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.”1
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. The Naked Cowboy is an icon of cleaned-up sex for the sexy, cleaned-up new Times Square—a daytime cowboy rather than a midnight one. Though he is an actual person, the Naked Cowboy appears to be an emanation of Times Square’s media culture, especially when he stands directly underneath the giant billboard advertising Tommy Hilfiger underwear; it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him up on that billboard sometime soon.
The Naked Cowboy is, in fact, a showbiz figure, having appeared dozens of times on the Letterman show, which convenes just up Broadway, and on Howard Stern, CNN, and so many others. And his appearances, in turn, fuel sales on the Naked Cowboy Web site, where you can buy customized underpants for $15, as well as the Naked Cowboy trademarked guitar and the Naked Cowboy CD. The Naked Cowboy, in short, is a street person with marketing savvy. Times Square has made him a successful brand, which is to say that the same marketing calculus that has brought Disney and Viacom there accounts for him as well.
It is this most recent stage of Times Square that interests Lynne Sagalyn, a professor of real estate at Columbia Business School. Real estate is an odd thing to be a professor of, but it’s hard to imagine a better qualification for the enormous task that Sagalyn has set herself, which is to analyze the labyrinthine process by which today’s Times Square came to pass. Readers without a Ph.D. in real estate may occasionally despair at the maze-like path she traces, and may every now and again lose track of which acronym belongs to which city planning body; but Sagalyn has much to say both about the character of the peculiar place and about the processes that created it. This new Times Square, unlike all its earlier incarnations, is “an invention,” she writes, not “an accident.”2
The story begins in the late 1970s, by which time Times Square had become a longstanding civic embarrassment that each new mayor had promised to clean up. Forty-Second Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was easily the most crime-ridden block in a very dangerous city. Despite the presence of many policemen, the block, the subways at either end, and the adjoining avenues were overrun with drug dealing, prostitution, and petty larceny. Law enforcement was powerless to change the character of the place, and both private developers and city officials concluded that nothing short of wholesale transformation could restore Times Square to something like its old luster. In 1978, a group of philanthropists, former city officials, architects, and designers, supported by major foundations, proposed the creation of a kind of enclosed, World’s Fair environment on Forty-Second Street; they later added the idea of paying for it with the proceeds from big office towers, as well as a “fashion mart,” on the corners of the block. In 1980, Mayor Ed Koch vetoed the idea with a legendary bon mot at the expense of the Disneyesque plan: New York, he said, wants “seltzer instead of orange juice.”
What Koch really objected to, Sagalyn observes, was the surrender of control over so valuable a piece of city property to a private group, even a nonprofit one. Times Square had the character of a public place, as well as, at least potentially, an immensely valuable one; Koch was exercising a kind of municipal sovereignty over Forty-Second Street. But development in New York is driven by the real estate market, and Koch was also responding to new pressures of real estate investment. Midtown Manhattan was becoming overbuilt. City planners wanted to move development westward, but developers refused to build so long as major corporate tenants viewed the west side of Manhattan as an annex of New Jersey and were reluctant to rent offices there. In 1982, the city adopted a zoning ordinance that limited construction on the east side and encouraged it on the west side through a combination of tax benefits and the opportunity to build on a larger scale. Times Square, a transportation nexus located in the heart of the city, was a development opportunity waiting to happen; and so the urge to revitalize Forty-Second Street converged with, and was in many ways subsumed into, the drive to expand commercial office space.
The redevelopment plan that was ultimately devised for Times Square was a project of unprecedented cost and ambition. A state body, the Urban Development Corporation, would use the condemnation powers that are spelled out in the state urban-renewal law to take over almost all of the property in a thirteen-acre area stretching from Fortieth to Forty-Third Street and from Seventh to Eighth Avenue. All of the “air rights” in-side the boundaries would be transferred to the corners of the various blocks, permitting developers to put up extremely large office towers. In exchange for tax and zoning benefits, the developers would, in turn, pay the owners of private property condemned by the state and foot the bill for improvements to the district’s historic theaters and its subway stations. The plan was not so different from the one that Koch had rejected as foreign to the character of the city; it even included a merchandise mart on the western boundary of the area. The real difference was that public authorities were now in charge.
