In the 1890s, the bright lights of Broadway ribboned their way north through Union, Madison, and Herald Squares, illuminating ambling throngs of theater- and restaurant-goers, until reaching 42nd Street where, all at once, the Gay White Way winked out. Ahead in the gloom lay Longacre Square, lair of footpads by night, and by day the manure-redolent center of the city’s horse and livery trades. In 1895, the impresario Oscar Hammerstein I crossed the frontier and planted a theatrical complex at 44th Street, but his foray failed, victim in part of an ongoing depression. In 1899 and 1900, the economy surging again, he erected two theaters on 42nd Street, this time barely ahead of a herd of leisure-time entrepreneurs thundering up from downtown, as New York’s entertainment district whooshed into the square, bright lights and all.
Playhouses sprouted along (or shifted up to) 42nd Street and on in-to Longacre itself—forty of them by 1910. Electrified billboards and many-bulbed marquees banished the darkness. Elegant hostelries arrived—led by the Knickerbocker and Astor hotels—as did a slew of fancy “lobster palaces”—theme restaurants done up in Sun King or Roman Imperial style. And the publisher Adolph Ochs relocated his New York Times to a brand new skyscraper at Broadway and 42nd Street.
Two developments drove this transformation. In lower Manhattan, expanding corporate office and garment manufacturing districts sent land values above them soaring, forcing recreation venues to leapfrog up island in search of cheaper terrain. And those northern places had been made newly alluring by the construction of New York’s first subway (commenced 1900, completed 1904), which turned a once distant Uptown into an eminently accessible Midtown. Great crowds from around the metropolis could now flash- flood the Longacre, as they did first on December 31, 1904, when the promotionally savvy Ochs put on a New Year’s Eve fireworks display atop his Times tower, attracting 200,000 people to the square recently renamed in his paper’s honor.
That event’s centennial has occasioned two books commemorating Times Square’s initial remake and chronicling its subsequent ones. James Traub, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, highlights the district’s rich cultural history, profiling its leading showmen and journalists, while Anthony Bianco, a writer for BusinessWeek and author of a study of the Reichmann real estate clan, emphasizes the story’s entrepreneurial aspects, but each provides a full analysis of the century-long interplay between culture and commerce in these symbolically freighted blocks. Both books are well written, with Traub’s the more mellifluous and reflective (particularly about Times Square today) and Bianco’s the more solidly detailed (twenty pages on Hammerstein to Traub’s three). Both offer rise-fall-rise dramas: a glittering first act (peaking in the 1920s), followed by a 1930s–1970s decline, and a post 1980s renaissance. Yet for all the overlaps, their reviews of the square’s hundred-year run are at times distinctly different.
Since the Civil War, Gotham had been the center of the nation’s theatrical industry. Touring companies assembled shows in the Union Square Rialto, tried them out on New York audiences and critics, then sent them on the road “direct from Broadway.” At the turn of the century, when Wall Street was merging myriad industrial firms into a handful of giant companies, show biz too went corporate. The Theatrical Syndicate and the Shuberts developed nationwide theatrical circuits and competed to build ever more lavish showcases in Times Square.
The dense theatrical complex acted as a magnet as well as a launch pad, pulling tourists from around the country to Midtown hotels and shops. The ever vaster crowds inspired a novel form of advertising as the new national corporations began using electric billboards to etch their images in the Midtown nightscape. (Traub pays a lovely homage to O.J. Gude, the promotional genius who pioneered these “spectaculars,” his first masterpiece a fifty-foot-long pulsating green pickle for the Heinz company.) Times Square entrepreneurs welcomed such technology because their profits depended on maximizing the flow and mix of customers, in contrast to their staid commercial counterparts on Fifth Avenue, who banned flashy signs lest they offend their well-to-do patrons.
