It was not all that surprising that a march of a few dozen topless women (and fewer men) through Midtown Manhattan on a sunny Sunday afternoon would attract perhaps thousands of gawkers, bemused tourists, leering loafers, journalists and passers-by — every single one, it seemed, carrying a camera.
“I have you on Periscope right now,” one young man gleefully informed a trio of topless women marching down Broadway, referring to the live video streaming smartphone app that he was using to broadcast the march. “There are 60 people watching you. People are liking you.”
“Great,” said one of the women, Angie, 24, her voice steely. She wore sunglasses, shorts printed with sunflowers and nothing in between.
These women were not desnudas, the topless panhandlers who found themselves in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s cross hairs. Sunday’s marchers were after something more high-minded: the right of all women to go bare-chested if they chose.
Yet political statement soon devolved into exhibitionist spectacle — partly by its own nature, and partly by human nature — proving that even in New York City, more than two decades after the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that toplessness is legal for women, taking advantage of that right still has the power to shock.
Shock and awe, of course, were part of the plan. A truck decorated with double-breasted balloons blasted, for reasons unknown, the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth.” One woman painted herself with Pokémon symbols; another dressed as an anime superhero; still others each wore a single enormous cloth breast. One brought an equally topless baby.
But they made clear that they were flaunting their chests for a cause.
“We have boyfriends that always take their shirts off, and we were like, ‘This isn’t fair,’ ” said a 31 year old musician who had come from Newark, Delaware to New York with a few friends. She wore a bright pink wig, a black mask, black tape over her nipples and a chain for added symbolic heft.
She had thought about joining a topless march for several years, she said, but “it took me a while to build up the ovaries and actually do it.” (Her boyfriend, she added, is very supportive.)
But she was the only one in her group from Delaware who removed her top on Sunday. The rest were deterred by the gantlet of cameras that threatened to swallow the march.
“I can’t go whole hog,” said Phoebe Connell, 23. “There are people who are creepy and make you feel weird, and it’s overwhelming and scary.”
Those who did go top-free, however, unanimously recommended the experience — as long as they were around like-minded women. (“Imagine being the only one,” shuddered Claudia Simondi, 46, a topless marcher.)
“It’s liberating,” said Mandy Aviles, 25, a bartender from Bayonne, N.J., who nevertheless put her T-shirt back on after the march reached Bryant Park, where it caused a traffic jam of people in the park when they realized what they were seeing. “There was no shame, no regret, no nothing.”
There was also broad support for the desnudas, topless women wearing body paint and headdresses who pose with tourists for tips, whom Mr. de Blasio has suggested flushing out of Times Square, possibly by tearing up the area’s pedestrian plazas.
While the 1992 Court of Appeals ruling established women’s right to go topless for noncommercial reasons, desnuda opponents argue that their activities are illegal because they solicit tips while topless. The state has already sent investigators from the Department of Labor to the plaza to look into the matter.
Only a single desnuda could be seen in Times Square on Sunday, though others had added bras to their outfits to avoid confrontations with the police.
“They’re wearing paint; they’re not naked,” said Ms. Simondi, who strongly disapproved of what she called the mayor’s prudish bent. “It’s paint, it’s art. The human body is beautiful, and who doesn’t want to see beauty?”
Angie, who declined to give her last name while topless, had a blunter opinion. “All he does is get rid of fun things,” she said.
The 1992 case concerned a group of seven women in Rochester, sometimes known as the Topfree Seven, who were arrested in 1986 for holding a shirtless picnic to protest the state law that prohibited women, but not men, from baring their chests.
Ramona Santorelli, 57, was one of two defendants who pursued the case all the way to the Court of Appeals. Although she and her co-defendant won, it was not quite the sweeping victory they had hoped for. The court did not find the law discriminatory, as the women had argued.
Interviewed by telephone in Rochester, she said she was not surprised that “the patriarchy” — as represented by the mayor, the governor and the police commissioner — was trying to rein in the desnudas. But to go as far as ripping up the pedestrian plazas?
“Women’s breasts,” she said, “are very, very powerful.”
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department is forming a new unit to patrol Times Square and address quality-of-life issues amid growing concerns over the jumble of costumed characters and topless women in its pedestrian plazas.
The department is seeking officers to join the patrol, which is internally referred to as the Times Square Unit, according to a memo sent across the department. Their role will be distinct from the counterterrorism duties of other officers there.
The officers will patrol on foot, according to the memo, and will “be expected to build relationships with members of the local business community” and with security personnel “from the numerous hotels, restaurants, theaters and retail locations in the area.”
The creation of the unit comes amid a debate over how to handle the proliferation in the city’s most central tourist location of topless women, known as desnudas, who wear body paint and solicit tips for photographs. Toplessness is legal in the city, though aggressive panhandling is not.
Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that one solution could involve the removal of the pedestrian plazas where the women, and many people dressed as cartoon characters or superheroes, pose for the photos and ask for a tip in return. “I don’t like the situation in Times Square,” Mr. de Blasio said, “and we’re going to address it in a very aggressive manner.”
A mayoral task force is examining the issue, which has vexed city policy makers because most of the activities that have drawn scrutiny are protected by court rulings as well as the state and federal constitutions. The task force will report on its recommendations on October 1.
The new unit would follow the neighborhood policing model, which is being tested in four precincts and is set to expand to more than a dozen more in the coming months. The same people, on the same post, during the same time period, every day. The new unit would double the number of officers assigned to Times Square to about 100.
Times Square was not one of the areas slated for the next expansion of the policing model, but that it seemed to be a natural fit “as this issue came up over the last three or four weeks.
The unit, whose official name has yet to be determined, will address “crime and quality-of-life issues surrounding the city’s No. 1 tourist destination,” the memo said. The officers are expected to begin their patrols as early as October.
They will find little crime there: According to police statistics, roughly one crime is reported each day in the area of Times Square known to officers as the bow tie, because of the shape of streets around the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The new officers will be placed in that area, which stretches from 42nd Street to 49th Street and between the two avenues, an area packed with New Yorkers and tourists at nearly every hour of the day.
To have a steady cadre of police officers in there will put people at ease.
As for the debate over whether Times Square is returning to its grim and dangerous past, an official said quite the opposite. “I was a rookie transit cop in 1983,” he said. “Times Square is nothing like it was in 1983 and through the ’80s and the ’90s.”
So, one reporter asked whether the presence of so many topless women, contrary to signaling a creeping lawlessness, was rather a manifestation, if perhaps to some a little bawdy, of how safe the area has become?
“I’d agree with that,” he said.