall 1998 to the Summer 1999 and again for four months in the Fall 2001. All the numbers given below are 1999 figures. The peddlers were chosen among the few who knew how to remain immobile in the middle of traffic. But unlike the Black Jewish preachers or the Chinese sketchers, all protected in NYC by the freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution, they did not become a part of the spectacle.

8One definition of a public space is a space accessible to anybody. For Isaac Joseph, accessibility means not only the physical possibility to enter a place, but also a more interactive way of taking place, of finding things to do in the environment (Gibson 1979; Joseph 2002). According to this definition, Times Square would not be a public space as it is deprived of resources for unplanned activities. It only presents a physical accessibility more akin to a highway for pedestrians. But this vision rests on a point of view external to the flow of pedestrians. In order to check Times square's accessibility, one has to look into dynamics internal to the flow, doing the opposite of the BID’s work which consists in channeling the flows.

9The Senegalese peddlers appeared in New York City in the 1980s when the US, for various reasons, became an alternative destination to Europe. Most of them outstayed tourist or student visas and resorted to illegal peddling (Perry 1997). They were visible in tourist areas such as Battery Park, Times Square, Fifth Avenue (by Sacks), Lincoln Center and Herald Square (by Macys), as well as in poorer residential areas of Harlem (125th Street) and Brooklyn (Fulton Street) where they resided. In Times Square, the peddlers are contemporary to the renewal that saw the return of tourists. The re-opening of the New Amsterdam Theater by Disney in 1992 probably marks the beginning of their sustained presence. However, it was not until the late 1990s that their number really grew. During my observations, the number of Senegalese peddlers was highest on week-end nights between 6 and 11 pm. In December, the vendors were even more numerous, taking advantage of the Christmas shopping season. Groups of about a dozen vendors could be seen standing or walking almost any day between 5pm and 11pm. However, during regular months of the year and days of the week, the vendors were much less numerous, moving in small groups of two to four, sometimes merging or splitting with other groups. For that reason, it is very difficult to have an estimate of the number of regular vendors in Times Square at any given moment.

Source : Author 1999. Background: NYC Planning Commission.

Map 1 : Sale and storage network of Senegalese peddlers in Manhattan Midtown

10The Senegalese peddlers don't have an easy job. These men are fully aware of their reputation as "street smugglers." This situation is not specific to them but rather results from a long history of street selling. This reputation dates from the 19th century when the hygienist movement, paired with a rational and functionalist urban planning, transformed the streets into circulation only zones. Street vendors and their pushcarts became the target of business owners, together with the reformers, in their effort to fight sidewalk crowdedness (Bluestone 1991). Free circulation was supposed to provide the best conditions for the real estate market while at the same time guaranteeing a purer air for the lungs of the urban masses.

11Street selling was mostly contained within the confines of poor neighborhoods. Peddling was often the first job for immigrants arriving daily from Eastern Europe. It didn't need starting capital and escaped taxes. Cheap goods were aimed at the inhabitants of these neighborhoods and improved the quality of life of the residents. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was known for its concentration of Russian peddlers. Conflicts were a matter of class rather than traffic. However, circulation was already used as an argument to control peddling by elected officials, as this 1906 quote by Mayor McClellan suggests (Bluestone 1991):

"Vendors should remember that they have not a vested right to use the streets for the purpose of trade, that the streets are highways and intended solely for that purpose, and that the city and its citizens have rights in the street which must also be fully protected."

12Vendors were then considered as obstacles to the construction of a modern and bourgeois Manhattan. They were not yet a threat to rich business districts. Today, a hundred years later, not only peddlers are a continuing problem for lawmakers, but they have invaded the most prestigious neighborhoods prompting reactions from the mayor as well as from business owners. With the increase in urban tourism, a new form of street vending has appeared. It takes place within the nooks of the main commercial thoroughfares. The politics of preservation and "mallification" (conversion into a shopping mall-type place; (Sorkin 1992), the taking over of urban centers by large chain stores and their franchises, brings commercial rents to new highs that evict small businesses (Fainstein and Judd 1999). A new form of street selling seized the occasion, providing cheap food and souvenirs to the throngs of pedestrians hungry for culture.