Broadway businessmen proved equally willing to use sexuality as an attraction, though it took a while to calibrate the degree of acceptable carnality. In the 1880s the entertainment world below 42nd Street had been bifurcated into separate but adjacent districts: the “legitimate” one on Broadway, with opera, genteel theater, elite hotels, and “clean” vaudeville houses (those which “a child could take its parents to”); and the Tenderloin, its bastard relation, where males sampled raunchier fare at concert saloons and brothels. After 1900, when both Broadway and Tenderloin rushed into Times Square, it seemed the latter might overwhelm the former, as perambulating prostitutes worked the avenues, and side-street brothels drew queues of patrons. By 1916, concerted reform drives had damped down such public displays, but a more refined sensuality triumphed on the boards.
The spectacular on- and offstage success of the Casino Theater’s six Florodora chorus girls (each married a millionaire) spawned a host of chorus lines and drew a flood of would-be Cinderellas to the square. The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, himself a great ladies’ man, set bevies of beauties parading across his Follies stage, but kept the sexuality quotient within bounds, making his shows acceptable to upper-class women newly restive with corseted domesticity. Nice ladies seeking to be naughty also joined the ragtime dance craze of the 1910s, turkey trotting in the square’s hotels, restaurants, and cabarets, with dance instructors like Vernon and Irene Castle serving as cultural transformers, stepping down the sexual voltage, shielding society ladies from the dance’s black, Latin, and working-class associations.
The working class itself, however, if white and sufficiently well behaved, was more than welcome in Times Square—less in the upscale theaters and lobster palaces than at “clean” vaudeville houses and at the movies, the new entertainment technology that shed the stigma of its storefront origins by relocating to grand and decorous picture palaces. In adopting this policy of guarded openness, Midtown leisure entrepreneurs took their cues from their Coney Island counterparts who had recently upscaled the raffish midway by erecting lavish amusement ventures like Luna Park and Dreamland, which swiftly demonstrated the tremendous profitability of low-priced, high-volume entertainment.
The Twenties boom sent capital sluicing into show business. Film companies built ever more opulent palaces in Times Square, and attendance jumped at decade’s end after the addition of sound. For traditional theater, however, the Twenties proved complicated. True, as Bianco notes, thousands of investors who had made a killing in stocks decided to gamble on Broadway, driving the number of productions to record levels. But film had siphoned away theater audiences, in New York and on the road, and by 1926, declining demand left nearly three of every four plays failing to cover costs.
Prohibition brought further difficulties, wiping out liquor-dependent lobster palaces, night clubs, and roof gardens, spawning a rival district in Harlem, and ushering in organized crime. Traub argues that gangster-run clubs and speakeasies gave an edge to Times Square night life. And he suggests that a revolt against the Volstead Act (and Victorian sentimentality) helped to produce the era’s outpouring of witty, urbane, and distinctively “modern” work by Broadway journalists and playwrights, much of it focused on Broadway doings and characters. His portraits of Texas Guinan, Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, George S. Kaufman, and the Algonquin wits are fond and perceptive. But these collateral advantages were not enough to keep a bloated stage afloat.
Worse still, Times Square (like the Rialto before it) was under siege from an expanding office district. Mid-town real estate values exploded in the Twenties, driving up rents beyond what most producers could afford, even after jacking up ticket prices. Skyscrapers (among them the Chrysler Building) sprang up on 42nd Street from Second to Sixth Avenues. On Broadway, at 43rd, Paramount Studios raised a skyscraper-cum-theater headquarters in 1926, suggesting the possibility of combining offices and playhouses, but no one followed suit. Bianco argues plausibly that had the Twenties boom roared on, many theaters (including nearly all on 42nd Street) would have been turned over to the wreckers. And by this point, there was nowhere for the entertainment district to run.
The 1929 crash saved Broadway’s physical stock—hard times as ever the great preservationist—but dramatically altered its audience, particularly on 42nd Street’s theater-laden block between 7th and 8th Avenues (the Deuce, as it would become known).
