Monday, July 16, 2012

Longacre Square

Just go ahead and file this post under petty vindication if you will.  Below is a picture of Longacre Square.  You know Longacre Square right?  Of course, you do.  It just looks different now.

It also goes by a different, more familiar name these days.  Times Square.

The history and etymology of this place traces back to the original gridiron of New York City, laid out for real estate purposes long before the city grew into its blocks and bones, except for a single diagonal slicing through the otherwise relentlessly regular, orthogonal street and block pattern.  That diagonal, unlike the exquisitely named Avinguda Diagonal in BCN, is Broadway.  But like Diagonal, it is that irregularity within the grid that differentiates it, the seam to which all roads converge, uniting otherwise disparate parts of the city.

Because of the odd angle, it also creates a string of open spaces which were otherwise unbuildable, creating what we know to be "squares."  However, the square isn't square, but more butterfly shaped much like Piazza di Spagna in Rome, taking on the shape of roads all converging into one place.  The space is a response to the expanse of the intersection driving demand for people space.

I'm writing this piece in response to the city lights panel I was on long ago.  Where I was told that Times Square is what it is because of the LED signage that currently populates every imaginable square foot of surface area within the vantage point of a person in the square.  Rather, of course, than what it really is.  A convergence point, which draws people, which provides opportunity for businesses and, in turn, then drives demand for advertisers.  Integration, accommodation, decoration.  Rinse and repeat.

As you can see the signage has been there since the first buildings saw opportunity in the location as the city began to grow, much of which was driven by its global integration, its port and fabric industries, driving growth, again via opportunity.  Whether they were billboards, backlit letter panel boards, or the modern incarnation of LED boards.  Lights and signage don't draw people.  People draw people.  And the infrastructure framework dictates where people will go.

Eventually, a subway line was built with a station under Longacre Square and the NY Times decided to locate in the desirable, and now globally integrated, location, hence the rename, Times Square.  Integration, accommodation.  Value = Local + Global.

As the city continued to grow, and the city became less port-driven, and more rail and airport connected, Times Square was centralized, turning it into the crossroads of the world that it is today.  Like Picadilly Square in London, the LED signage is merely a response to the integration which releases demand like a valve, but at the same time focuses it unlike highway/car based infrastructure which spills it all over the place, ie sprawl, oozing across the landscape.

Claiming LED and various other lighted billboards that we associate with Times Square since the Broken Windows days of New York cleaned up the streets misplaces causality for why Times Square is so popular today.  Unfortunately, this is the state of our urban "experts" and "academics" who make the same common misconception that cities are defined primarily by the superficial, tangible elements that we can touch, see, and feel.

Yes, they add to the experience (when in appropriate places), but the underlying dynamics have to be in place before hand and allow these things to be outgrowths, responsive to place.  The lights are not causal, but reactive.  If they were, Victory would be like Times Square.  It is brightly lit up, but without people because the development wasn't properly integrated within its surroundings with the square at a crossroads.  Too often, because we make the mistake of ascribing too much value-added from the superficial, we get the equation backwards.  We expect decoration to drive people to a place.  And that is a recipe for spectacular failure.

"Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." ~ Tyler Durden, Fight Club.