TIMES SQUARE — At the center of the center of the world stands a former NYPD cop turned executive holding the whole thing together.
Tom Harris, senior vice president for operations of the Times Square Alliance, oversees the day-to-day operation of New York City's most famous intersection. He addresses issues that range from coordinating which companies can hang new billboards when, keeps tabs on the much-heralded $27 million overhaul of Times Square's pedestrian plazas, and personally changes the LED light bulbs inside the red glass steps in Father Duffy Square.
"There's a lot of moving parts here, and we have to grease the wheels when it's necessary, and give a push when it's necessary," said Harris, who arrives to work every morning wearing a suit and tie, but keeps a pair of jeans and a T-shirt at the office for more hands-on tasks. "Every day there's a new problem to solve, and every week or month or so, there's a new high of a problem being solved."
Harris, who will be marking his fifth anniversary at the alliance May 1, has helped shepherd one of the most profound periods of transformation in Times Square. The bow tie was already a major tourist destination by 2008, but it was still searching for its identity.
"Five years ago, if you asked what Times Square was, you couldn’t describe it," Harris said. "It was kind of nebulous. It was two streets that crossed, and there were a lot of signs.
"Now, five years later," he added, "we have Duffy Square, the glass steps, a pedestrian plaza — these anchors for Times Square."
Those features, from the steps to the light posts to new solar-powered recycling- and trash-compactors placed throughout Times Square, are maintained by a phalanx of about 170 sanitation and public safety officers overseen by Harris, who himself once commanded three Brooklyn precincts for the NYPD.
That experience with New York's Finest shows — only three public safety officers have resigned in the years since Harris arrived, and one keeps asking for his job back every six months.
"We have really developed a family here," Harris described.
What's more, when it comes to working with staff or interacting with local business owners and tenants, "I use both my investigatory background and my skills working with people to try to get to the root cause of the problem."
"They come to you with one problem, and that's the surface," he said. "But if you dig, you find there's a root, an underlying problem."
Harris spent more than 23 years with the NYPD, rising from patrolman to inspector. Now living in Pearl River with his wife and two teenage children, he said he hopes to spend another 25 years with the alliance.
"Every day is a challenge. Every day is a new adventure," Harris said.
"I am never bored. I get a great deal of satisfaction," he added. "When I get up in the morning, I love coming to work. I can't wait to get here and face the challenges of the day."