Tom Harris (NL 2015) is Senior Vice President at the Times Square Alliance, a Business Improvement District that works to improve and promote Times Square – cultivating the creativity energy and edge that have made the area an icon of entertainment, culture and urban life for over a century. He oversees the Alliance’s operations, including its public safety and sanitation services, managing a staff of more than 140 employees. We spoke with Tom about the Alliance’s work on the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve celebration, the impact Coro had on how Times Square is governed, and his reflections on leadership throughout a career that first included 23 years as an NYPD Inspector in Brooklyn.
Following your retirement from the NYPD, what made you decide to work at the Times Square Alliance?
Everything in my career has been about relationships. I wasn’t looking for a job. Someone I had met when I was at 76th Precinct in Brooklyn worked at the Times Square Alliance, and she told me they were looking for a director of public safety. When I looked at the job, it was exciting. They were doing a lot of innovative things in one of the most dynamic parts of the city. I knew that every day would be a challenge, and that was thrilling for me.
Since you joined the Times Square Alliance in 2008, how has Times Square evolved?
As I look at each block, I don’t think anything is the same as it was in 2008. Back then, I saw two roads that cross—and a lot of people walking in the streets because there wasn’t room. Today, thanks to our partnership with the Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program, we have transformed Times Square, making it a safer and more vibrant place for pedestrians. The Red Steps were another transformative addition that came shortly after I joined the Alliance. They’re so iconic now that it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t there. Every day, thousands of people gather on those steps for the greatest free show in the world: people watching in Times Square.
How has the Alliance led that change during your time there?
We exist to improve and promote Times Square. We’re the change agents for the neighborhood. We have a great team and everything we do is possible because of strong, strategic partnerships with the City, neighborhood stakeholders, and other nonprofits who help us improve the experience for people who live, work, and stay in Times Square. We work with the NYPD to keep Times Square safe, the Department of Sanitation to keep it clean, and the Department of Transportation to develop new ways to manage the space so people who come here have a good experience. We work with the nonprofit Breaking Ground to ensure our more in-need stakeholders get vital services, and we work with Midtown Community Court (a program of the Center for Court Innovation) on policy issues.
What are people most surprised to learn about the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration?
Just the sheer scale of the planning and all the moving parts. I spoke with an Army logistics officer who came to New Year’s Eve this year, and he was surprised at how smooth everything ran.
We plan two New Year’s Eves at once – as we’re planning the current year’s celebration, we’re already starting to plan for the following year, because we’re always coming up with new ideas and we need that much lead time to execute them. We’re already having planning meetings for 2020, going over what worked well in 2019 and what we’ll do differently this year.
It’s bigger than any one organization. It’s a collaborative effort between the Alliance, our stakeholders, the event production team, and many city agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Events, Emergency Management, Transit, and NYPD. It’s really complex, how all the relationships come together—some with competing interests—but it all comes together for that one night, in that moment. It works because everyone knows their job and does it. It’s fantastic to be a part of it. This was my twelfth New Year’s Eve here, and I’m grateful to have experienced so many times something that is on most people’s bucket list.
What is one of the biggest challenges that the Alliance faces and how is your team tackling it?
There’s still a perception problem with Times Square. New Yorkers love to hate it, but a lot of that is based on perceptions they developed a long time ago. At its core, neighborhood leadership is about affecting change in neighborhoods and a big part of that is changing perceptions by doing great things. One of the ways we’re doing that is through our plaza programming, like our Broadway Buskers and Jazz in Times Square concert series, outdoor drawing and coloring sessions, and our Midnight Moment digital art exhibition that takes place on our screens 364 nights a year. We want to inspire people to take a chance and come back to Times Square, and for people who work here, we want to bring them out of their offices to enjoy our public spaces. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed.
What did you learn from Coro that has made you a better leader?
I learned so much from Coro that I continue to use every day. The individual leadership styles and the concept of adaptive leadership really resonated with me. Learning about my leadership style and how it relates to the styles of others was a breakthrough. The platinum rule is critically important – treat others the way they want to be treated. As a leader you do that by meeting people where they are, finding out what makes them tick, finding common ground, and adapting your style accordingly.
What was your Coro Community Change Project and how has that impacted your work?
When the City created the pedestrian plazas, they changed the landscape of Times Square. We found that if we didn’t create programming in the plazas, negative behavior would take root. So, for my project, we lobbied the (de Blasio) administration and elected officials to have the Department of Transportation create new rules to govern the pedestrian plazas. We were successful. The rules were helpful, but we saw a lot of displacement with various vendors forced out of the plazas to 42nd Street and streets north of the bow tie. It wasn’t our intent to get rid of anyone. Now we’re looking at a “2.0” version of the rules that will clean up the language of that legislation and take into account the ways that Times Square is continuing to evolve.
How has the Coro network of alumni helped you in your career?
It’s great to be able to talk to someone who is experiencing the same things you are – but might have a different perspective on it. Just someone to bounce an idea off. I often pick up the phone and call Coro alums in other BIDs to talk about a challenge we face. And I’ve also received those calls. The Coro network is a great asset and all alumni should tap into it.
Have you learned any unexpected lessons in leadership in your career?
One day I was looking out my window, and I noticed one of our wonderful sanitation employees emptying a garbage can. The bag was heavy, and as he dragged it across Duffy Square, he left a trail of film and soot from the outside of the bag. He was working hard, but he didn’t understand “the why” – keeping the square clean; he was just focused on “the what” – emptying the garbage can. In that moment, the importance of explaining the bigger picture – the mission – to the people you’re leading really resonated with me.