NEW YORK -- Costumed superheroes and villains found common ground at a New York City council hearing on Wednesday, with the likes of Spider-Man, Penguin and the Joker all testifying against proposed rules designed to limit run-ins with tourists in pedestrian plazas including Times Square.
The legislation to allow the city's Department of Transportation to create regulations for plazas comes after scores of complaints in recent years over aggressive panhandling behavior, primarily from the costumed characters pushing onlookers for tips.
Keith Albahae, with his Joker-green hair and purple suit, told members of the council's committee on transportation that he was the one who had experienced harassment. "I've been spit on, and I defended myself by spitting back," the 49-year-old from Brooklyn said.
"It is not right, this is apartheid, what's being proposed here," he said. "We provide an immense entertainment. The only people who are upset basically are people who want free pictures. Otherwise, you just don't get the pictures. Nobody forces you to take pictures and if somebody does then that's on them."
When it was his turn, Abdelamine Elkhezzani, in his full Spider-Man costume, got a laugh from councilmembers when he opened with, "I agree with the Joker even though he's a villain and I'm a superhero."
The 37-year-old has been arrested four times in Times Square, including most recently last weekend after allegedly fighting with a tourist over a tip. "It sounds like we're criminals carrying guns and knives," he said. "They are harassing us."
Capt. Robert O'Hare, commanding officer of the New York Police Department's unit in Times Square, said at the hearing that there have been 16 arrests so far this year, compared to 15 in all of last year. The arrests have been on charges including aggressive solicitation, forced touching, assaults and grand larceny.
"We think this will greatly assist us" in seeing the "bad actors" but also seeing space management and other things, O'Hare said.
Other incidents in recent years include another Spider-Man figure punching a police officer trying to prevent aggressive solicitation, an Elmo being arrested for allegedly harassing people and yelling anti-Semitic slurs, a "Toy Story" Woody allegedly groping women and a man dressed as Cookie Monster attacking a two-year-old child whose parents didn't offer a tip, CBS New York reported.
"This is a real issue. We are not saying that all the people who are dressed in costume behave this way, but there is a consistent and ongoing issues that needs to be dealt with," said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. "Times Square should be unusual. We say quirky is fine, but creepy is not."
Those supporting the bill say the legislation will allow for all the kinds of activities that take place in Times Square now, but in specific zones. People who want to take a photo with a costumed character or buy a ticket for a sightseeing tour could still do so, while those who don't could get through the area without the threat of harassment, supporters say.
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told councilmembers that the zones would each allow for about 50 to 55 people. At the department's highest count, there have been about 300 costumed characters, naked painted ladies and bus tour ticket sellers in the plaza.
Officials showed a draft proposal that called for eight of the designated activity zones between 42nd and 47th streets.
She said if the bill passed, the department hoped to have it in effect by summer. It would cover all 53 pedestrian plazas in the city, as well as the 20 more that are planned.