Still, it was private investors who would revitalize Times Square by supplying the capital for theaters and other buildings. Why couldn’t the city have accomplished this goal itself? The immediate answer is that New York was emerging from a brush with bankruptcy; Mayor Koch wasn’t about to drain the treasury to rebuild Times Square. The broader answer is that American cities are on their own in such matters, especially since the federal government withdrew from urban development during the 1960s. In Post-Industrial Cities,3 H.V. Savitch compares the Times Square project with the plan to rebuild the Les Halles district in Paris and Covent Garden in London. The French plan, Savitch points out, was devised by an haut fonctionnaire who was answerable neither to the public nor to municipal authorities nor even to the private sector; the redevelopment of Paris was understood as a technocratic issue, not a political one. And the plan was financed by a public-private corporation managed by the state. France is notoriously the most centralized and bureaucratic of the major Western nations, and Paris is the center of French life; maintaining the city is thus treated as a national obligation. New York, by contrast, must depend on itself. Development, as Savitch observes, is a matter of “political entrepreneurship,” in which public figures cobble together a coalition of the self-interested in the name of public good.
Political entrepreneurship is Sagalyn’s large subject. Public deal-making, she explains, is a matter of improvisation, messy and pragmatic, based not on fixed rules but on precedent, and subject to the perpetual influence of public opinion, economic conditions, and shifting assessments of self-interest. As Sagalyn writes,
Restoring the golden legacy of the midblock theaters was inevitably held out as the olive branch of peace, the public-good compensation for the city’s emphasis on commercial development. The gesture was symbolic, however, for years. In the quest for economic feasibility the city made only the slightest of bows toward the street’s historic trademark.
And not only the theaters but the essential character of Forty-Second Street were up for grabs. In 1981 the respected architectural firm of Cooper & Eckstut drew up an elaborate set of design guidelines that required the office towers to be sharply set back after the fifth floor in order to preserve the low cornice line of the street; but Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the architects hired by the winning developer, George Klein, designed a group of buildings with no setback at all. Klein insisted that the setbacks would make his buildings unmarketable. Much debate ensued, and the city surrendered on the key issues. “Whatever presumption of purity the city might have been entitled to had been lost with its abandonment of the official design guidelines,” Sagalyn writes.
It would be easy to draw the moral that in public-private deal-making, private interests trump public ones; but Sagalyn’s point is rather that no party is powerful enough to dominate the others, and so all outcomes must be negotiated. The reason you don’t see four virtually identical mansarded high-rises in Times Square today is that the Johnson/Burgee design was effectively blocked by people who loathed it, and who were also furious about Klein’s plan to tear down the Times Tower in the middle of the square. Klein, says Sagalyn, wanted to develop “a new Rockefeller Center,” which is to say that he wanted to convert Times Square into a staid corporate park. And this was precisely what the Johnson/Burgee design proposed. As Burgee said, “We’re giving Times Square an identity it doesn’t have now.” Times Square did, of course, have an identity, but it was seen as a disreputable one.
The fight over the Johnson/Burgee design led some influential people in the city to recognize that Times Square did indeed have a character worth preserving. The critical agent of change, as Sagalyn describes it, was the Municipal Art Society, an elite preservationist body that aimed to be an arbiter of good taste; eighty years earlier it had led the nation’s first anti-billboard campaign. Now the leaders of the Municipal Art Society were appalled by the “corporate script” that the city and its chosen developer were imposing on Times Square. The society, as one of its chief spokesmen said, rejected “the argument that you have to abolish Times Square in order to clean it up.” Now billboards were seen as good; so were light, action, turbulence. Through its influence with the press and through clever public-relations moves, the group rallied other civic bodies, people from the performing arts, the city newspapers’ editorial boards, and others behind the idea of Times Square as a revitalized good-time place and not a group of office buildings. And the city was forced to respond.