On 42nd Street, in a bid to reverse sagging attendance, some entrepreneurs raised the level of sexual explicitness. Burlesque arrived in 1931, along with barkers and steerers and giant posters of half-naked girls. Fearing a re- Tenderloining, the 42nd Street Property Owners and Merchants Association counterattacked, with support from a puritanical Mayor La Guardia, and managed to close down salacious competitors. But shorn of sex, live theater couldn’t compete, and Deuce playhouses switched en masse to an all-movies, all-the-time, cheap-seat policy. These “grinders” offered second-run, male-oriented action films (not por-nography), and proved spectacularly successful.
Patrons also crammed the street’s cheap eats—the hot dog stands, soda fountains, and all-night cafeterias (Chase’s, Bickford’s, the Automat) that replaced the classy restaurants that Prohibition had shuttered in the Twenties. Cheap amusements blossomed too—shooting galleries, gypsy tea rooms, dance halls, and Professor Heckler’s flea circus in Hubert’s Museum. The block lured working people on their way home to the Bronx or Brooklyn, and growing numbers of the unemployed and homeless, attracted by the anonymity of the crowds and the network of sheltering institutions where a nickel bought a meal, and a dime an all-night stay in a grinder. Among the new arrivals, Bianco observes, were a disproportionate number of blacks (themselves a disproportionate percentage of the unemployed). There was also a sharp increase in the number of prostitutes working the street—a standard concomitant of depressions—though unusual here in being mostly male (the theatrical district had long been relatively hospitable to gays).
Traub laments this transformation. Where the street “had long lived in a fine balance between the mob and all that was inaccessible to the mob,” now “the rabble was laying siege to the street’s fabled charms” and the elite was heading for the exits. As “cheap and crude” replaced “expensive and refined,” the Ziegfeldian tension between erotic abandon and aristocratic restraint was lost. The arrival of burlesque seemed a “shocking” proof of decline, a “menace,” an “ecological danger,” though Traub admits that A.J. Liebling and Joe Mitchell found much to admire in the era’s “picturesque impoverishment” (and he might have mentioned other honky-tonk enthusiasts, such as Reginald Marsh).
Bianco suggests that what some mourned as the street’s deterioration “could just as plausibly be celebrated as its democratization.” He salutes the “flair and resourcefulness” of the new promoters, and finds goofy fun in burlesque’s whimsical marquees (Panties Inferno, The Sway of All Flesh), its standup comics (like Abbott and Costello, whose “Who’s on First?” routine premièred on the block in 1936), and even its over-the-top sexual spectaculars (like one in which two topless cowgirls, firing cotton bullets, rode white horses racing toward the audience on treadmills).
Traub thinks that by the mid-Thirties the “character” of the Square, like that of the Street, had become “irretrievably tawdry,” but this seems overdrawn. True, theater attendance fell off a cliff, but the quality of plays went up, as Traub himself convincingly argues, when the collapse of the road freed dramatists to write for a smaller but more sophisticated local audi-ence. The Paramount, Roxy, Capitol, and others continued to throw glamorous opening-night extravaganzas and mount star-studded productions. A new dance craze broke out in the mid- Thirties and square-goers swung to the Goodman, Dorsey, and Miller big bands. Prohibition’s repeal spawned huge and glittering nightclubs like the Latin Quarter and Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe (admittedly not for the rich, who frequented Rockefeller’s Rainbow Room or East Side clubs). And dazzling neon billboards still awaited the swarming nighttime crowds; indeed a worthy successor to Gude arrived in 1933 when the sign designer Douglas Leigh made his Broadway debut with a giant coffee cup emitting real steam.
World War II boosted the district’s cultural wattage, despite a military-imposed dimout, as millions of troops passed through on their way to Europe, drawn by free Broadway tickets, free hospitality at the Stage Door Canteen, and free sex—with victory girls or local boys at the Astor bar or on 42nd Street. V-J Day’s signature moment became that exuberant kiss between strangers in the square.