13Luxury stores on Fifth Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan, were first to complain. Even though the phenomenon is new, the rhetoric remains the same as a hundred years ago. "The street-peddler plague is infecting the entire City of New York" declared Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and New York celebrity (Blauner 1987). As the city attracts cheap labor from close and far, it seems to some that the third world is encroaching upon the first world upper class New York (Stoller 1996). Peddlers illustrate the time-space compression of global cities that manage to bring together the richest and the poorest (Sassen 1988; 1991). In order to avoid "contamination," Rudolph Giuliani, mayor from 1993 to 2001, drastically reduced the number of available spots on the sidewalks of the city (Barnes 1999; Stoller 1996). In Midtown, all the Avenues are forbidden for street selling during store hours. On Broadway and 7th Avenue, crossing in Times Square, peddling is prohibited from 7 AM to midnight in order to respect the night life of the area (New York City Council. 1998).

14In addition to these measures, the degrading image of peddlers has been widely distributed by the written press, largely fed by the Business Improvement Districts of Manhattan. As the private security guards do not enjoy the right to arrest vendors, the BIDs pressure the city to enlarge its NYPD "peddlers' task force." "Peddling is something that really bothers people" asserts Ellen Goldstein, vice-president of the Times Square BID, without real study (Fickenscher 2002). This lobbying is efficient. From 1993 to 1996, the unit grew from 1 sergeant and 6 officers to 1 lieutenant, 6 sergeants and 34 officers, while the shifts went from 8 hours a day to 24 hours a day 7 days a week (Lii 1996). But these efforts remain insufficient. The task force, with a wide territory and a fuzzy definition of street vendors, is overwhelmed.

15Whereas the vendors are aware of the negative image attributed to them by the media, tourists and many New Yorkers don't buy the argument. For the peddlers, the problem is more practical. On the one hand they provide cheap goods to pedestrians, on the other hand they are seen as a threat to public order and undermining the quality of life as defined by the municipal administration. While they can be arrested and their goods seized, they are nonetheless accepted by the public. This is why an informal agreement, a compromise between law and norm, was found between the peddlers and the NYPD. In other words, the vendors can remain on the sidewalk as long as they don't disturb the social order of the street and respect the rights and legitimacy of its official workers. The compromise is fragile. It depends on the ability of the vendors to evaluate what is acceptable from the police perspective. Too visible an activity puts the officer on duty at risk of being perceived as incompetent (Herbert 1997). The tactic therefore consists in making the sale supposedly invisible by police officers. In fact the situation is triadic. It takes place between the vendors, the police and the pedestrians. Any of these can declare the situation out of control and call the police to action. Here is what an African American incense vendor said about Times Square in the mid-90s (Duncombe 1995):

"There is an unwritten law of the street...a good basic interrelation with the public. This is something that is seen, and of course this helps the police officer in the street. I promote that with most of my guys. I teach them that public relations is very, very important.".

Micro-ecology of street peddling in Times Square

16The triadic situation of street vending in Times Square pushes the peddlers to develop a few tactics in order to keep appearances as normal as possible. For this, they have to comply with the two main functions of the site: circulation and spectacle, even if their own activity is not compatible with them. The vendors present themselves so that their dominant involvement places them as pedestrians while they shift their attention towards a subordinate involvement, vendor, that allows them to stay put and proceed to selling (Goffman 1963). This dual allocation works at two different levels: first walk and stage, and second, stop and décor. Three successive positions are adopted by the vendors in order to make the sale fit in the social order of the sidewalk. I call them "fit in", "fade out" and "stand out" as we shall see further.

17Senegalese peddlers sell three different objects in Times Square (they sell others elsewhere): watches, sunglasses and sweatshirts. The sale is similar for each of these articles, only varying by the container, which requires the appropriate tactics for opening and closing. Watches are either counterfeit or of a generic kind. The former sell for $20 to $30 whereas the latter invariably sell for $10. The watches are presented in an attaché case that vendors keep open in front of them or put down on a crafted X, a box or street furniture such as a mailbox. The sunglasses are all "Oakley" and sold in a plastic box printed with the brand name. Only the color varies. They sell for $10. They can either be presented well ordered in an attaché case or as a pile in a plastic bag that can be held with two hands or open on the ground. The sweatshirts, laid in small piles on a large board, need a more bulky rolling cart. They are covered with a blanket until the time of the sale. The size of this equipment is a handicap in Times Square where discretion and mobility are paramount. However, the sweaters are a good sell with tourists that seek well identified New York souvenirs.

