When the bare breasts come out in Manhattan's carnivalesque Times Square, the reactions never fail.

Tourists gawk. Necks crane. Smartphone cameras snap away. 

But one response the "painted-lady" entertainers of New York didn't expect? A debate about whether their semi-nude solicitations for tips might imperil the city's most popular pedestrian thoroughfare.

Following an outcry this summer over the women's stark appearances as well as complaints about harassment by costumed characters, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently proposed ripping up the Times Square plazas, which are frequented by an estimated 400,000 pedestrians a day.

"It's wrong. It's wrong," de Blasio told CBS News about the thong-wearing models, who, like the area's ubiquitous cartoon mascots, earn tips in exchange for appearing in photos.

NYC painted lady

Chris Oliveri paints a street performer in Times Square. The "painted ladies" have been operating for three years. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"This situation is going to change. This is what I'll guarantee you, I'm not going to tolerate it."

De Blasio has commissioned a task force to weigh proposals by Oct. 1 to crack down on Times Square hustlers and street performers who hassle tourists. 

Police commissioner Bill Bratton has already voiced his opinion of what needs to be done to restore the landmark to his idea of a more family-friendly attraction.

"I'd prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was," he told a local CBS affiliate.

But topless entertainer Saira Nicole doubts the mayor's proposal to dismantle the $27-million plazas will fly with New Yorkers. 

"It's just talk. It's fluff," said the 29-year-old, who objects to the media label desnudas for describing her line of work.

'Painted lady' or 'naked girl'?

"I don't mind being called a painted lady," she said. "That term desnudas just means naked girl. That minimizes what we're doing. We offer a unique experience, which is what New York City is supposed to offer. And I like the shocking aspect, and the conversation that it starts."

Wearing a black robe while awaiting her turn to be painted, Nicole said there's no way her job should jeopardize Times Square's future as a pedestrian thoroughfare.

"This focus on us is just a distraction," she said, as painter Chris Oliveri brushed an American flag-motif heart onto her street-performing partner's chest.

"It's just a few small complaints getting blown out of proportion into talking about destroying something that costs millions of dollars. And there was a real safety reason for having this pedestrian area here, so people could walk in Times Square instead of in the street."

Clogged sidewalks

Before the plazas went up six years ago, 96 per cent of Times Square employees said they resorted to walking in the streets alongside traffic in order to avoid clogged sidewalks, according to the Times Square Alliance, which promotes the local economy.

"If the plazas were ripped up, it would be a disaster for Times Square and a total failure of imagination on the part of New York," said Tim Tompkins, president of the nonprofit business advocacy group.

He isn't oblivious to the headlines about Times Square's unsavoury costumed mascots.

NYC tourists

Kim and Bill Allen, visitors from Delaware, say they’re more concerned about a proposed closure of Times Square’s pedestrian plazas than they are offended by semi-nude street performers. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"We can count as many as 200 of those people who are hustling and hawking. And of those, maybe a quarter of them are engaging in improper, predatory behaviour," Tompkins said. "But this points to the fact this is a small and manageable problem that doesn't require ripping up the plaza."

Last month, a video went viral of "Times Square Spider-Man" beating up a heckler

Before that, news outlets reported on a costumed Super Mario who allegedly groped a woman, an expletive-laden rant from Batman, brawling Statues of Liberty, a Cookie Monster who allegedly shoved a boy, and a Toy Story Woody who was arrested on sex charges.

Even so, whether it's a man dressed as Elmo or a semi-nude woman posing for tips, Times Square is everyone's to share, says Gabriel Russell, who works in the area.

'Milking people for money'

"I don't care how naked they are, it's just like the Elmo costume people to me. The fact they're milking people for money is what's morally questionable," he said.

"But we're moving towards a world where there are fewer and fewer cars, more pedestrians, and this is our public space."

There's nothing illegal about women going bare-breasted in New York. Indeed, the "painted ladies" regularly pose with tourists just metres away from the NYPD Times Square precinct's doors.

They've done so for three years, said Oliveri, who paints the women. But nobody raised a fuss until this summer due to media attention, he said.

Tompkins said Times Square has operated under a general code that "quirky is fine, but creepy is not."

He feels tackling issues of conduct can be separated from discussions of how cities ought to allocate public space.

Sitting in Times Square, Delaware visitors Kim and Bill Allen were more intrigued than offended by the bare-breasted women being painted a few tables away.

But they took a strong view against any proposal to rid the area of the wide pedestrian zones.

'You can turn your chair'

"In New York, you're liable to see anything. You don't want to see it, you can turn your chair," Kim Allen said.

"More importantly, I think taking down this pedestrian side would be a big loss. We can relax and talk and meet and greet. It wasn't like this when I was growing up here in the '60s."

Indeed, as she spoke, the Naked Cowboy — a Times Square fixture who has for years gone shirtless, sporting only cowboy boots, hat and briefs — strummed his guitar and made his way southward.

In a way, Bill Allen added, the convergence of personalities and clashing ideas is what earned Times Square its reputation as the Crossroads of America.

"You got somebody just over there with the religious sign, 'Jesus is the lord,' and you got a lady over here getting painted," he said.

"In a 30-foot circle here, I'll bet you can get 30 different points of view. Now isn't that's just what makes America America?"

Times Square performers

Street performers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Princess Anna from Disney’s Frozen and Iron Man solicit a photo-taking Times Square tourist for a tip. (Matt Kwong/CBC)