Arguably postwar prosperity took a larger toll than had pre-war depression. The flight of the middle class to the suburbs, white fears of inner-city blacks and Hispanics, and the rise of TV all diminished attendance at the theaters and ended the custom of following election-night returns at the Times Tower. Live entertainment did get a jolt of cultural energy in the Fifties and Sixties, ironically from black and Hispanic musicians. Though neither Traub nor Bianco makes note of it, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were drawing crowds to Birdland at 52nd, while at the Palladium, a block up Broadway, Machito and Tito Puente were presiding over the newest dance crazes, mambo and cha-cha. Proximity, moreover, fostered cross-pollination: the neighboring be-boppers and Latinos jammed together, fostering fusions such as Cubop and Latin jazz.
Even so, by the mid-Sixties the slumping entertainment district again found itself besieged by a booming Midtown corporate complex. Having lined Sixth Avenue with glass boxes, developers demolished the Roxy, Palladium, Capitol, and the Astor Hotel, replacing them with skyscrapers, while the Paramount’s theater was converted to office space. Mayor John Lindsay, whose mother had been a professional actress, believed theater was vital to the city’s image and economy. As Bianco recounts, the Lindsay administration attempted to negotiate an accommodation between competing uses of Times Square space, setting up a Special Theater District that encouraged developers to include playhouses in the new structures, and mandating electric signs on new office buildings.
No developers sought to build on 42nd Street itself, however, in part because its places of entertainment remained vigorous. As movie houses closed down around town, working- class patrons (of all races) flocked to the block’s grinders, among them future auteurs Scorsese, Kubrick, and Woody Allen, as Deuce theaters were among the few in New York willing to screen work by Bergman, Fellini, and Godard. The 1951 opening of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which daily disgorged tens of thousands of New Jersey commuters and long-distance travelers, boosted the market for sex, game arcades, and retail stores catering to male tastes (sporting goods, electronics, cigars). Alcoholics, heroin addicts, and juvenile delinquents congregated as well, though few were considered dangerous. Forty-Second Street had its fans. In the late Forties and Fifties, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs hung out there, wrote about the local hustlers and junkies, and hailed the Deuce as a refuge from a suffocating cold war culture.
In the late Sixties, sex-based entertainment became an even bigger business. Bianco, intrigued by quasi-criminal entrepreneurship, recounts in detail the career of Martin Hodas, the “Bill Gates of 42nd Street porn.” Between 1967 and 1970, Hodas built a peep show empire, then rolled his profits over into adult bookstores, porn films, and live nude performances. The new trade proved lucrative enough to lure mobsters to the block, though Bianco reminds us that the volume and visibility of commercial sex had been far higher in 1901.
For Traub, the Sixties mark the moment when the Street “sank from impudent naïveté to genuine debasement.” The “social conventions [that] kept most Americans toeing the line of propriety” now “lost their moral force.” Supreme Court decisions protected explicit sexual materials. The police were “hobbled” by the reluctance of many citizens to crack down on pornography, vagrancy, prostitution, and street-level drug dealing. His picture of palsied liberals seems at odds with Bianco’s detailed recounting of John Lindsay’s series of crackdowns (Hodas himself was arrested twelve times and eventually jailed), Abe Beame’s establishment of the smut-busting Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement, and Ed Koch’s pummeling of porn outlets (347 were closed by 1982, and massage parlors neared extinction by the mid-Eighties.)
The 1970s brought more serious problems. Recession and cutbacks in social services generated severe cri-ses throughout the city—a 40 percent unemployment rate among minority youth, thousands of mentally ill dumped on the streets, a surge in crime following the layoff of thousands of police—all manifest on the Deuce. New Yorkers and tourists still thronged there, but pedestrians, neighboring residents, local business owners, and women in general found the street more alienating and threatening, particularly at night.
But Traub’s Travis Bickle–like descriptions of the Deuce as a “hellhole,” a place that “had descended to an almost feral state,” seem as demonizing as his title, “Devil’s Playground” (not, by the way, a historical usage). For all the street’s problems, to claim it was “easily the most crime-ridden block in a very dangerous city” seems myopic, considering the dismal state of affairs in the contemporary South Bronx or Bushwick. As evidence he quotes a finding that “the two precincts that covered Times Square…placed first and second in New York in total felony complaints,” with Harlem a distant third. But as a 1978 CUNY analysis cited by Traub notes, the high volume of complaints—purse snatching, drug sales, and loitering for prostitution are leading ones—was a function of the high volume of traffic passing through the bus terminal and subway station, and that the “actual probability that one is a victim is quite low.” In terms of major crimes (assault, rape, murder), the CUNY report underscores the fact that the Midtown precincts ranked well below Harlem and other poor residential neighborhoods.
