Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon
by Lynne B. Sagalyn
MIT Press, 620 pp., $59.95
Times Square, “the crossroads of the world,” is the main archaeological site of urban commercial culture; the novelties and crazes and spontaneous art forms of the last century are buried there, one generation on top of another. It was in and around Times Square, in the years before World War I, that a new cosmopolitan class first heard ragtime music, and ogled chorus girls, and danced dangerous Harlem dances like the black bottom, and sat right on stage in the thrilling Parisian import known as the cabaret. “Instead of letting gentility define the limits of their public lives,” writes Lewis Erenburg, a scholar of urban culture, “respectable urbanites were realizing they could enter a wider world of spontaneous cosmopolitan gaiety and experience ‘the whirl of life’ itself.”
Times Square became a more democratic, if less glamorous, place with the advent of the movies, first in the form of the nickelodeon shown in darkened storefronts, then, in the Twenties and Thirties, with the movie palaces, decorated with naiads and dryads and cupids and spouting dolphins. The less lighthearted and more hard-bitten post-Prohibition and pre-war urban culture that we know from Damon Runyon, and then from A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell—that world of fighters and promoters and kibitzers and wiseguys and oddballs—was born in the shadow of Madison Square Garden, on Eighth Avenue between Forty-Ninth and Fiftieth Streets.
Then comes a break in the archaeological record. In the years after World War II, television, suburbanization, and New York’s own loss of cultural power combined to do in Times Square—to make it a symbol of the decay of urban life. In the Fifties and early Sixties, the Beats could still celebrate the Times Square demimonde; but by the Seventies, as the older American cities slid into a trough of drugs and crime and entrenched poverty, Times Square sank below all forms of literary recognition, except the nostalgic or the sex-obsessed.
Then, in the 1980s, New York politicians and developers set out to consciously revitalize the place. And now, after twenty years of plans and deals that have been done, undone, and re-done, we have a Times Square that would astound the swells and yeggs and night crawlers of yesteryear—a place of great glass skyscrapers, theme restaurants, “family entertainment,” and giant billboards and lighted signs; a place that is, of all things, fairly clean. The new Times Square is a backdrop both for MTV and ABC News; Disney has a large perch there, as does Nasdaq, the World Wrestling Federation, Madame Tussaud’s, and ESPN; Viacom, Condé Nast, and Bertelsmann have their headquarters there. Times Square is now the global capital of popular culture.
The new Times Square has street people, but they are different from the old. The most familiar is the Naked Cowboy, a magnificently muscled fellow with a beautiful mane of golden hair who carries a guitar and wears cowboy boots, underpants with the words “Naked Cowboy” written on the back, and nothing else …