The City Planning Commission formulated new zoning regulations for the Times Square area—not just Forty-Second Street—that, for the first time, set out minimum levels of mandatory space for billboards and other signs and bright lighting, and required sharper setbacks for new office buildings than existed anywhere else in the city. George Klein was forced to have his architects revise their plans and create a gaudier, glitzier design for the Forty-Second Street office towers. But though the very idea of massive office buildings seemed incompatible with the new understanding of Times Square, there was no effort to rescind the original plan. The developers were still indispensable to the financing of the new Times Square.
Sagalyn spends many a wearisome page on the financial arrangements between the city and the developer. The plan envisioned two very sizable benefits in order to encourage construction: additional air rights that allowed the developer to build a much larger structure than would otherwise have been possible, and a sharp reduction in the property taxes assessed to tenants. The developer, in turn, agreed to cover the full cost of purchasing the condemned properties, though the city would reimburse him for any payments above $88 million during the ninety-nine-year lease. As condemnation costs rose to stratospheric levels, the Prudential Insurance Company, Klein’s financial backer, was forced to dole out ever more money, though the city ultimately had to foot the bill. It was a remarkably opaque scheme. The city could claim to be getting the benefits of development for free, since neither the tax abatements nor the reimbursements for excess condemnation costs would show up in the city’s budget. Prudential appeared to be bearing the principal cost of the redevelopment scheme, though it wasn’t. This obscurity, Sagalyn observes, gave the city considerable maneuvering room, since scarcely anyone was in a position to tally up the true costs and benefits. Thus do public deal-makers find ways to shield themselves from public scrutiny.
But Sagalyn also notes that the very complexity of the deal offered fertile ground for lawsuits. Litigation is the bane of public development, though from another point of view it is the instrument that stifles misguided projects in their cradles. In New York, the plan for Westway, a huge expressway planned to skirt the west side of Manhattan, was blocked by lawsuits, an action for which citizens could be thankful. Times Square, too, suffered this death by a thousand cuts. Sagalyn counts forty-seven lawsuits lodged against the project, and concludes that all but two of them came from “vested economic interests”—either property owners fighting condemnation or rival developers hoping to horn in on the action. The Brandt family, which owned almost all of the movie theaters on Forty-Second Street, including several that showed pornographic films, hired the sociologist Herbert Gans to argue that the plan would destroy the thriving indigenous street life of the area. The Dursts, one of the city’s old-line real estate families, financed lawsuits and supplied friendly legislators with tough questions. By the time that the city had fought itself clear of legal encumbrances, the booming real estate market of the Eighties had run its course, and by 1989 New York had a glut, not a shortage, of office space. And this, in turn, proved that you don’t have to win lawsuits for the litigation strategy to succeed; you simply have to delay a project long enough for market forces to do the work for you.
The premise of the redevelopment plan was that office towers, and only office towers, would produce a sufficiently radical change in climate to finally clean up Times Square. And when the office towers went into hibernation, the project was expected to disappear. But it turned out that the premise was wrong. As Sagalyn writes, “What the collapse of the market effectively allowed for was a conceptual rethinking of the project—a rare second chance for city planning.” The cultural and aesthetic principles behind the redevelopment plan had already changed by the time the market soured. And now a new set of players came along to animate those new principles. The hero of Sagalyn’s book is Rebecca Robertson, a public planner who as president of the 42nd Street Development Project Inc. championed the idea of popular entertainment along Forty-Second Street at a moment when the street seemed drained of life. Sagalyn describes Robertson as “an indefatigable force aiming to make the new vision happen.” It’s slightly odd for such a sober book to feature a hero, but Sagalyn’s larger point is that, in the game of political entrepreneurship, individuals matter just as much as impersonal forces.
Robertson and her colleagues created much of West Forty-Second Street as we know it today, and they did so in large part by changing public opinion and capturing the public imagination. They relentlessly marketed the idea of a revitalized Forty-Second Street well before it existed; Robertson assigned the architect Robert Stern and the designer Tibor Kalman to publish a manifesto called 42nd Street Now!, which called for a revival of some of the street’s raucous, honky-tonk character. The 42nd Street Development Project used $18 million that the city had required Prudential to set aside in order to construct a children’s theater, the New Victory, on a block with a decidedly sinister reputation. And Robertson, Stern, and others persuaded Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney, that the new Forty-Second Street was the perfect environment for a new, more streetwise Disney.
