IN HIS NOVEL GO, published in 1952, John Clellon Holmes describes a feverish visit he made to 42nd Street in company with his fellow Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Huncke, in a fruitless search for marijuana. The time must have been 1945 or so, right around the moment when Alfred Eisenstaedt was capturing his frank and jolly image of Times Square. It is late at night, and the band of poets and junkies stops in at Lee’s Cafeteria—Holmes’s mild joke on the actual name, which was Grant’s—at the corner of 42nd and Broadway. “The place,” Holmes writes, “looked like some strange social club for grifters, dope passers, petty thieves, cheap, aging whores and derelicts: the whole covert population of Times Square that lived only at night and vanished as the streets went grey with dawn.” The crowd at Lee’s was a “confraternity of the lost and damned.”
It is strange to think that the demonic Times Square of the Beats was the same place as the Times Square of the bobby-soxers and Irving Berlin. And yet it was. This is why Kerouac wrote that Times Square was home both to the gentleman in the De Pinna suit and the drunk in the gutter. Times Square was always so weirdly heterogeneous that you could choose what to make of it; but never more so than in the postwar period. It is to some extent true that the Beats focused their attention on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, while the Times Square of the De Pinna suit was Broadway and the theater district; but it is also true that the crowds at the Paramount were celebrating Times Square as it had been, while the Beats dwelled in the Times Square that was becoming. They were the last true celebrants of the great Times Square decay; after them, the decay passed beyond the capacities of literary celebration.
For a few brief years, essentially from 1945 to 1948, Times Square played a central role in the formation of the Beat mood, culture, and even language. The very word “Beat” was coined by Herbert Huncke, a hustler, drug addict, and petty thief who hung out in Times Square and then crashed on the floor of various Beat apartments. “The new social center had been established in Times Square,” Allen Ginsberg later wrote, “a huge room lit in brilliant fashion by neon glare and filled with slot machines, open day and night. There all the apocalyptic hipsters in New York eventually stopped, fascinated by the timeless room.” They gathered at the Pokerino arcade, and Bickford’s cafeteria, and the Angle Bar, at 42nd and Eighth, where pimps and drug dealers and small-time crooks hung out. For the Beats, this tapped-out, phantasmagorical realm held the key to truths invisible to the “squares” in the upper world of success and sobriety. After describing the nightmare world of Grant’s, the narrator of Go observes that Hobbes, the protagonist, “somehow was not repulsed, but rather yearned to know it in its every aspect, the lives these people led, the emotions they endured, the fate into which they stumbled, perhaps not unawares.” Why, that is, would someone consciously choose so degraded a fate?
It was Beat dogma that you had to leave the suffocating world of normalcy behind, and pass through degradation, in order to find truth. Allen Ginsberg was the product of a liberal Jewish suburban home; only when he left for Columbia, in 1943, did he meet other people—Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs—who were seekers, to use one of his favorite words, as he was. Burroughs, an older man with a strange air that mingled breeding, erudition, and menace, introduced Ginsberg and Kerouac to writers who subverted the reassuring rationality of the Columbia English department: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Cocteau, and Spengler, with his apocalyptic sense of doom. Burroughs was himself a denizen of Times Square; he had first started haunting the local bars in 1944 when he was trying to fence a stolen tommy gun and some morphine, and now he went to keep himself supplied with drugs and to gaze on the mesmerizing scene. Ginsberg adopted Burroughs’s preferences in literature, his view of the world, his taste for amphetamines, and his fascination with the lowlife of Times Square.
In 1945, he and Kerouac began accompanying Burroughs and Huncke, whom they all respected as a true denizen of the lower depths, on all-night trips to Times Square. They sat for hours in Bickford’s, the giant cafeteria under the marquee of the Apollo Theatre, talking to the dead-end crowd that gathered there; Ginsberg even worked at Bickford’s briefly as a busboy. They were interviewed about their sex lives by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who had been fascinated by Huncke’s polymorphous sexual experience. Stoked on Benzedrine, the Beats would float up and down 42nd Street with the strange human flotsam, entertaining splendid, Technicolor, end-of-the-world visions. Here was the hallucinatory landscape that matched their hallucinatory state of mind. The spectaculars held an entirely different meaning for them than they did for Douglas Leigh. The garish blues and greens and yellows of the neon lights penetrated human flesh and revealed the ghastly pallor beneath. “It was a hyperbolic spookiness all taking place in an undersea light of Pokerino freak shows of Times Square,” Ginsberg later said.
