The Devils' Playground

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 a generation of moviegoers, seem simply bizarre today on blocks where white-uniformed workers from the Times Square Business Improvement District scurry to pick up litter for the new, wholesome clientele.

But the performing arts, the soul of Times Square, that were once rightly respected by both audiences and critics, have given way to what Traub calls the arts of mass production. Times Square’s stores and restaurants are mere local outlets of global retail and entertainment corporations. Their corporate artistic products are not, says Traub, inevitably featureless and mediocre-witness Disney’s charming, ingenious and wildly popular production of The Lion King playing at the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theater. Nor are they, however, The Iceman Cometh. New Yorkers know the difference and mourn the loss.

Traub understands. He argues that because Times Square is in many ways the incarnation of urban life itself, nostalgia for Times Square is nostalgia for a lost idea of urbanity-for a time, before the advent of television and the suburbs, and before riots and drug wars, when everyone knew that city life was the best life of all.

Yet oddly, New York City’s very resuscitation is partly due to its long-time antagonist, television, which first encouraged crowds to stay home in the early 1950s and later depicted the city, in noir classics like The Naked City, as sordid and dangerous. By the 1990s, television’s Seinfeld saw New York as hip and funny, Friends imagined it as amiable, and Sex and the City assumed it was the heart of the world, to use A. J. Liebling’s old phrase. Even crime shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order only added to the city’s benign image-after all, Detective Sipowicz was there to hunt down criminals and A.D.A. McCoy to prosecute them.

Crime shows also remind us of what nearly destroyed urban neighborhoods-not only the apparently ever-increasing crime rates of the 1970s but the ever-decreasing competence or will on the part of law enforcement. As a matter of policy in New York, cops refused to arrest and district attorneys to prosecute perpetrators of so-called petty crimes-anything less than violent assault-and did a very poor job of pursuing violent offenders also. For this they were often applauded by academics and civil libertarians-even as middle-class families and businesses fled to safe pastures.

Social theorists who argued in the 1960s that many crimes should go unpunished because they’re victimless-prostitution, drunkenness, vagrancy, drug abuse-were overlooking one obvious victim: the neighborhood. Entertainment districts like Times Square-or Harlem, Hollywood, Piccadilly, Montparnasse-proved particularly vulnerable as victimless crimes first bred squalor, next menace, next outright danger. The fact that many of these districts had survived waves of criminal behavior before-Times Square’s speakeasies, after all, had been owned by the mob-obscured the postwar reality that risky environments were no longer appealing. Affluent patrons had many other entertainment choices, and they didn’t have to endure threats to life and limb to enjoy themselves. Much less did they have to put up with the “genuine debasement,” to use Traub’s phrase, that characterized Times Square by the 1960s.

By the late 1970s many New Yorkers had had enough. Government officials decided Times Square wasn’t coming back on its own, and authorized a series of development proposals that would have essentially urban-renewed Times Square away, proposing to replace the mess on the ground with huge office towers reaching to the sky. But even as architect Philip Johnson was sketching out his plans, New Yorkers were growing uneasy about paving over their legendary crossroads of the world with gargantuan office towers. Paul Travis, vice president of the city’s Public Development Corporation, told Traub that Johnson hadn’t noticed this shift in public opinion. Times Square’s mythical moment that New Yorkers wanted re-created, said Travis, was V-E Day, with the honky-tonk and the crowds. Johnson’s towers fell beneath the weight of negative public opinion-not to mention forty-seven lawsuits. By the time the last lawsuit was thrown out in 1990, the real estate market had hit the low point in New York’s recurring boom-and-bust cycle. Demand for office space had evaporated.

Meanwhile, miraculously, Times Square had begun to come back. William Stern, who had headed New York State’s economic development efforts in the early 1980s, noted in 1999 that Times Square was bursting with investment and renewal not because of the government’s building project, which had built nothing, but because government at last began doing what it should have been doing all along to nourish prosperity. Namely, city government started to fight crime, kicked out the sex industry, and lowered taxes selectively for businesses willing to locate in the area. And as Times Square became safer, its natural advantages became strikingly apparent: at the center of the city’s subway system, near Penn Station and Grand Central Station, it enjoys a transportation infrastructure unmatched in the country. Times Square is again hot.

The result is that the two Times Square precincts that were the city’s most violent thirty years ago are now safer than many suburbs. Children waiting for Lion King frolic on the streets where prostitutes recently plied their trade. Across 42nd Street, the Victory Theater, which had been the porno movie house where Robert De Niro took Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, is now a lovely children’s theater. Throngs of tourists have returned to the neighborhood, the streets are crowded night and day, violent crime is virtually nonexistent, real estate values have soared, and vacancy rates have plummeted. Many New Yorkers complain that Times Square has been transformed into a neighborhood Stepford Wife. But today’s Times Square is just one phase in its long life. You’re only as healthy as you feel, Travis Bickle said. Times Square feels and looks healthy, surely a precondition to becoming fabulous once again. end

Published in the 2004-05-07 issue: 
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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.

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