18Vendors only sell one of the three articles but occasionally shift to other products to follow the trends. Watches are the most common, followed by the glasses. When it rains, the peddlers will suddenly pullout $5 umbrellas that disappear as quickly as the rain stops. This phenomenon raises the question of stock. No peddler carries a large amount of merchandise, for fear of confiscation by the police. Vendors often have a stock in a more discrete corner, guarded either by a friend or a wife. The items are bought from Chinese wholesalers in Chinatown.

19It is difficult to estimate the income of a vendor as it largely depends on the vendor's assiduity, his ability to avoid the police and the period of the year. Even though a rumor among vendors says that some of them make several thousand dollars a day, a more realistic figure could be about $2000 a month during the summer months. December could yield $3000 while February is the lowest month with an average of $500.

20All vendors say they do not want to work in the street for more than a couple years. They want to make enough money to secure legal status in the US or to go back to Senegal with a decent capital (and build a house). Peddling is an entry job for new immigrants. They are introduced to it by their fellows of the Mouride Diaspora, an Islamic brotherhood. The organization lends money and establishes contacts with wholesalers and, according to some vendors, has some informal agreement with the police. Newcomers are shown by their peers the tricks of the trade. However, they don't seem to have any kind of formal training or teaching. They just benefit from the in-group solidarities of the brotherhood.

21One of the main risks run by vendors is the arrest and the seizing of the goods. The fine is $45 but the loss in material goods can be much higher although it is not frequent. In addition, membership in the Mouride brotherhood mitigates these risks as peddlers can quickly reconstitute their stock through a loan. Peddlers can be also sentenced to a few days of community service by the Midtown Community Court. From October 1993 to September 1994, street vending made up 18% of the arrests judged by this institution partially financed by the Times Square BID, and especially designed at tackling "quality of life" offenses (Feinblatt et al. 1998; 1997). For Mamadou though, a vendor several times sentenced, the risk is not serious enough. Vendors are self-employed and can make up the following week if they are taken away for a couple days. All these risks show how street vending is considered a crime by the BID and other municipal institutions in charge of public order.

Dominant involvement: walking and stopping, fit in and fade out

22Most of the time spent by the vendors in Midtown is devoted to walking in search of the best place to sell. Walking provides two important advantages for the peddlers. First, it makes up their dominant involvement that serves them as a cover. Vendors are before anything else pedestrians, just like anybody else. Second, walking makes vendors hard to locate at any given moment.

23Even when they are immobile, vendors don't step out of the flow but rather stand as if they were pedestrians temporarily stopped and pushed into areas of lesser traffic. They originate from the flow and always return to the flow. Their main competence is to make onlookers believe that they are "just passing." This is what Goffman (1963) calls the ability to "fit in". The peddlers dress identically to African American workers in this area of the city: Jeans, tee shirt or shirt and baseball cap. Those who walk with an attaché-case blend in with white collars from the buildings around, while those who carry a bag or push a cart mix with the delivery workers of the nearby garment district. Peddlers walk in small groups, often seeming to mindlessly follow the flow, even slower than most walkers. This allows them to get out of the flow more quickly or to efficiently identify a follower. This is an important skill that shows how the order of the flow comes from within. It is only because the vendor always respects his involvement as a pedestrian that he will later be able to come out as a vendor. This rule is most visible when a peddler stops in a public space. He stands as an idling walker, waiting for an appointment or for an impromptu talk before separating, and pays attention at not becoming an obstacle to the flow, such as street furniture or a sidewalk stand do. Incidentally, he occupies the slow areas of the traffic, a position from where he can watch the crowd while respecting the order of the flow. This is the skill of "fade out" which allows peddlers to stop in Times Square while not becoming a part of the spectacle.

24This ability is important as a large part of the time is spent waiting. It seems that it is almost never the "right moment" to sell. The risk is always too high. A lot of vendors say they only come to look even though they have brought their goods.

- It's tough because of the police. Today, I am here but I don't open my briefcase.
- But him, there (just across the sidewalk, a vendor sells sunglasses), he is selling.
- Yes, he is taking risks. (The vendor actually looks worried and constantly checks to his right and left, mostly to the North where he is first from the corner).
- And you, you don't sell?
- No, too dangerous tonight. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it is better.

- Why?
- Because there is more people, it is easier.

- But there are more police too?
- True, but these are not the most dangerous. The dangerous police are plainclothes. (Field journal 12/07/98).

