ONE NIGHT IN THE FALL OF 2002 I took my son, Alex, then eleven, to see the play 42nd Street, which was showing at the Ford Center—on 42nd Street. It was a Saturday night, and the balcony was full of loud, happy out-of-towners. To our right, four girls chattered away in Chinese. The row in front of us was full of sailors—a nostalgia trip all by itself, for sailors and soldiers have been coming to Times Square for a night of fun for a good three-quarters of a century. These boys, the drill team from the Groton sub base in Connecticut, were polite, talkative, and positively button-eyed with excitement; a few of them had never been in New York before. And on their one night out in New York, the submariners had decided to take in not a strip show but a Broadway musical—and what a musical it was! The curtain rose, and then stopped, about eighteen inches up. All we could see were disembodied shoes, in crazy shades of yellow and green and orange and blue, moving at a blur; and the theater echoed with the obbligato of rapid-fire tap dancing. No music; just rhythm. It was a moment of pure Broadway virtuosity. The first time I had gone to the show, a few months earlier, an old gent with a cane sitting down the row from me had loosed a spontaneous shout when the feet came out. Now the boys from Groton, and the Chinese girls, and Alex and I, were all cheering with delight. I was also furtively dabbing at my eyes.
That’s Broadway for you—bright lights and gaudy colors, energy and talent, the old-fashioned chorus line and the old-fashioned emotions. 42nd Street punches the same buttons they’ve been punching in Times Square for a hundred years. But 42nd Street is also about those buttons, and about that old Times Square. The play is a musical about the making of a musical, Pretty Lady, in the worst years of the Depression. To say that 42nd Street is about the Depression would make the play into a far more weight-bearing instrument than it aspires to be; insofar as it is about anything, it is about the “kids” of the chorus who are the true citizens of Broadway, who under all the wisecracking and makeup believe ardently in the dreams in which shows like Pretty Lady traffic. The Depression exists not as a social phenomenon to be examined, but as a giant piece of rotten luck, which makes us root for the show, and admire the kids, all the more. When Pretty Lady is threatened with sudden collapse, the kids wonder where their next meal is going to come from; but we know that the indomitable Broadway spirit will rise above misfortune.
The musical 42nd Street began its life as a 1933 Busby Berkeley movie— actually, it began its life as a novel, now long forgotten, by one Bradford Ropes—so, for the first audience the setting was contemporary, and the show’s yearning and escapism reflected the audience’s own deepest wish. Now, of course, that’s no longer true. The appeal of 42nd Street is overtly nostalgic. The air of desperation and fear that must have seemed terribly familiar in 1933 gives the play its authenticity today; here is the mythical Times Square of the thirties, the “Runyonesque” Times Square, right up to Nick Murphy’s hoods, who threaten to break a leg or two (but don’t). Who doesn’t know the song: “Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty . . . 42nd Street!” We don’t pity the kids; we envy them, for the sheer vitality, the electricity, of their world. When we watch 42nd Street we look not only backward but outward—to the street of the play, which of course is also the street of the theater, the street right outside the door. We compare their 42nd Street with ours.
Our 42nd Street was a consciously, sometimes even lovingly, reengineered urban space. For, by the 1960s and 1970s, the naughty and bawdy had descended into the squalid and pathological; and in the ensuing decades New York City and State had undertaken a massive project of urban re-creation. And it had worked. The very fact that we were watching a musical on 42nd Street was proof, for the theater we were sitting in had been showing pornographic movies twenty years earlier. The Ford Center had been built from the wreckage of two splendid old theaters, the Apollo and the Lyric, the latter dating from 1903; the glorious scroll-work and arabesques of the Lyric’s 43rd Street façade now constituted the rear entrance of the Ford. Just down the street, toward Broadway, was a children’s theater known as the New Victory and reconstituted from the ruins of the Republic, built in 1900; and directly across 42nd was the renovated New Amsterdam, an art nouveau masterpiece that in the early years of the previous century had been considered the most architecturally innovative theater in the United States.
