Actually, Tourists Should Go to Times Square

when you're a tourist, just be a tourist

My father was a professor of theater, and his specialty was East Asian puppetry and dance. In particular, his area of interest was in Bali, in Indonesia, where he first lived in 1969 and where he studied under the decorated dalang (shadow puppeteer) Pak Rajeg. Pak Rajeg’s son, Inyoman Sumandhi, was one of my father’s closest friends and is an internationally celebrated dancer in his own right. We went to Bali several times when I was young, and those were formative experiences in every sense.

My father had something of a particular attitude towards “expats,” a term he found pretentious. There was, among many of the people who like him spoke the language and had deep personal relationships with Balinese people and returned often, a mannered attitude towards their status. In particular, a lot of them nurtured a fear of appearing to be a tourist. My father found this anxiety to be stupid and the behaviors that went with it a little gross - avoiding the beaches and and restaurants that didn't seem “authentic,” speaking solely in Bahasa even in contexts where English might be more useful, dressing in more formal clothing even though the oppressive heat made that impractical. He spoke Bahasa beautifully and serviceable Balinese, but it was common for him to speak English with Indonesian friends in Indonesia, when that’s what the social context suggested, he dressed like your uncle was taking his first vacation in years in St. Kitts, and his favorite restaurant in Bali was a place called the Borneo Bar, owned by a couple of former geology professors who had come to the island to research and just never left.

Which is not to say that he was unconcerned with how tourism changed things. Like everyone who had been there a long time, my father lamented many of the changes to the island that had arisen as a result of increasing numbers of tourists. This was thirty years ago, and in general the issue of tourists fundamentally changing the character of the places they frequent was less obvious than it is today. (I went to Amsterdam four years ago, a decade after my first visit, and I found the downtown core unrecognizable.) But things had already changed remarkably, back then. When my father first went to Bali you could sit on Kuda beach in a cabana tent at night and hold an oil lamp, looking down the shore to see the spots of light of others doing the same, the gentle roar of the surf the only sound. By 1990, when I first went, Kuda had been changed into one of the most genuinely unpleasant places I’ve ever been, an overcrowded and frenetic nightmare.

However, my father was also aware that Indonesia was a poor country and that tourist dollars were incontrovertibly central to making it less poor, particularly in Bali. And he also wanted others to learn about the culture that had inspired him so deeply he made researching it his life’s work. Having grown up around academics who worked and lived abroad, I can say that there was often something provincial and selfish about them and how they viewed tourists, who too often were cast as interlopers in “their” cultures of interest. In Bali this represented itself most toxically in the phrase “culture vultures.” This was the derisive term for tourists who were guilty of the mortal sin of actually trying to learn about the art and customs of Bali, rather than just drinking tiki drinks by the hotel pool all day. The term enraged my father; on one trip to an academic conference in Sydney followed by a week in Bali, taken just the two of us when I was 13, he groused after another annoying encounter with expats, “Is it better if they never fucking learn anything about the culture at all?” This attitude resulted in a total indifference to appearing to be - no, that's wrong, to being - tourists when we visited, and we would happily take part in activities many expats disdained, like going on glass-bottomed boat tours. Those things were fun and they paid into the local economy. Who gives a fuck if we were being tourists? There are far worse crimes in the world.

All of this is a very longwinded way to say: if you’re a tourist visiting New York, go to Times Square. Ignore the “insider” info that you found on Reddit telling you not to go, and don’t listen to a single jaded NYC resident. Times Square is for tourists, and you are a tourist. It’s also unlike anywhere else on the planet, a cacophony of sights and sounds and people dressed in Elmo costumes that smell like urine. Is a lot of it unpleasant? Absolutely. In Bali, the packs of aggressive roving dogs and frequent smell of burning plastic were unpleasant, but it was part of the reality we were there to take in. (As were the hints of 1965, which my father took great pains to remind me of.) The point of travel is to experience things you haven’t, and Times Square is an experience. So experience it. It’s very common to find a treasured tourist destination to be a little disappointing, but it’s very rare for someone to actively regret having gone to see one even when they’ve been disappointed.

