Blas is bent on ruining Midtown’s Christmas.
Did you really think 2020 couldn’t get dumber? On Wednesday, Rockefeller Center will light its Christmas tree. That’s the cue for business for Midtown’s stores and eateries.
The pandemic ensures crowds will be sparse, and retailers will suffer. Still, we’ve all been trying to make the best of it — until Mayor de Blasio popped up Monday to say: Don’t go anywhere near the place until January.
For years, Hizzoner has proven that he can’t handle Christmas. Every year, the city throws out junky barriers and makes pedestrians go through literal obstacle courses to get to the tree. Last year was a little better, with de Blasio succumbing to his Transportation Department’s entreaties to close 49th and 50th streets to cars, giving people room.
Now, de Blasio is outdoing himself, proving that he also can’t handle pandemic-Christmas foot traffic. His worry is crowds.
It’s true that a few more folks are walking around than were in the summer. Thanksgiving night, families took their kids to see the Saks light show across the street from the tree. It was festive, for a change. But it’s nothing resembling a normal crowd — maybe, on a good day, 20 percent. Everyone wears masks, and people don’t cram together.
Now, de Blasio is taking what’s working well enough, for 2020, and breaking it. Monday, he grimly intoned that “in normal years, we all go to see” the tree “in person,” but this year, TV “is the best way to see it. . . . Anyone who wants to go in person . . . there’s going to be a lot specific rules. . . . There will be a reservation system, groups of no more than four people at a time,” in five-minute pods. (If you have more than two kids, you get two pods.) Fun!
It’s emblematic of de Blasio’s general cluelessness.
The tree is not something to “watch.” The mayor can’t tell the difference between the lighting, which is a short event, and just going to see the tree, something people could do over another six weeks, until mid-January.
It makes sense to close the lighting: A packed-in crowd, with people standing close to strangers for several hours, is hardly a good idea. But it makes no sense to force people to get tickets for casual viewing.
Most of the crowd has already disappeared. The Rockettes show is canceled, meaning 30,000 fewer people crossing Sixth Avenue daily.
Rock Center, managed by real estate group Tishman Speyer, has curtailed its skating-rink capacity, meaning hundreds of people aren’t lining up.
Ticketing creates a problem where none exists.
It requires a perimeter, so the city will cut off through access to 49th and 50th streets, even to walkers, unless they have a ticket. On the other hand, though, the city says people can still walk partway through the block, apparently to right before the tree is visible, if they’re shopping. A dead-end, and doubled-up crowds, if they do come.
This isn’t closing off a couple of blocks for a televised parade. This is closing off critical Midtown thoroughfares for more than a month. It will create conflict between the public and police and will further kill retail and restaurants.
Consider, too: You can see the tree from Fifth Avenue as well as 51st and 48th streets.
Is the city going to cut off access there? If not, again, if any crowd does materialize, police are just going to recreate the same old setup a couple of blocks away. And if yes, public Midtown spaces are a dead zone for the shopping season.
As for the Channel Gardens: The city says people can walk there if they’re going shopping, but not to see the tree. OK, what is the city — or Tishman — going to do, put up a big black veil?
The gardens are also the only viewing spot for the Saks show, across the street.
Will those spectators stand on the sidewalk, public property, and stay out of the gardens, private property?
That means a more crowded sidewalk, or spectators declaring to Tishman security guards that they’re “shopping.”
All this, when what worked last year would work this year: Let people mill about freely on 49th and 50th, with plenty of room (and a mask). This is an outdoor activity, where people don’t linger that long.
As for the idea, as the mayor promised, that things will return to normal next year? Hmmm.
What if Tishman Speyer likes the idea of marshalling massive policing resources to tightly control what is, in practice if not in law, an important public space, and also gather useful digital information on its visitors while they’re at it? Either we have a public tree, or we don’t — we don’t have it both ways.
Midtown isn’t doing so great. But it does have some workers, visitors and residents. We’re real people in a real city — not props for NBC, or for de Blasio’s lectures.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.