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August 25, 2015

Nobody’s better at “back in my day” than a New Yorker. The city was better, realer, cooler once upon a time, they love to tell you, before X terrible thing: the Giuliani administration, the proliferation of billionaires' towers, the gentrification of Brooklyn. I don’t usually have a lot of patience for this curmudgeonly line of thought—all cities change, and New York has shown a particular appetite for unsentimentally devouring its past in the name of its future since before it was called New York. And such complaints conveniently ignore the many positive developments in the life of the city in recent years (the drop in crime, Citibike and the High Line, the ascendancy of Brooklyn).

But I’m with the haters when it comes to the Times Square Tourist Elmo Massacre, as Grub Street memorably put it last year in a cri de couer about the closing of the great theater district mainstay Café Edison. Yes, Times Square is safer, cleaner, and more comfortable to pass through, all good things that have resulted in dramatic increases in tourists and revenue. But it has also, of course, become unfathomably bland. The peep shows, drug dealers, and shell games aren’t coming back any more than the Cup O’Noodles billboard with its belching crown of steam, nor should they. But the mallification of New York’s great public square has cost it a part of its soul. And that’s why I think the desnudas are great for the city.

To me, these mostly unclothed painted ladies, who have plied their trade in Times Square the past few years and have recently drawn the oppobrium of the mayor and governor, possess many of the very traits that make New York the greatest city on earth: hard work, hustle, and showmanship. Can you imagine toiling all day long, exposed, in one of the densest urban places on earth, with your wit, charm, and determination your only protection? People with the guts for something like that have always come to New York. They make the city the weird, campy, ballsy, wonderful place it always has been and always will be, no matter how much international money gets parked on 57th Street and no matter how many Starbucks or Dallas BBQs move in.

With a kind of prurience masquerading as righteous indignation, Mayor de Blasio and other male pols have zoomed in on the desnudas as a threat to families on vacation. (Nevermind that nobody has ever seemed to get especially worked up about the Naked Cowboy, or that the people most likely to complain about the desnudas are male office workers apparently concerned about getting body paint on their lapels.) Can we please not get into a moral panic about the idea of exposed nipples scandalizing poor, innocent Jimmy and Jane from the heartland, who have been raised on a steady diet of slideshows devoted to Kylie Jenner’s smokin’-hot beach-ready bod? Female toplessness is legal in this town, the desnudas aren’t hurting anyone, and any family with concerns that the kids might see something kinda out there should not be planning a trip in New York City. From the looks of the families I see strolling the pedestrian plazas along Broadway, this is an invented problem.

De Blasio has floated the spectacularly regressive idea of ripping out the plazas as a solution to the supposed scourge of the desnudas, which, as others have written, would be bad for visitors and bad for the city. Instead of fussing about how to eliminate or regulate the desnudas, we should celebrate them as a tourist draw, a harmless, quirky emblem of New York’s inescapable, unavoidable, ineffable New Yorkiness. Because whether you’re 6 or 60, what are you more likely to remember about your first trip to Times Square—your visit to Planet Hollywood, or having your picture taken with a nutty lady with no clothes on, her skin painted up in patriotic red, white, and blue?

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