25This excerpt shows how the tension that prevents the vendor from exhibiting their wares is made out of a combination of police presence and visibility based on crowd density.

Subordinate involvement: the sale, standing out.

26The sale marks a shift in the allocation of involvement. The vendor goes from being a pedestrian to an illegal street worker. With regard to the social order of Times Square, this constitutes a double offense. First, it doesn't participate in the spectacle or in the circulation. It disturbs the comfort of the pedestrians who are distracted at ground level. Second, it is precisely the exhibition of the goods that constitutes the illegal act of peddling and that gives the policemen grounds for arrest. Thus the peddlers are in a bind. On the one hand, they should not disturb the social order of the flow but on the other hand, they need to divert the attention of the pedestrians. To solve that problem, vendors limit both the space and the time of the offense by creating a local perturbation quickly absorbed by the flow. I call this position "standing out."

27Senegalese peddlers are not aggressive vendors. They always seem uninterested by the local situation, their gaze focused afar. Even when selling, they keep a position aimed at the crowd around. They wait for the potential clients to come close, 6 to 10 feet, before hailing them. The sale of watches is the most illustrative of this dual involvement of the vendor, both acting for the crowd and diverting a few pedestrians' attention. As walkers pass by, the vendor repeats in a soft voice the words "Rolex! Rolex!" or "Watches! Watches!" The gaze is fixed and only the head moves from side to side in order to watch the surroundings. As soon as a person slows down or stops, the vendor hails him or her. As the person gets closer, the peddler mechanically checks for police presence. If other vendors stand by, they keep an eye out for him. If the situation is tensed because the police are close by, the briefcase remains closed. The vendor only opens it halfway as the client approaches and asks for a brand name or a color. The vendor pulls out one watch and shows it. If the situation seems safer, the vendor opens the attaché case and lets the client browse, guiding him with a pointed finger. The bargaining is always very quick. The vendor asks for a higher price depending on the client (around $30 for a Rolex). If the client hesitates, the price automatically drops to the bottom price, take it or leave it ($20 for a Rolex). Generic watches are almost systematically offered at the bottom price of $10. During this process, the vendor raises his head to look around at least one time. If the sale is concluded, he slips the watch in a small plastic pouch, takes the money, gives the watch and the change.

28The sale of glasses is even more adapted to Times Square as the shift between vendor and pedestrian is extremely quick, especially when the bag is kept in one’s hand. In addition, the fact that choice is limited to the color of the frame makes for faster transactions.

A sunglasses vendor is standing on the sidewalk between 47th and 48th street. He is alone. He wears a beret, sunglasses and a scarf. He holds with two hands a black plastic bag in front of his abdomen and whispers the words "Oakley, Oakley" to the flow of pedestrians. The crowd is dense. I count about 100 people a minute of which 60 are Northbound [5 counts of one minutes, 30 seconds apart]. The vendor seems tense. He stands just north of the Sbarro restaurant at the corner of 47th street. He turns his head left and right every 30 seconds. Once in a while, he leaves his spot, walks down to the corner and walks back amidst the flow freed up by the red light. He addresses his immediate pedestrians neighbors while holding the bag in front of him. But that doesn't seem to work. The walkers seem too surprised and even a bit scared. At 5:25 pm, two young women stop and the vendors joins them. He keeps his bag open while a woman searches it one handedly. She holds her bag with her other hand while trying to compare two pairs, which is difficult. The vendor keeps smiling but warily checks the surroundings. Finally, the woman asks for the price and searches for a bill in her bag while still holding a pair of glasses. She is a bit awkward, making the sale last longer than expected. The vendor dances from one foot to the other. She hands him a $20 bill and he quickly gives her a $10 back. The women say bye and join their two male friends who are waiting a few feet further, bemused. The vendor closes his bag and goes back to his spot. (Field journal, 11/20/98).

29Compared to the attaché case, the bag allows more mobility and a form of walking-by sale. However, it seems that the involvement of the vendor is not clear enough for the pedestrians, who do not have the time to adjust to this new relationship with their fellow pedestrian. This shows that the vendors need to establish a minimal demarcation between their two involvements if they want to be able to sell.

30When the shift of involvement from pedestrian to vendor is too risky, vendors do not open their suitcase or bag but use the Restaurant Roy Rogers as a backstage, allowing a spatial territorialization for each involvement.