Eisner’s decision to take over the New Amsterdam, the most majestic of the Forty-Second Street theaters, ultimately prompted Madame Tussaud’s and a movie theater chain to lease space, and within a few years Forty-Second Street had taken on the gaudy, cleaned-up, Vegas-like character we see today. And while Robertson plainly deserves all the credit Sagalyn gives her, the rapid transformation of the street also demonstrates the enormous market power of the new entertainment culture. In the early 1980s, when planning for a new Times Square began, commercial office development seemed to be the only force large enough to bring about permanent change; by the late Nineties, it had become plain that the locomotive was in fact a new version of the old leisure culture, armed with a corporate power unimaginable in Times Square’s halcyon days.
Still, the underlying financial power of the real estate developers ensured that the office buildings could be delayed but not erased. Sagalyn makes it plain that from the city’s point of view, bad buildings were greatly to be preferred to no buildings. She quotes Vincent Tese, the head of the Urban Development Corporation, as saying of the Johnson/Burgee design, “The towers may be big and ugly, but the numbers work.” Prudential finally forced George Klein to sell his development rights, and the new aesthetic that prevailed by the late Nineties ensured that the towers that were ultimately built, though enormous, at least had a kind of shimmer and glamour and even playfulness suitable to Times Square rather than to Sixth Avenue. The square was still dominated by the grotesque slab of the Marriott Hotel, completed in 1985, but at least the lower part of the building could be concealed by billboards. And so, as with other projects, the maddening delay, which at the time looked like the price exacted by democracy, turns out to have a useful purpose. There are many, many Times Squares that New York could have wound up with; the one it got is arguably the least bad.
The academic literature on the new Times Square has by and large been extremely harsh. There is, first, the fixation with Disney, as fact and metaphor. The opening sentence of Alexander J. Reichl’s Reconstructing Times Square is, “The cheerful face of Mickey Mouse now greets visitors to Times Square from atop a Disney superstore.”4 The face, and the store, Reichl writes, “epitomize the corporate dominance of public space.” Reichl explains the development process that has produced the new Times Square as a giant exercise in gentrification, in which the city and state expelled the sex shops and movie theaters that catered to a low-income clientele in order to make the area safe for corporate interests and upscale consumers.
Many urban theorists appear to view city life as a profoundly unequal struggle between the underclass and the
overclass. In The Culture of Cities,5 Sharon Zukin describes the homeless men, drug addicts, and “punk activists” who fought a pitched battle with the police when New York’s Mayor David Dinkins tried to clean up Tompkins Square Park as the true stewards of the park, ignoring the fact that they had rendered it uninhabitable for the working-class families who lived nearby. Such critics see themselves as standing with the downtrodden in opposition not just to gentrification but to the bourgeois values which have shaped urban life since the time of Haussmann. Thus Zukin criticizes the writer William Whyte for proposing to restore neglected public spaces by making them, of all things, “attractive.” In this view, cities are true to their underlying social realities only when they are disturbing; trying to make social spaces appealing is an exercise in denial.
You wouldn’t expect a professor of real estate to have much patience with such views. Critics who dismiss the new Times Square as an “urban theme park” or a suburbanized preserve, Sagalyn writes, are betraying “a bias of perception rooted in many an intellectual’s discomfort with mass culture and an ideological suspicion of big business.” She is not naive about corporate ambition, writing that Disney officials once contemplated trying to convert Forty-Second Street into a sort of gated attraction, but fortunately thought better of it. Today’s Times Square, she insists, is too diverse, and has far too vital a street life, to be dismissed as Disneyana. It has, in fact, evolved into something else altogether, which Sagalyn aptly describes as “a microclimate of media creativity.” Dozens of small production companies, she writes, now have offices along Seventh Avenue and Broadway in order to stay close to the media giants they serve, just as small financial services firms flock to lower Manhattan to be near the big banks and brokerages. Sagalyn points out that Morgan Stanley, which built its headquar- ters on Forty-Seventh Street and Broadway, at first haughtily viewed the signs and lights mandated by the new Times Square zoning regulations as being beneath its dignity; the firm, however, not only came around, but ultimately agreed to install “half an acre of glittering light-emitting diodes (LEDs) formed into a continuously moving high-tech display of real-time financial information.” This giant blue ribbon, as Sagalyn puts it, constituted “a new icon for the era of the marketplace, a blue-chip supersign on a once gritty corner.”
