insight - Tim Tompkins
Written by Gregg Henglein
Occupation - President Times Square Alliance
With eyes on Times Square on New Year’s Eve, Tim Tompkins’ resolution is to make sure the heart of New York City beats strong all year long.
No longer is Times Square associated with congestion, crime, and noise in abundance. New life has been breathed into the iconic space in midtown Manhattan. And the man behind many of the alterations is Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.
“The goal [of the Alliance] is really to both promote and improve Times Square by nurturing the creativity, the energy, and the edge that have made it an icon for more than a century,” Tim says.
Revitalisation is his mission. For all of New York’s attractions, there are certain areas
“I think other countries have been better than [the United States] at creating great public plazas…we are getting better and our aspiration for Times Square is that we can compete with the great plazas and piazzas from other parts of the world,” Tim says.This objective was set nearly a decade ago, when Tim joined the Alliance. And it needed to be approached aesthetically and functionally.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, New York saw its mass of green spaces brought to life, not just at the centrepiece Central Park, but in other locales that were largely ignored at the time. For example, Bryant Park – once home to drug-dealers and a symbol of New York City’s decline – has become a beacon of the city's revival.
Tim applauded such improvements, but knew it wasn’t enough.
“In a place like New York, the other public spaces are streets and sidewalks,” he says. “And it’s really only in the last few years that we’ve said these need to be improved, too.”
In May 2009, traffic along Broadway from 42nd Street to 47th was closed, eliminating traffic through the middle of the Square, in a bold move. Tim says it is the biggest change in Times Square over the past decade. What once was horn-blaring, traffic-filled chaos was converted to pedestrian plazas, a means of finding quiet within the frenetic Manhattan scene.
“The transformation of Duffy’s Square was really the model for what we want,” Tim says of the changes. “It was a crummy, crowded sliver. We doubled the size of it, took up a couple of lanes of roadway and invested in world-class design with red glass steps. Suddenly, there was a place in Times Square where people wanted to stay. That’s what we want, to set a high standard.”
Those ruby-red glass steps, all 27 of them, have a fitting Broadway allure that beckons a number from Hollywood’s musical era to break out right in front of you. They form a sweeping cascade that can hold 1,500 people and from the top provide a postcard-perfect panoramic view of this majestic scene, a century-old draw for entertainment, business, and a bustling mass of humanity.
There’s also been a cultural renaissance at Tim’s hand, by no means said to diminish the Square’s longstanding cultural significance, but rather to accompany it.
“We promote [the Square] through events like our summer solstice – which consists of 8,000 people doing yoga in Times Square; a whole series of Valentine’s celebrations, where we engage emerging architects to design a Valentine’s heart; and a whole range of events throughout the year.”
Leading the way is the Alliance’s burgeoning public art programme, which seamlessly blends established and emerging artists in what Tim notes is the largest public outdoor art gallery in the world.
“Unlike a lot of public art that’s essentially a sculpture in the middle of a park, this is a much more urban environment,” Tim says before noting a recent show in which British artists Performa conducted a public art project on the grand Toshiba Vision screen in the heart of the Square.And yet, with all it has to offer and the enhancements and advancements the Alliance and the city itself have incorporated in this legendary locale, Times Square remains primarily identified with its grandiose New Year’s celebration.
Planning for the following year’s event starts virtually as soon as the ball drops, and lasts all year long. Performing talent is decided by a team headed by Dick Clark in October, and the Alliance works with Countdown Entertainment to co-produce the event and co-ordinate all the different activities that happen.
With eyes from around the world on the Square at midnight for the world’s largest ‘ring it in’ celebration, I asked Tim what the most stressful element was.
“In some ways the most stressful part of the whole thing is that which you have the least control over,” he replied, “which is whether it’s going to be bone-chilling cold.”
After a year’s worth of planning, he can allow himself to appreciate what surrounds him when the clock strikes midnight.
“I really feel grateful at midnight to be part of this,” says Tim, who had never spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square before taking his role with the Alliance in 2002. “In New York there are so few communal experiences, which makes this all the more powerful.
“It touches some deeper themes too, about celebrating the good things in life no matter how crazy the world is. It’s about reflection, looking back, and it’s about a renewal and looking forward with a sense of hope.”
He’s looked at Times Square that way for years. And the site is undoubtedly better for it.
New York, USA
Having a Ball!
The first New Year’s ball drop in Times Square occurred in 1904, when an illuminated 700lb iron-and-wood orb, adorned with 100 25-watt light bulbs, was lowered from a flagpole at the behest of New York Times owner Alfred Ochs, whose paper was based in the now-renowned location once known as Longacre Square.
In 1920, years after the Times had left the square, a 400lb wrought-iron ball replaced the original and lasted 35 years until a lighter aluminium globe took its place. For another 25 years, Times Square revellers counted down the silver sphere’s descent, until red bulbs and a green stem were added – representing The Big Apple as part of then Mayor Ed Koch’s ‘I Love New York’ tourism campaign.
Simple white lights ended that design in 1988, eventually supplemented with rhinestones and strobes.
But the grandest overhaul was New Year’s 2000. The ball nearly tripled in size, and boasted handcrafted shimmering Waterford crystal triangles.
And now? Try nearly 12,000lb, with 32,256 LED lights and 2,668 crystals. For the last three years, the ball has been left atop Times Square year-round. After all, who would want to move it?
New Year, Old Tradition
The celebration of the New Year is the oldest in the world, dating back more than 4,000 years. Longstanding traditions vary, from England – where the year’s first guest is to bring coal, a loaf of bread, and a drink – to Spain, where 12 grapes are eaten at midnight for luck.
And the widely celebrated New Year’s kiss, purportedly for purification to start the year, is a ‘move’ that is also probably 4,000 years old!