A group passes us. The first vendor says "Rolex, Rolex", but they don’t react. However, a few feet further, they slow down and look back. The vendor stares at them and says "Watches, watches!" Another vendor, closer to them, nods to them and with a discreet hand waives them to the door of Pizza Hut (connected to Roy Rogers). They enter. The second vendor nods to the first and the latter enters the store and guides the clients to the high tables near the entrance of Roy Rogers. He lays his attaché case on the table and opens it. One man examines the watches while the vendor explains the differences. He doesn't seem too interested. Two minutes later, the vendor exits first and takes his spot back on the sidewalk. The clients exit thirty seconds later (Field journal 1/12/98).

31The shift from passer-by to vendor is done in two complementary ways: by hailing the pedestrians and by opening the attaché case, the bag of glasses or removing the blanket covering the sweatshirts. This movement is quick and can go either way, allowing the vendors a quick retreat to their dominant involvement. The container is a source of "portable involvement" (Goffman 1963) that can signify alternatively the position of walker or of vendor. Hailing allows the vendors to get attention from pedestrians thus far unaware of the peddlers either because the visibility is limited or because the goods are not yet openly exposed. The call is made out of a single word, repeated "sotto voce". The range is very short but extremely audible because of its different tone from the ambient noise. Hailing is not direct proof of the peddler's involvement. It is ambiguous enough to infringe only upon the order of the flow but not on the legal order, thus preventing the police from interfering.

Source : author 1999.

Map 2 : sale and storage in Times Square, winter 1998/99

32Vendor, in the order of interaction, is only a subordinate involvement to the dominant involvement of pedestrian, even if it is the main involvement from the vendor’s perspective. The above sale tactics show how the vendors manage the spatialization of involvement. One way is to assign a different scale to the respective involvements of pedestrian and vendor. The other way is to assign them a different territory. As the peddler attracts the tourist's attention away from the spectacle by prying open his spectator's bubble, he also makes sure that he remains a member of the flow. He contains the disturbance to the traffic and limits the visibility of the transaction to further away onlookers, walkers and police alike. Vending is an involvement at the scale of a few people only. What is interesting is that, at any given time, a solicited pedestrian could become alarmed and call for police intervention. But it doesn't happen. The trouble to the order of the flow by the vendor is not significant enough that it cannot be absorbed by the traffic and thus prompt for the external action of the institutions in charge of Times Square. It remains within the order of walking, where, ceaselessly, one must move on. This is how the local breakdowns of reality provoked by the vendors are managed by a social order inherent to the public space of Times Square, to the great despair of the managers of the BID who cannot find in the actions of the peddlers a justification to expel these "undesirables" (Whyte 1980). Street peddling is actually the only sore spot in the hunt against crime published every year by the BID (BID 1998; BID 1999).

Times Square represented

33Why are the Senegalese peddlers undesirable? Should we believe the complaints of the CEO's of the multinational companies when they call on a third-world plague corrupting the image of the New Times Square? Indeed, the issue seems to be one of image and representation, going well beyond the physical site of Times Square.

34The observation of the peddlers reveals yet another flow, of images and information, made out of the capture of the first flow, the movement of the crowds. While I was trying to describe the usual selling spots of the peddlers, it occurred to me that the vendors were extremely resistant to photography, even though cameras were everywhere. They were hard to focus on as they offered no long-range view or too quick for close-up shots. Images of peddlers are de facto absent from the representations of Times Square that abound on television, on the Internet or in the papers. In fact, the image of the peddlers is not compatible with the picture of the crowds led by the companies of media and finance recently settled in the surrounding skyscrapers.

35There are indeed so many images of Times Square that it has become an icon of the place where it happens; it is considered the pulse of the city and, by extension, of the event (Tonnelat 1999). Senegalese peddlers are absent from this represented Times Square because they stand in the blind spots of the video capture. The video capture of crowd movements explains the new real estate boom of Times Square and pushes the prices to new summits. The "New Times Square" is the center of production and distribution of a network that goes well beyond New York. It produces images of excitement that serve, via the superimposition of a brand name, to promote goods that are consumed not in Times Square, but in the commercial centers and homes of a mostly suburban America; an America that doesn't enjoy an animated space like Times Square, or that doesn't have the ability to experience first hand the stimuli of urban public space. Within this complex apparatus of capture, the management of the flow is of course crucial. Mainly, the rate of flow, in other words the movement on which the value of the image is based, must be uninterrupted, continuous. Nothing exceptional, meaning something that would not be a part of the spectacle, can happen. Pedestrians must look happy and, above all, must circulate.

