insight - Tim Tompkins

New Year’s Eve
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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
in which the famed City That Never Sleeps has taken a Rip Van Winkle-like nap when compared with the rest of the world.

“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.

Yoga Solstice

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
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