What the Summer of ‘Desnudas’ Taught Us About Tabloids, de Blasio, and Who Really Runs New York


New York may have recovered nicely from some of the issues that beset it a generation ago — violent crime, large swaths of the city being on fire pretty much 24/7 — but it still has its problems. There’s the subway system, in need of half a trillion dollars in upgrades. There’s the 520 miles of shoreline in danger of inundation as the sea level rises. And city law enforcement still hinges on a strategy that disproportionately targets anyone who isn’t white.

So, of course, we just spent the summer talking about how come there are a couple dozen painted ladies in Times Square with their gazongas hanging out.

“Boobghazi,” as the tabloids inexplicably never got around to calling it (most went with “desnudas,” the term allegedly preferred by the topless practitioners themselves), was one of the more bizarre media frenzies in a town built on them. But with hindsight, and the aid of an online timeline provided by the news app startup Blockfeed, we can look back on how exactly the story unfolded and what it says about the state of modern scandals in this city.

The desnudas panic was actually launched by the Post back in April, with an article titled “Topless women posing with underage kids in Times Square.” This isolated story set the tone, delivering a meme to please readers’ inner Helen Lovejoy while simultaneously providing circulation-friendly photos of topless women (the offending mammaries carefully covered with stars and stripes).

The initial hubbub, it may surprise some to learn, came not from the brain of a click-hungry Post editor, but from a Montana-based tour guide named Brian Mathis. A former New Yorker who now leads tours of eighth-graders for the Global Travel Alliance, Mathis decided to raise the alarm after realizing that boobies are to many middle school boys what a flame is to hormone-flooded moths.

Mathis tells the Voice he was less distressed by the sight of paint-bedecked lady skin — “being topless in New York is legal, and I understand the reasoning for it” — than by the blowback he was getting from beyond the five boroughs. “They take their photos via their cellphone, they immediately forward it to their buddies back at their schools, which ends up making it back to the principals or a parent,” he says. “Huge stink.” And whatever you think of middle American mores, he warns, this could have implications for New York’s tourism industry — the one that pays his salary — if outraged parents begin lobbying to take the Big Apple off the list for class trips as a result.

“Of course we all hate tourists,” Mathis says, “and of course we all love the money they bring in. They don’t know how to get on and off the trains, they’re constantly lost, they stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look around.” Still, he says, New York is better off with them spending their money here than in Colonial Williamsburg.

As a former staffer for PR Newswire, Mathis knew a story when he saw one, and called the Post to pitch it. Soon, his complaints (“They’re engaging in child pornography — that’s my biggest fear”) had been picked up by news outlets as far away as London.

The next appearance of the desnudas in print came, of all places, in the New York Times, which on Friday, August 14, ran a far less sensationalist piece accompanied by a comparatively demure photo of two women whose semi-naughty bits were further obscured by a tourist’s arms. This human interest story, notwithstanding some rather purple prose (“her curvy, sun-kissed body — with the exception of a nylon thong — was exposed to hundreds of passers-by in Times Square”), actually managed to try to pin down when the desnudas first appeared (“the summer of 2013, according to posts on social media”), how much they made (about $300 a day), what other jobs they’d had (flight attendant, in one case), who was complaining (Times Square area workers, mostly, who didn’t want to risk body-paint rubbing off on their suits), and how their presence affected their tourist-tip-dependent competition (the “Naked Cowgirls,” who actually wear full bikinis, reported that their tips drop 50 percent when the desnudas pop up).

Video by Sandi Bachom

The following Sunday, the Daily News immediately jumped into the fray with a pair of stories with a marginally more alarmist take: “An out-of-control influx of near-naked women jockeying for tips has turned Times Square into the XXX-Roads of the World — shocking children and incensing legions of tourists and New Yorkers alike.” The News reporters conducted a desnudas headcount (40 during the peak summer season), added their own pay scale ($100 a day for one worker named Nicole, who clearly could use some pointers from her Times-interviewed colleague), and significantly upped the ante in rhetoric: At various points, the writer trotted out phrases like “provocative parade of ladies,” “blatant exhibitionism,” “patriotic show of pulchritude,” “multicolored mammaries,” “topless temptress,” and the hammeringly alliterative “Amanda, who teeters topless through Times Square for tips.” As befits New York’s Picture Newspaper, the Daily News also included a lengthy photo gallery, plus a Web video showing the performers getting “NY” painted on their rumps.