36Senegalese peddlers constitute a risk for the image of the "New Times Square." Their figures are not compatible with the logo of the big brand names. Cameras don't know how to sort the bad images from the good ones. They indifferently redistribute everything. This risk explains why the peddlers are contained in the interstitial spaces of the video capture, where, thanks to an informal agreement with the police, they are still tolerated. The original triangular leftover spaces, created in the 19th century by the encounter between Broadway and 7th Avenue, are not Times Square's interstices anymore. They have become part of the stage set. The interstices have shifted to the foot of the new skyscrapers from which the crowd is filmed. This observation shows how much street peddling is not a remnant of an old fashion economy but rather a marginal phenomenon inherent to the new economy of the new Times Square, its flows and the new technologies that discreetly redesign urban space.

Times Square between physical and represented: whose public space?

37There are two Times Square then. One, represented, is made out of pictures captured on site. In this Times Square, there are no other events than the brand name foregrounds external to the physical site and added a posteriori to the picture. The present is identical to the past and to the near future, with as a sole horizon (Lepetit 1993) the traditional New Year's Eve where, for a couple hours, the crowd is kept immobile while waiting for the final countdown and the start of a new, yet identical, cycle.

38Real estate investment is valuable for the companies with the financial wherewithal. The use of digital technology allows for the establishment of a recognized space of experience that is not based on the urban physical environment (Halbwachs 1975), but on the virtual network of information. Memory doesn't sediment in the space of copresence but in the images of the copresence. The place becomes the décor of the event, a background. For people in charge of the networks, the gain is the control of a deterritorialized memory, easy to maintain, reproduce and modify with a foreground. The image is threefold. In the background, the décor, made out the built environment; in the middle, the flow of the public that enjoys the place as where it happens; and in the foreground the brand name that brings change to the viewers. Everything works as if MTV, ABC, AOL, etc. were the great Masters of Ceremony of the event.

39Luckily, the other Times Square, the physical one, is made out of the flows of pedestrians and of their diverse involvements. Thanks to characters such as the Senegalese peddlers, and the small unplanned events that make Times Square accessible, the place remains a public space. Times Square is therefore not exactly in danger of Disneyfication. Rather than a public space that becomes secondary to a represented space of information, Times Square shows that the urban public order is still based upon the practice of physical presence. The self regulated social order of the flow is primary vis-à-vis the flow of information that only captures it. If Times Square represents an idea of urbanity for viewers around the globe, it is only because it is still accessible, meaning still public.

40But there is danger. Today, the Senegalese peddlers have disappeared from Times Square. Several reasons have contributed to making the site inhospitable for illegal street vending. First, as the buildings are progressively being renovated, the cheaper and older restaurants are gradually replaced with higher end chain stores such as Planet Hollywood. In 2001, the Riese Brothers closed their Roy Rogers and Pizza Hut restaurants, used by the vendors as a backstage. It is now occupied by MTV retail stores, not tolerant of the idling presence of peddlers. Also, an ABC studio appeared on the second floor of a building across the square, wherefrom the cult show "Good Morning America" is shot, using the now abandoned selling spot as a background off limit for vendors. Finally, in 2003, the NYPD raised the number of NYPD officers patrolling Times Square (Dewan 2003). It seems that they have also started to apply more systematically a 1992 State law that allows officers to charge peddlers with dealing counterfeit merchandise. This offense is considered a felony and carries important consequences for the Senegalese immigrants who, if convicted, are barred from ever applying for US citizenship. All these measures progressively transformed the ecology of Times Square into a more controlled environment, a phenomenon similar to what Duneier has described in Penn Station for the homeless population (Duneier and Carter 1999).

41As a result, it has become more and more difficult for the peddlers and other street level workers to divert the pedestrians from the dominant spectacle of Times Square. When the flow will be entirely controlled, Times Square won't be public anymore.

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Stéphane Tonnelat, « Keeping space public: Times Square (New York) and the Senegalese peddlers », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Dossiers, document 367, mis en ligne le 09 mars 2007, consulté le 13 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphane Tonnelat

CUNY College of Staten Island, Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, 2800 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island NY 10314, United States of America

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