The Devils' Playground

The Devil's Playground
A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square
by James Traub
Random House, $24.95, 313 pp.

I wish I’d been around when New Yorkers went to Harlem in ermine and pearls, Fred and Ginger skated in Central Park, Ellington and Armstrong jammed on 52nd Street, and the Broadway theater had Eugene O’Neill, George S. Kaufman, and the Gershwins all at the same time. Back when New York ruled American popular culture, it was all pretty fabulous and urbane. New York’s dominance was undermined first, says James Traub, by the Depression, when the rabble began laying siege to 42nd Street’s fabled charms, and later by World War II. Americans returned from the war and embarked on the great migration, abandoning their cities for the suburbs. It’s taken New York, Chicago, Boston, and L.A. some fifty years to recover.

Today, New York is again fabulous but American popular culture isn’t. This is the crux of the problem for the seemingly revitalized Times Square which, says Traub, is still the national, and indeed the global, capital of commercial culture. After sinking to unfathomable lows in the 1970s, Times Square has been rescued, razed, rebuilt, and reopened as a cleaned-up version of its formerly rambunctious self. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, filmed in 1976, now seems a grotesque artifact of a remote, primitive age. “All the animals come out at night,” spat Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. “Some day a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” De Niro’s brutal words, which encapsulated Times Square to...

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About the Author

Julia Vitullo-Martin edited Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund Press). She was a Vista Volunteer, a civil rights worker, and an antiwar protester during the sixties.