NEW YORK — “Shepherd One” won’t touch down at John F. Kennedy International Airport until Thursday afternoon, but “Operation Pope” is already going full speed ahead as Manhattan businesses prepare for both the boon it might create — and the traffic chaos.
The city has not revealed the cost of arranging for Pope Francis’ 38-hour New York City stay, or its expected economic impact, either positive or negative. Aside from Secret Service agents making the rounds inspecting area stores for Pope Francis’ safety and warnings of the impending security check points, staffers at stores on Fifth Avenue are getting ready for what the city has said will be the greatest number of street closures in New York City history. Representatives of stores including Michael Kors, Façonnable, Banana Republic, Cole Haan and Zara said they planned to close a few hours early Thursday afternoon in advance of the pontiff’s evening prayers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A/X Armani Exchange and Salvatore Ferragamo are among those taking a wait-and-see approach.
Staff at Saks Fifth Avenue, Topshop, H&M and Uniqlo insisted they will keep normal business hours and Thursday night’s Saks-sponsored Purple Purse charity event at the Oak Bar at the Plaza hotel with Kerry Washington and Tommy and Dee Hilfiger.
Garrett Keefe, a Michael Kors associate, said of the all-systems-go attitude by retailers: “It’s New York. Fashion is born here — all the designers are here. You know how they like to say, ‘Fashion never sleeps in the city that never sleeps.'”
Josephine Sciascia, a general manager at Banana Republic’s Rockefeller Center store, is banking on a boon to business, despite the store’s reduced hours. “I think it’s going to be great. We’re all really excited. It’s the first time he’s come to the U.S.”
The Shops at Columbus Circle will also keep normal hours. Retailers tied to the Madison Avenue Business Improvement Development plan to keep normal business hours, as do those linked to the 34th Street Partnership. Tricia Lewis, director of digital media for the latter, noted that the 34th Street and Seventh Avenue subway stop is one of the city’s three busiest ones on a normal day. She said of Friday’s mass, “All the foot traffic could greatly benefit our retail businesses.”
Macy’s Herald Square is taking an equally intrepid approach by maintaining normal business hours Friday, the day that Pope Francis will say mass at nearby Madison Square Garden for 20,000 people.
But it’s not only Midtown that the pontiff’s visit will impact. Pope Francis is covering a large portion of the city, on Friday alone traveling from his Upper East Side nuncio to address 170 world leaders at the United Nations’ General Assembly, followed by a trip to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum downtown before a late afternoon visit to Our Lady Queen of the Angels School in East Harlem. En route to Madison Square Garden, the pope mobile will cruise past 80,000-plus ticketed fans in Central Park. By Saturday, the gridlock and traffic delays should ease, since the pope will be jetting off to Philadelphia.
The Secret Service is taking the lead on setting up security measures for the pope with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department, said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, during a press conference Monday. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Swiss Guards and Italian Carabinieri are also said to be involved. The extent of the manpower dedicated to the New York leg of the pope’s trip, and the expense, has yet to be revealed. Staffers at Aritzia, Façonable and a few other Fifth Avenue stores within blocks of St. Patrick’s Cathedral said Secret Service agents have started to do sweeps of their stores, as well as the upper floors of their respective buildings.
Standing outside Trump Tower Monday morning, doorman Johnny Gonzalez described the security needed for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit. “When the last pope came, there were snipers on the rooftops of every building, about seven helicopters overhead and the streets were just shut down. All these buildings have a lot of security guards but there will be cops out here like you can’t even believe,” he said.
Gonzalez added, “There were people lined up 20 people deep. I’ve been here for every parade and I have never seen a crowd like that.”
Rich Rodriguez, executive of security, added, “Nothing’s bigger than seeing the pope — that’s the biggest parade you’ll see.”