Sagalyn is as hard on the devotees of nostalgia—the “wistfuls,” she calls them, or, yet worse, the “retrogrades”—as she is on the Disney demonizers. She characterizes nostalgia, at least in its “chronic” form, as “a crippling, destructive force.” Sagalyn herself seems to be immune to the mood. She admires Rebecca Robertson for preserving the theaters but doesn’t herself seem to have much feeling for them. In any case, she writes, Times Square symbolizes New York’s commitment to unceasing change as a core principle. And of course it’s true that, had Times Square been somehow declared a historic district, it would have become a dead thing, a Madame Tussaud’s version of itself. On the other hand, had the theaters been converted into shopping malls New York would have lost not only a branch of the city’s culture but a collection of old, much-cherished places. In this whirling world, we cling to the old simply because it’s old. I may not get the best pastrami on rye at the Edison Coffee Shop, on Forty-Seventh and Broadway, but I’ll eat there anyway simply because it’s a relic of a vanishing world.
But Sagalyn is certainly right when she says that the response of some critics that Times Square would be “better off dead” precluded thoughtful debate with them. She quotes the architecture critic Michael Sorkin to the effect that the demonization of Disney created a “false choice” between an imagined golden era and the soulless one to come. Times Square will necessarily bear the imprint of the global media and entertainment culture of which it is the epicenter; the Naked Cowboy will be its mascot. But it will also remain open-ended, and subject to change. At the moment, as Sagalyn observes, the Forty-Second Street created according to Robert Stern and Tibor Kalman’s plan is flashy on the outside, but banal on the inside. The south side of the block features a dismal food court, and a giant McDonald’s is soon to come. It is mortifying that what could be the greatest entertainment block in the city offers so little beyond such depressing specimens of pop culture; but this is not an argument that the critics have ever troubled themselves to join.
Sagalyn is upbeat both about the process and about the place it produced. The successful, if tortuous, completion of the plan, she writes, “erased a brooding sense of failure and limiting scope of imagination that had shadowed city hall in the aftermath of Westway….” The redevelopment of Times Square proved that cities could build large things without an authoritarian figure like Robert Moses brushing all obstacles and rival interests aside; and that a more democratic way of doing things, for all its flaws, might actually produce a better outcome. This is an important conclusion, and it’s too bad that Sagalyn’s detailed account of “Super-ESACs” and payments-in-lieu-of-taxes is likely to put off some readers. In reconstructing the World Trade Center area, New York City will soon be embarking on the largest project of urban redevelopment since Times Square. The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, which city and state officials have established to manage the huge investment, in many ways resembles the 42nd Street Development Project. And the World Trade Center site is, if anything, even more fraught with conflicting meanings than Times Square. Rudolph Giuliani has suggested that the entire site be converted into a memorial, but Michael Bloomberg, along with other officials, wants to combine a memorial with office construction and retail. Sagalyn’s book gives an idea of how messy and fractious and time-consuming the process will be; and it offers the hopeful thought that, given enough time and determination, public values can hold their own against private interests.
February 14, 2002
Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930 (Greenwood, 1981), p. 131. ↩
Another account of the making of the new Times Square appears in Marc Eliot, Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture and Politics at the Crossroads of the World (Warner Books, 2001). Eliot has a slightly different geographic focus than Sagalyn—Forty-Second Street from east to west—and a greater interest in the history of the district. Down 42nd Street adds new anecdotes, though not a great deal more, to the growing literature on Times Square. ↩
Post-Industrial Cities: Politics and Planning in New York, Paris, and London (Princeton University Press, 1988). ↩
University Press of Kansas, 1999. ↩
Blackwell, 1995. ↩