I’m not joking when I say that there’s a narrative out there that sharp travelers disdain Times Square. Here’s a traveler’s website advising tourists to avoid Times Square. US News and World Reports says that “locals would advise you to avoid it.” Here’s a truly insufferable Business Insider article where the author performatively struggles to understand why tourists want to go to a place that has been precision engineered to include all kinds of things tourists like. This one disdains Midtown altogether, which is great advice if you want to make it harder for travelers to enjoy Central Park, the Met and Natural History museums, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State building, the most convenient subway hubs, and much of the basic New York experience tourists are looking for. But hey, they’re avoiding the crowds, right? That’s what matters most. That’s why I tell friends who are visiting to never leave the parts of far eastern Queens that look like an Illinois exurb. Maybe best to stay in Yonkers, actually, and just look at New York from there. You’ll really avoid the crowds.

There’s a lot of pieces that grudgingly concede that tourists will go to Times Square, but make the idea sound so unsophisticated and the experience so unpleasant they amount to warning people off altogether. The helpfully-named New York Cliché runs down a list of what you absolutely must not do there, like shopping, seeing shows, eating, and walking at your own pace in a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. There are also of course pieces that scold Times Square tourists for existing. This one restricts its very exacting list of rules for such visitors to a modest 400 words. I sympathize with the author’s difficulty in walking to work, but in the same sense that I sympathize when people in New York occasionally have to smell that putrid wafting garbage stench: it’s kind of baked into the cake here, honey. Develop patience with it because it’s here to stay.

This one really epitomizes the overarching problem. It’s from a website that has a whole series about “How to NOT Look Like a Tourist.” In addition to advising people stay away from Times Square, it includes the amusing advice to refer to New York City as “the city,” like a true savvy insider, and the disturbing advice to ignore walk signals and cross the street at whim. I just find the whole premise baffling. What is the great fear of appearing to be a tourist all about? I live here and I don’t particularly care. I certainly don’t follow that piece’s advice, in that I am forever looking up at our glorious architecture; I pay Brooklyn rent and by God I’m not gonna ignore all that’s beautiful in the city at that price. Who gives a fuck if a “real New Yorker” sees me and thinks I’m a tourist because I’m gawking up at an inspiring building? What does the momentary approval of a passing New Yorker grant me, especially given the fact that almost no one who sees you on the street is thinking about you at all? And so what if a native New Yorker sees you an judges you for being a tourist? A lot of native New Yorkers are dicks.

Peep this.

Just about anything goes in New York City - that's part of the joy of living (and visiting) this exciting city. That said, dressing like a tourist might get you treated like one, so consider packing simple, smart clothes for your visit and you'll find yourself feeling like a real New Yorker in no time. That means no sweatpants, no socks with your sandals, no white sneakers, and you can probably save wearing your new "I Heart NY" hat until you're back home. [emphasis theirs]

Yes, one shudders to imagine being treated like a tourist by an NYC resident, which usually entails politely being given directions and advice about what route to tell your cabbie to take. I think the median New York City woman owns 16.5 pairs of sweatpants, so I’m not so sure about the style advice either. And aside from the achingly specific and helpful advice to wear “simple, smart clothes,” I’m completely baffled by the objective here - why would feeling like a real New Yorker be the goal of someone visiting for a week? I’ve lived in New York for over 5 years now, I don’t think of myself as a New Yorker in any sense, and I have no real desire to ascend to that status. I’m not sure what experience people are trying to mimic, if the goal is to act like a resident. A lot of “real New Yorkers” live in too-expensive rathole apartments and ride subway trains that smell like piss to get to shitty jobs that pay them terribly. That is a profoundly real New York experience, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to spend my vacation days living it. Would you?

As a resident of New York, it’s true that I avoid Times Square when possible, as it’s an overcrowded and stressful place. But the key phrase there is as a resident of New York. Saying that tourists should avoid it, or advising them to go through all of this rigmarole to appear to be some sort of vaguely more enlightened tourist, would seem to have a lot more to do with the kind of New Yorker the people giving this advice want to appear to be. There are few things more insufferable than people who live in New York self-consciously wanting to do it the right way, which is pointless and weird and quintessentially neurotic. Why we’d want to infect tourists with that mindset, I don’t know. In general, the internet tells us relentlessly that we’re doing it wrong, with “it” being everything that a person does. Resist. Resist optimization culture. Resist being told you have to conform to someone else’s vision of how to enjoy traveling. Have a good enough vacation. Tip well and respect the people around you, tourist it up otherwise. And go to Times Square. Why not? If you don’t like it, there’s a whole city you can wander to from there.