There’s no question but that civility in the Seventies was sagging under a host of strains. But while Traub gestures at the larger picture he takes pains to insist that “the 42nd Street of 1981 wasn’t troubling; it was depraved.” He considers it an “important act of moral recognition” to insist that vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated if the street was to be made welcoming to “respectable” folk. Aside from the fact that it was largely respectable folk—commuters, office workers, tourists—who were buying loose joints and patronizing the peeps and parlors, defining the problem this way promotes solutions that focus on purifying the immediate area rather than addressing the wider social issues—such as the tidal wave of homelessness that washed over the city in the next decade.
The return of prosperity in the 1980s only worsened conditions on the Deuce (as in other parts of Gotham) because rising rents, gentrification, elimination of SROs, and Reagan’s cutbacks helped put thousands on the streets. Many washed up in Times Square’s youth shelters and decrepit welfare hotels, where the coming of crack compounded crime and violence. The conviction took hold that porn had to be driven out of 42nd Street if Times Square was to be made safe for visitors (both locals and out-of-towners), and for commercial development.
The Koch administration, which arrived in mid-recession, was convinced that one way out of the Seventies’ slough was to strengthen New York’s status as a financial center and stimulate construction of office space. The city also decided to lure development from the overbuilt East Side to the transit-rich West Side, including Times Square. A 1982 reform down-zoned the East Side while authorizing higher densities for West Side projects that broke ground by 1988. Developers stampeded into Times Square, enabled by go-go bankers awash in petrodollars, cowboy insurance companies, and foreign investors, especially the Canadians and Japanese. The Japanese sought a visual presence as well as a financial one: in the Eighties, so many billboards hawked Sony, Panasonic, and JVC products that the square resembled an outpost of the Ginza.
Alarms were raised anew about the impact on the theatrical industry, especially when the first foray—construction of John Portman’s ugly, bunker-like Marriott Marquis Hotel—took down three historic playhouses. Spirited protests by preservationists and theatrical luminaries, who evoked Broadway’s past against an annihilating future, won landmark status for twenty-eight playhouses. And in 1987 they succeeded in preserving something more nebulous—the district’s glitzy ambience—by requiring that new buildings incorporate commercial signage that met stringent specifications of luminosity (as measured in LUTS—Light Unit Times Square).
The 1987 crash triggered a wave of corporate consolidation, downsizing, plummeting demand for office space, and nosediving commercial rents, but developers and their backers, mad to get buildings underway before the 1988 tax-break deadline, ignored the flashing red market signals. Over the next two years they hurled up nearly nine million glitz-covered square feet (roughly as much capacity as the World Trade Center). Not surprisingly, over half the space found no takers. The real estate market stayed submerged until the mid-Nineties.
While all these towers were careening upward in the Eighties, undeterred by the nest of depravity on 42nd Street, the westward march of office towers had stalled on the Deuce itself, and the sex trade was held accountable. Because its entrepreneurs (as Traub notes) had “no more incentive to enter a more respectable line of work that would draw different customers than opium farmers have to grow wheat,” a sequence of plans emerged, each urging that eminent domain be employed to banish the pornographers (and many other small businesses) and replace them with office and entertainment operations, on the theory that “good uses” would drive out the “bad people.”