Not, as anyone familiar with the compromises inherent to the 21st-century journalism business would quickly agree, that there’s anything wrong with that. Appealing to the prurient interests of those who’d prefer not to admit to having any isn’t just a tabloid fetish, but actually has a long history in New York. As far back as the 1880s, lurid pamphlets were distributed throughout the city detailing its seedy underbelly, helpfully listing all the dens of iniquity by address, so honest citizens could be sure which areas to steer clear of.

The broader theme here, though, was “quality of life” — the same nebulous terminology that Rudy Giuliani rode to City Hall by exploiting (mostly white) New Yorkers’ fear of squeegee men, “aggressive panhandlers,” and other urban menaces. When the initial News article chose to report that going topless in public is legal in New York, it described the police as being “powerless to stop the daily open-air peep shows.” The paper’s language made it clear that this was to be seen as a specter of the return to the bad old days of Gotham’s rampant lawlessness.

To nail this theme down, two days after its Sunday twofer, the News jumped in with three more stories plus an editorial — accompanied online by that same tushy-painting video — decrying the desnudas for adding “end-of-the-line tawdriness to the cheap carnivality that has taken over the world’s most famous crossroads” and calling for Times Square to be designated public parkland so that soliciting money would be verboten. (This isn’t entirely true: Commercial activity in parks is legal but requires a permit, which would at least give the city some control over what activities to allow in Times Square proper — though it would also inevitably just push the tawdry over a block or two.)

It was at this point that things started to get weird, with elected officials beginning to weigh in on the nipple crisis. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer called the situation “a disaster” for New York’s “family-friendly image.” Councilman Corey Johnson, whose district includes part of Times Square, told the website DNAinfo that the city’s most tourist-friendly area was descending into “chaos.” Mayor Bill de Blasio was holding a press conference about one of the summer’s real stories — a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Bronx — when a reporter asked what he would think if his family spotted breasts in public. The mayor replied, “I think it’s wrong. It’s wrong” and “We are going to look for every appropriate way to regulate” asking tourists for money. “I don’t like the situation in Times Square, and we’re going to address it in a very aggressive manner.”

This got the Times back on the case the next day, Wednesday, August 19, with a story on the mayor’s statement (his signing of new legislation to battle Legionnaires’ didn’t merit a story in the paper), which touched off a full-scale media explosion. That Thursday, de Blasio announced that he planned to create a special “task force” to deal with the desnudas, and NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton said of the Times Square pedestrian plazas that he wanted to “dig the whole darn thing up and put it back the way it was,” as a working street for vehicles. The mayor said the same day that he’d consider doing just that. This immediately managed to piss off anyone who wasn’t already angry about something (“it is antithetical to #visionzero to suggest cars and trucks be reintroduced to the most pedestrian rich intersection in North America,” tweeted Transportation Alternatives’ Paul Steely White), including even the Times Square Alliance business improvement district. This was remarkable because, until then, the group had been one of the staunchest desnudas opponents, but its leadership had no interest in throwing the popular pedestrian plazas out with the bathwater.

By the following week, the NYPD had set up a new “quality of life” unit to patrol Times Square, and after a couple of prominent arrests (one of a performer for selling cocaine to an undercover officer, two others of passersby for assaulting desnudas), the furor finally began to die down. By September, the Post was left to publish an “undercover” exposé by one of its reporters that mostly provided an excuse to run a front-page photo of a female journalist in a thong and no top, with “CENSORED! by Mayor de Blasio” covering her nipples. The desnudas are still out in force (at least until the fall weather calls for sweaters to cover up their patriotism), parents in Ohio remain a threat to the city’s tourism economy, and everyone is left wondering what, exactly, just happened here.