Several retailers said they had been advised that an eight-foot temporary wall or barricade was going to be set up along Fifth Avenue from 55th Street through 48th Street near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There would be passageways for pedestrians so that employees will be able to access their respective stores. Some Rockefeller Center tenants attended last week’s pre-papal informational meeting at The Plaza that was hosted by Tishman Speyer. The fact that many Fifth Avenue tenants still seemed to be in the dark about specifics Monday was not by chance, according to some. “With security, they usually don’t tell you which way he’s coming — they wait until the last minute to tell you,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the same with NYPD. They will tell you which streets will be closed but they won’t tell you which streets he’ll be coming down.”
Spanning six square blocks between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas from 48th Street to 51st Street, and rising as high as 70 stories, Rockefeller Center, which consists of 12 Art Deco buildings managed by Tishman Speyer, will be the center of Thursday’s disruption.
Enterprising vendors will be shelling out papal bobbleheads, T-shirts and other religious-inspired memorabilia. But with the exception of pope-inspired products in Macy’s Philadelphia store and a special organ concert there, most retailers aren’t doing any special products for his visit to New York.
Surely not by chance, Alfred F. Kelly Jr., the key point person for Pope Francis’ New York stay, served as president and chief executive officer of last year’s New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Company. (Kelly was also president and head of global consumer group at American Express Company until spring 2010.) But given Pope Francis’ Jesuit practices and no-frills reputation, it is no surprise that city officials and organizers aren’t exactly trumpeting the financial commitment or economic upswing of having all those tourists in towns. Francis, who prefers not to live in Vatican City’s apostolic palace, lived up to his austere image when visiting the Philippines in January. At that time, his advance security detail made it known that Francis would prefer a small room and a single bed, rather than the king-size mattress that had been purchased for him, according to Josie Natori, who had helped spruce up his accommodations providing the linens, towels and bathrobe for him.
Declining to say what the city may present to Pope Francis, de Blasio said, “…this pope has made very clear that he is less interested in material things. And I think that as we think about how to honor him, we want to make sure we do so in a way that is consistent with his values.”
Known to like nothing better than to physically greet fans who line up to get a glimpse of him, the pontiff’s welcoming committee outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral Thursday night is said to include 250 laborers who helped with the building’s $177 million restoration project and who will be lined up outside on the south steps. In honor of what staffers are calling “Pope Week,” the cathedral’s gift shop is doing a brisk business for $20 Pope Francis-adorned T-shirts, $18 rosary beads and $3.50 prayer cards. As of Thursday, the store will close and a makeshift one will be set up out front, according to one employee, who like many other New Yorkers will not be attending any of the pope’s events.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, will be on hand when the pope visits the East Harlem Catholic school. The union leader, who will be with two car wash workers, said the pope is expected “to mingle” with about 150 guests, who will be seated at tables of 10 in the 123-year-old private school. Blackstone founder Stephen A. Schwarzman’s wife Christine will also be in the crowd. Applebaum said, “The pope is going to bring his message of strength and hope to working people. We thank him for that. We hope more and more that people will listen to his message which transcends all faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, performers such as Jennifer Hudson, Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr. will be keeping the Madison Square Garden crowd entertained during the three-hour-plus wait before the pontiff’s mass at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
In Philadelphia, Aretha Franklin, Sister Sledge, Andrea Bocelli, Juanes and Mark Wahlberg will be among the talent keeping the crowds entertained during the Festival of Families event on Sept. 26. While a spokeswoman for Wahlberg said his participation was purely a personal thing and not about publicity, Franklin chatted about the occasion. “This is most definitely a milestone in my career,” she said, adding that “Amazing Grace” is one of the songs she will perform for the 1.2 million expected on the Ben Franklin Parkway. After getting the news, she said her first reaction was, “The Pope! OMG!” the Grammy winner said. “When Pope John Paul II came to Detroit some years ago, unfortunately I was called to the stage to sing for him as he arrived so I don’t know if he heard me or not.”
Hopeful that she might be part of a small audience with the pope, Franklin said she plans to gift him with 38 volumes of her Baptist preacher father’s sermons. The musician has narrowed down her wardrobe choices to one of two St. John ensembles, because she likes them and “at my present weight they’re perfect.” Unlike at President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration, Franklin has no plans to wear a hat of any kind, never mind a scene-stealing one.