The first proposal—advanced by a private consortium of investment banks, foundations, and a Canadian developer—envisioned raising three immense office towers at the Broadway/Deuce crossroads and converting the rest of the street into an urban theme park. Koch vetoed this in 1980—denouncing it as Disneyesque not Gothamic, orange juice not seltzer—and by 1983 came up with a public/private alternative. A city/state entity, the 42nd Street Development Project (42DP), would subsidize a builder to raise four immense skyscrapers at the crossroads—in the sober Rockefeller Center style deemed essential for attracting law and accounting firms, banks, and ad agencies—in return for refurbishing the Times Square subway station, and reconverting eight grinders to leg-itimate playhouses. Opponents complained that mammoth stuffy towers would overwhelm the street, destroying the block in order to save it, and noted that Broadway hardly needed more high-priced theaters. Resident businesses and rival developers who wanted a piece of the action launched a blizzard of lawsuits, tying up construction until 1990, by which time the office market had collapsed.
At this point 42DP’s public entrepreneurs fashioned a third approach, which retained the quadrille of office towers but rejected “elitist” theaters for more “populist” uses, by which they meant movie cineplexes, big retail chains, and giant entertainment companies. (“What populism means now is corporate culture,” argued one director of the project.) To lure such entities they marketed the area’s most basic assets: its millions of pedestrians (served up by mass transit) and its history, lodged in the popular imagination by countless songs, plays, and films, a past that could be packaged as a commodity—“Times Square” as brand (albeit one in need of upscaling).
Giant retailers—eager to overcome Gotham’s stubborn reliance on mom and pop stores—proved easiest to convince. The Gap blazed the way, opening a 42nd Street outlet in 1992, which quickly proved profitable. Entertainment complexes were more recalcitrant. Disney seemed the ideal anchor, but the company refused, fearful that the proximity to porn would sully its brand, until declining theme park revenues and the Euro Disney fiasco forced rethinking. CEO Michael Eisner, a New Yorker and theater buff, proposed reformatting Disney movies as plays, then certifying them with a Broadway run for distribution to a now global road. The city and state agreed to rehabilitate for Disney the ruins of the old Syndicate’s New Amsterdam, but the Mouseketeers hesitated, demanding the entire street be closed and gated. Eventually a deal was hammered out in the closing days of the Dinkins administration, though announced under Giuliani, who promptly appropriated the credit. With the street duly cleaned up and porn pushed out (if only across Eighth Avenue), franchises whooshed in (McDonalds, Chevys, Applebees, AMC); media, law, accounting, and advertising firms took up residence in crossroads towers; and nonprofit theaters settled in to adaptively reused theaters and the handsome new Duke building.
In the square itself, Bertelsmann, a German entertainment conglomerate, took the first plunge (even before Disney), picking up an empty skyscraper at a fire-sale price, followed shortly by Morgan Stanley, Viacom, Toys “R” Us, Virgin Megastores, and the like, all clad, as per the 1987 regulations, in glowing signage. Indeed the number of jumbo displays jumped from two dozen to over sixty, as US companies piled in en masse, now eager (as Traub notes astutely) to associate their brands with that of the refurbished Times Square—“exciting, energetic, urbane, yet clean and family-friendly.” By the millennial New Year’s Eve all was in readiness for prime-time viewing; the global TV audience was estimated at one billion.
What do these authors make of the latest Times Square? Bianco is briskly pragmatic. He admits most New Yorkers are not drawn to what they consider an implant of mall culture, but tourists and corporate tenants are happy, business is good, and in any case there’s no turning back the clock. Traub, however, devotes the last third of his book to evaluating the new status quo, and finds it troubling.
As one would expect from his treatment of the 1930s and 1960s, he’s pleased the porn business is gone (or at least diluted) and with it most of the Deuce’s “predatory or just plain pitiful” denizens. Indeed he spends an entire chapter hailing the remake as a vindication of Rudy Giuliani’s general determination “to clean up degraded places,” despite resistance from liberals who wrongheadedly “romanticize the gutter.” An odd digression, given that Giuliani had almost nothing to do with reshaping 42nd Street (for better or worse an Ed Koch project) beyond furnishing huge tax breaks to corporations that settled there, and sweeping it free of three-card monte players. Nor can his cleansing initiatives be properly assessed apart from his larger record: had Giuliani been as assiduous in housing the homeless as he was in rousting them, he might have had fewer critics.
