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May 27, 2009

Times Square: A Piazza It Ain't

Public square face off: Siena's Piazza del Campo vs. New York City's Times Square
Photos: Michele Ferretti (Siena) and nickdigital (NYC) on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

New York City's Times Square is a misnomer. It never has been a square, in either form or function. It's okay, if you wish, to call it the Crossroads of the World, although that too is grandiose. Occasionally, on New Year's Eve or to mark epochal events like the end of a world war, it is appropriated for mass celebrations. Otherwise, it's a traffic intersection. This week, however, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has cleared a section of Broadway of traffic in an attempt to create an urban space where people can sit and . . . do what, exactly? Stare at one or two nice old buildings and a lot more really ugly newer ones? Nice of them to provide some cheap lawn chairs, but this is so not a square.

A square, or piazza, or plaza, should be a place where cafés and bars line each side, where people-watching is the great sport, where every current of a city's life meets, converses, flirts, and is inspired to flights of philosophy and fancy. Somewhere, for example, like the Piazza del Campo, in Siena, that jewel of a Tuscan city. As you approach the Campo from a curving side street, long before you see it you can hear the hum. It's not traffic. It's the light, gaseous exhaling of pleasured voices and laughter wafting to the heavens. It's everything a real square should be, and then some.

To be fair to New York, there is a very handsome public space only a block east of Times Square, Bryant Park. It too is a confluence of activities--people eating snacks, sharing stories, and gazing across an expansive lawn. There's even an old-time carousel for kids to ride. But it is not a square.

So, as I gaze down from the offices of Condé Nast Traveler on the lawn chairs in Times Square and despair at the sight, I invite you, dear reader, to send in your own pictures of favorite squares, piazzas, and plazas from your travels so that we may remind ourselves (and Mayor Bloomberg) of what composes a true public space. Upload your photos to the Condé Nast Traveler Flickr Pool. Or go ahead and e-mail your pix to We will publish some of our favorites on the Daily Traveler in the days to come.


Lets celebrate things for what they are rather than what they are not. Times Square has had its new car-free area for all of four days, can we give it a chance to find its own unique groove rather than denouncing it for not being a romanticized ideal of the perfect, European-style square? One of the reasons we travel is to experience things we dont have at home, and perhaps learn to appreciate the things we do have in a new way, right? Also, since when is Times Square not good for people watching and philosophizing? Whether you like what it isa chaotic assortment of theaters, office towers, chain restaurants, tourist shops, hotels, dazzling lights, gaudy advertisements, etc.or not, its one of our greatest expressions of contemporary American pop culture. That's why its one of the top tourist attractions in New York. The Piazza del Campo is more or less medieval Sienas version of the same thing. Id be curious what the local Sienese despair about their tourist-clogged piazza.

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