At intermission, Alex and I walked out onto the street. It was nine-thirty on a Saturday night, and the crowd was so dense we could scarcely move. A big circle of people had gathered around Ayhan, the Turkish master of 42nd Street spray painting. Farther west, toward Eighth Avenue, was a Russian guy who sold 3-D pictures, and a few Chinese men who would render your name in calligraphy. The entire street was bathed in acid light, purple and green and orange and yellow, from the giant signs advertising the chain stores and restaurants that lined the street; an immense gilded palm, a glittering gesture from the god of kitsch, perched high above Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Gangs of tourists eddied up and down the sidewalk, taking photos of one another and of the signs and of the cops on horseback gazing balefully at the entrance to the Broadway City arcade. I held on to Alex’s hand, not because there was anything ominous in the scene—there wasn’t—but because I worried he might be swept away by the crowd. The truth is that there’s no place in New York more fun for an eleven-year-old boy than Times Square.
This new Times Square of office towers and theme restaurants and global retailers and crowds and light and family fun is so utterly different both from the pathological Times Square of twenty years ago and the naughty, gaudy Times Square of seventy years ago that we almost need a different name for it. Certainly we need a new way of thinking about it. What are we to make of this place? For the city’s financial and governmental elite—for the leading forces in real estate and tourism and entertainment and retail, for civic boosters and public officials—Times Square is overwhelming proof of New York’s capacity for self-regeneration. Indeed, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani virtually adopted Times Square as the emblem of the safe, clean, and orderly New York he had erected on the ruins of the chaotic and deviant New York he believed he had inherited. Few things pleased Giuliani more than officiating over the New Year’s Eve “ball drop” in his new Times Square. The willingness of tourists from all over the country and the world to gather in Times Square, as they had in generations past, was a vivid symbol of New York’s rebirth.
But, unlike the mayor, most of us do not consider orderliness the cardinal virtue of urban life; nobody moves to New York—or Paris or Tokyo or Bombay—to revel in the predictable. For that very reason, many people who think about cities, and many people who simply love cities, find the new Times Square profoundly unnerving—in the way that so many modern, reconditioned urban spaces are, whether train stations or water-fronts or warehouses-become-gallerias. Say “Times Square,” and the instant association is “Disney.” And “Disney,” in turn, is shorthand for a deadening depletion of the old teeming energies, a corporate-theme-park version of urban life. To its many critics, Times Square isn’t a place, but a simulacrum of a place, an ingenious marketing device fostered by global entertainment firms. Times Square is now home to the world’s biggest McDonald’s, and to the world’s biggest Toys “R” Us; the ground floor of the Times Tower, the center of Times Square and thus the pivot around which the universe rotates, is, as of this writing, scheduled to be given over to a 7-Eleven. And so Times Square, which over the last century has been the symbol of so much, is now understood as the symbol of the hollowing out of urban life, the decay of the particular in the merciless glare of globalization.
I’m one of the people who loves cities. I love crowds and noise and light and hubbub. I love overhearing conversations in the subway. I love the accidental quality of city life, the incongruous and the surreal. And to say that you love cities is to say that you love old cities, for only cities built before the advent of the automobile have the density that makes these myriad accidents and incongruities possible. (I do not love thee, Phoenix.) Jane Jacobs, that great champion of cities and dauntless foe of urban renewal, believes in density to the exclusion of almost everything, including open space and grass. And when I think of Times Square during the epoch I am most inclined to sentimentalize—the era of Damon Runyon and A. J. Liebling, the era just before and after 42nd Street—I think of an infinitely dense and busy asphalt village, or even a series of micro-villages, such as Jacobs loves, in the space of a few blocks.
I am also, if not an urban theorist, then at least an urban journalist. I have spent much of the past twenty years writing about urban schools and crime and politics and policies, mostly in New York City. And I am not inclined to sentimentalize New York’s decline, or that of the other old American cities. I did not like Times Square in 1985, when I used to work there. I did not share the view that predatory street people were its authentic citizens, or that the proposed renovation constituted a kind of unholy “gentrification.” I cheered Mayor Giuliani as he spoke of the dangers of “defining deviancy down,” and as he declared war against New York’s pernicious street culture. I believe deeply in civility—perhaps a great deal more deeply than did our famously uncivil mayor. And so as I walked through the Times Square that was a-building, I felt the magnitude of the achievement, and I felt it as a reclaiming of abandoned urban territory— even as, at the very same moment, I felt the pang of loss, the loss of specificity, of locality, of eccentricity, of the micro-villages that were no more and never would be again.