Yet even as Traub lauds the new Times Square as a fixed “broken window,” he wonders if perhaps the broom hasn’t swept too clean. Refusing to reduce the area’s past to a marketing tool, he uses it as a yardstick to measure the present, which comes up wanting. Formerly, Times Square “catered to a cosmopolitan taste, a taste for elegance and nocturnal drama”; it was a place “for grown-ups seeking a grown-up fantasy.” Today’s “spanking-new” version is so family-friendly there’s almost nothing a child couldn’t take its parents to. And while he’s happy to see emporiums like Toys “R” Us packed with kids, Traub notes how engineered such spaces are—the toy store’s designer confides that “what we tried to do was have the perception of interactivity without real interaction”—and finds such corporate culture “faintly sinister.”
He sees the bright lights glowing in mandated profusion along Broadway, but finds the new displays produced by multinationals like Viacom and Clear Channel—stock quotes, gigantic TV screens, and computer-generated vinyl reproductions of magazine ads—banal compared to signs of yore, and he reports on how the promising new light- emitting-diode technology got put to the lamest of uses by the likes of Lehman Brothers.
Liebling-like, Traub pokes around the square seeking “surviving vestiges of the indigenous,” visiting offbeat, idiosyncratic entrepreneurs, and attending theatrical spaces “carved out from Times Square’s increasingly totalized environment.” But the exercise only reinforces his sense that “something irretrievable, something precious, was lost when the floodgates of development were opened.” Once 42nd Street stood for something larger—“glamour, excess, sex appeal, decadence”—but now only for “the power of global marketing.”
Tangled up in memories, Traub struggles to break free. An urbane New Yorker, he doesn’t want to come off as merely nostalgic, someone who uses the past to resist the new, especially since “that’s what cities do: they build the new right on top of the old.” Yet he can’t help doubting if this was really the best “new” we could have come up with. In the end he argues that the square is rescued from being Disneyesque by the crowds themselves, the tide of teens and tourists that eddies up and down, watching street performers (though the acts are “as globalized as retail culture”), and consuming chain-store offerings (“inane products and cardboard food.”) Times Square worked, he argues, because it “drew people to the heart of the city,” and “perhaps that was enough.”
But perhaps not, given the hundreds of millions in taxpayer subsidies, which might have been better spent on schools, health care, and transportation. Traub would have been on stronger ground had he argued, as does Lynn Sagalyn in Times Square Roulette (2001), that the makeover helped reestablish Gotham as the linchpin of a national and now global entertainment system. Clumping together the remaining theaters and TV studios with new communication conglomerates and media producers has arguably consolidated a media sector with the heft to compete on a planetary scale, thus strengthening the city’s position at a time when its financial sector is downsizing and disaggregating, and its business services sector is outsourcing away.
Even so, Traub is right to worry, as do many others, about the ability of such a corporate-dominated enclave to sustain former levels of creativity, especially today, when the most powerful forces on Broadway (Disney and Clear Channel Communications) seem more intent on smothering than amplifying critical voices. Times Square used to be a significant site of cul-tural production, and while the content providers in the district’s entertainment megafirms (or the nonprofits nested in its interstices) may yet generate music and theater on a par with the past’s, it’s hard to believe such a sexless space, its naughty-bawdy neutered, can provide sufficiently fertile soil.
Happily, Times Square is no more Gotham’s cultural crucible than it is its civic “heart.” After September 11, when New Yorkers needed to come together in public, few headed to 42nd Street. Reporters were surprised to find it largely deserted, apart from clusters of people watching news coverage on the Jumbotron. The citizens were elsewhere, holding candlelight vigils, singing, mourning, arguing, and comforting one another in Union Square, Washington Square, Central Park, the Brooklyn Heights promenade, and other noncorporate, truly public places around the city. I suspect the sources of our future cultural vitality lie elsewhere as well, and that the next dance craze, the next music, the next poetry, will bubble up from the outerborough streets where immigrants from around the planet are clashing and fusing, out in the real crossroads of the world.
June 24, 2004