The answer is in part, certainly, “tabloids”: In the only city in America where two small-format dailies still go toe-to-toe fighting for newsstand eyeballs, anything that perks up readers’, er, attention is certain to be seen as a good headline. Then, too, licentiousness at the Crossroads of Tourism is a good tool with which to bash a less-than-popular mayor, one the tabs had never much liked to begin with: The News endorsed de Blasio in the 2013 mayoral race with “worrying reservations,” in particular about “rising crime,” which was not in fact at the time rising; the Post endorsed Republican Joe Lhota and more recently, in August, launched an online de Blasio countdown clock, calling for citizens to “count down the minutes until his disastrous term ends” and citing first and foremost how “the city is swarming with panhandlers.”

Desnudas, in fact, were presented this summer as just one of many threats to decency in de Blasio’s New York. The Post had already singled out Times Square for its proliferation of fake Buddhist monks (“the new squeegee men”), Elmos and Spider-Men (now taking their “beggar invasion” to Coney Island), and a guy with a sign reading “Fuck You!!! Pay Me!!!!!!!!” (requisite passerby comment: “I have small children, and my kids don’t need to be reading that kind of offensive garbage”).

In July, the Post ran an exposé on how homeless people (or in the Post‘s preferred term, “vagrants”) were sleeping in Tompkins Square Park (requisite passerby comment: “My daughters asks [sic], ‘Mommy, why are the men sleeping?’ And that’s not something you want to explain to your child”). That report somehow never mentioned that the park is most famous for being the site of a 1988 police riot following protests over then-mayor Ed Koch’s decision to clear it of a homeless encampment.

The city’s homeless crisis, of course, is real and, unlike any of the crises limited largely to Times Square, of monumental import to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. There’s even a built-in “think of the children!” angle: According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 40 percent of those living in the city shelter system any given night are under eighteen. That’s nearly 42,000 children — enough to fill Citi Field, if any newspaper’s art department needed an arresting image — sleeping in shelters at least part-time.

But even as homelessness has started to creep into the daily news diet in recent weeks, there’s been a widening divide between the actual problem and the local media coverage. The headlines have largely been focused on the most visible homeless New Yorkers — visible, that is, to newspaper editors and their cohort. “Homeless people on the streets are becoming a real problem — and City Hall’s done precious little about it,” crowed a Post editorial earlier this month; previous forays into homeless coverage this past summer included homeless residents who pee on “swanky” blocks and those who sport alarming dreadlocks “as wide as a nautical mooring rope and just as dirty.”

Yet street homeless are a small minority of the city’s overall unhoused: While solid numbers are notoriously elusive, only about 5 percent of the city’s homeless live on the streets, according to the Department of Homeless Services. The vast majority of homeless New Yorkers sleep in city-run shelters, and the vast majority of those are families. Yet, aside from the occasional “Dasani,” the young homeless girl profiled by the Times in 2013, homeless children get a proportionally smaller share of media coverage, probably because they don’t pee on anything important once they’re potty-trained.

Amid this tabloid panic, Bratton earlier this month announced a program to track homelessness (dubbed “Bum-Stat” by ever-sensitive members of the NYPD), declaring the issue “a priority at this time in terms of the quality of life” of New Yorkers. The reporting itself is to remain focused on such problems as homeless encampments and (here’s that phrase again) “aggressive panhandling” — in other words, the inconvenience of stepping over our neighbors, rather than of them being stepped on.

Ultimately, then, the lesson of the summer of desnudas and their ilk is not so much that the city was briefly obsessed with them — tabloid readers, even more than visiting fourteen-year-old boys, can survive a few encounters with female flesh. Nor is it even that New York still has a few bugs to work out of the new, tourist-friendly Times Square. Rather, we’ve learned the degree to which our media-political apparatus is set up to respond swiftly to the complaints of certain sectors of city life — pee-whiffing Upper East Siders, overprotective parents from Ohio — and not so much to others. Which may be unsurprising in a city that’s increasingly split by a yawning income divide, but still says a lot about whose concerns drive the city’s supposedly populist daily press, and its political agenda.

Or maybe more poor New York families just need to take their tops off. Sure, it’d be negative attention — but as any parent can tell you, any attention in a storm is better than none.