The question “What are we to think of this place?” compels us to think beyond the particulars of this one intensely particular spot. It forces us to consider how, or whether, we can be at home in the global cities we now see evolving all around us. What, if anything, can we attach our feelings to—not just the ironic and resigned acceptance of the inevitable, but the delight that city life has inspired in cosmopolitan folk since merchants plied the narrow lanes of Siena or Tangier a thousand years ago? What exactly are we to do with our nostalgia for what we know very well can never return? Should we wield it as a weapon against the encroachments of the new? Should we, alternatively, discard it as a mere hindrance as we embrace the new?
Last, and perhaps most important, is a practical question: How, as citizens, should we wish to see our cities shaped? The new Times Square— or at least the new 42nd Street—was a product of choices, even if they weren’t always very clearly stated. And some of these choices plainly contradicted others, for the renovation of Times Square was designed both to preserve its traditional ambience and to promote the development of office construction. Other choices could have been made. Ought they have been? Is this, in retrospect, the best Times Square we could have had? Perhaps we could have had a more “authentic” place; and yet nothing would be more ludicrous than a Colonial Williamsburg version of Times Square, with Nathan Detroit and Nicely-Nicely stalking up and down Broadway in their chalk-striped suits. How, then, should we negotiate the passage from the old and exhausted to the new and—we fear—soulless?
And so this book began with thoughts about Times Square as it is today. But it quickly became obvious that I could not make sense of Times Square without understanding what it had meant in the past. More than that, I had to understand how this place had come to mean so much—how it had come to be seen as the central spot not only of New York but of the country, and even, not so fancifully, of the world. Surely one answer is geography. William Taylor, perhaps the most distinguished historian of Times Square, has written, “The center of the classical city was the forum and the agora. Times Square, located at a major transportation hub, was neither. Because of its location, it became a new kind of center of amusement, recreation, and vice; the kind of area that in earlier cities was located off-center, its activities discreetly muffled. Times Square’s very centrality meant that whatever took place was immediately in the national spotlight.” Times Square, that is, became New York’s zone of popular culture and entertainment because it was so readily accessible to the millions who lived and worked in the city, or who were visiting from out of town; and because this pleasure district occupied the center of the city that was itself the center of the nation’s culture, Times Square came to be seen as the capital of fun, the place that instructed the nation in the fine art of play and furnished the dreams of young people languishing in what the great Broadway columnist Franklin P. Adams always called Dullsboro.
Times Square’s meaning evolved along with popular culture itself. The Times Square of the early years of the century was the place where men—and, increasingly, women—began to throw off the moral restraints that had governed public behavior in the Victorian age, to enjoy themselves among strangers as they might have in the privacy of home. In the twenties, with the sudden rush of prosperity, Times Square became a national theater of urbanity and wit, as well as of a giddy revolt against Prohibition. In the late 1930s, when Times Square was already beginning its long slide into decrepitude, Liebling described it as “the heart of the world,” the home of the con artists, auto-mythologists, and stoic philosophers whom he loved, and who flourished in the famine culture of the Depression. And then, after the war, came the carny Times Square of sailors and soldiers and shooting galleries and hot dogs and dime museums, and of swing and bebop. Television was sapping the force of Times Square, as it was of all the great urban gathering places. And then—the deluge. Even then, in the seventies, Times Square still stood for something, though what it stood for was the collapse of the urban core. Times Square has always been understood in symbolic terms. Its meanings have changed, but the sense of its centrality has not. It is still the heart of a very different, if not quite so welcome, world.
ON APRIL 8, 1904, Mayor George B. McClellan declared that the area around 42nd and Broadway would no longer be known as Longacre Square, but as Times Square. Times Square will celebrate its hundredth birthday at approximately the time this book is published. And so The Devil’s Playground will tally a century’s worth of accumulated and shifting meanings, from rise to fall to reconstruction to a booming but ambiguous rebirth. It is constructed in such a way that the layers sit atop one another like geological strata, so that the archaeologist-reader can recognize how much incident and meaning has gathered at this one tiny site, and also register the way in which Times Square has changed while remaining true to some underlying destiny. The question at the bottom of this book is, Does Times Square serve us—New Yorkers, Americans, lovers of urban life—as it served us in its various heydays? Or, put otherwise, How should we feel when we step out of 42nd Street onto 42nd Street?