The Pokerino was a 42nd Street pinball arcade filled with speed freaks who, as Kerouac’s biographer writes, “were concentrating on the pinball machines with amphetamine intensity, gripping the tables, willing the ball to stay in play, while the crash and zap of the machine noises and the intense bright light made their heads spin.” Here, Ginsberg concluded, at the heart of 42nd Street, at the heart of Times Square, at the heart of New York and thus of the world, the end of the American dream was being enacted and prefigured. In Kerouac’s The Town and the City, Leon Levinsky, the Ginsberg stand-in, points into the heart of the Nickel-O— the Pokerino stand-in—and descries there “the children of the sad American paradise” reduced to zombies in the sickly light, “milling around uncertainly among the ruins of bourgeois civilization.” Jumping up and down with excitement, Levinsky goes on to describe the inmates of the Nickel-O as geeks—and he means not just the speed freaks in the Nickel-O but himself, too, and others, all unclean and diseased and riddled with guilt. The mad monologue has that inspired lunacy the Beats prized as oracular wisdom. Reaching his wild peroration, Levinsky declares that this geekishness is, in fact, an “atomic disease,” a modern form of plague. “Everybody,” he declares, “is going to fall apart, disintegrate, all character-structures based on tradition and uprightness and so-called morality will slowly rot away, people will get the hives right on their hearts, great crabs will cling to their brains. . . .”
The apocalyptic hipsters soon moved to other visionary geographies—to the West, to Mexico, to Paris, to Morocco. But in their work, and in their lives, they had added another layer to the great archaeological site that was Times Square. Just as the Depression-era journalists like Liebling and Mitchell and Myron Berger had fashioned a Times Square of eloquent freaks and fading vaudevillians, so the Beats left behind them a Dostoyevskian underworld whose very degradation posed a challenge to pleasure-loving bourgeois culture. There was a peculiar form of romanticization in the way the Beats idealized, even lionized, figures like Huncke; perhaps it was the Runyonesque impulse of Times Square in a decadent key. But before long there would be nothing left to romanticize.
TIMES SQUARE DIDN’T get appreciably worse over the course of the next decade, but what had been largely subterranean became increasingly visible, and what had been the subject for surrealist evocation became, increasingly, a Problem. In March 1960, The New York Times ran a long front-page story under the headline “Life on W. 42d St. A Study in Decay.” The reporter, Milton Bracken, noted that “it is frequently asserted” that 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues “is the ‘worst’ in town.” As evidence, Bracken adduced the ten “grinder” theaters on the block showing racy or violent films from eight A.M. to four A.M., and the “male perverts” who “misbehave” during the shows; the homosexuals and transvestites who gathered on the sidewalks; the arcades in the subway stations at either end of the block, whose pinball games and shooting galleries attracted drifters and runaways; the con artists bilking soldiers and unwary tourists, and the bookstores peddling “second-hand magazines featuring pictures of women stripped to the waist.”
In the light of retrospection, of course, the dreadful depths of 42nd Street circa 1960 sound fairly innocuous. And in fact Bracken was at pains to distinguish between the street’s increasingly noxious reputation and its daily reality. The youthful “deviates,” he writes, may have been material for the psychiatrist, but not for the policeman. The drifters in the arcades could be counted on to comply when the officer on the beat shooed them away. The knives on display in the stores were for show rather than for battle. The jukebox in the IRT arcade was wholly devoted to opera. The police made relatively few arrests on an average night. Forty-second Street was an “enigma” in an otherwise healthy city; indeed, Bracken observed, “places that attract deviates and persons looking for trouble are interspersed with places of high standards of food, drink and service.” And yet precisely because New Yorkers were accustomed to clean and orderly streets, 42nd Street’s anarchy was shocking. “Respectable elements,” Bracken noted, were “deeply offended and, in some cases, outraged.”
The Times Square that the Beats had frequented, which is to say, 42nd Street as well as Eighth Avenue from the upper Thirties to the lower Fifties, had grown more scrofulous in recent years. The dirty bookstores had begun to proliferate in the 1950s. The merchandise, which in the past had run to joke books, war stories, westerns, and horoscopes, increasingly shifted to such standards of soft-core erotica as the “French deck”—playing cards with pictures of naked girls—calendars, paperbacks like Sex Life of a Cop, and those secondhand magazines. Prostitutes had patrolled the area since the late nineteenth century, but the opening of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, at the southeast corner of 42nd and Eighth, in late 1950, had vastly increased the numbers of both teenage boys and girls available to be conscripted into the trade, and probably increased the supply of customers as well. And by the early sixties, Times Square had become New York’s capital of male prostitution, known as hustling.
The Times Square area had long been congenial to homosexuals, thanks both to its general air of laissez-faire and to the relatively high concentration of gay men in theater and the theater’s ancillary professions, like costume and set design. Places like the bar of the Astor Hotel—or at least one designated side of the bar—were well-known gay hangouts as early as the 1910s, and then increasingly so with the influx of servicemen during World War II. Tourists often poked their heads into 42nd Street coffee shops like Bickford’s, where they were likely to spot the flamboyant “fairies” who had made the street such an exotic slice of American life. Timothy Gilfoyle, the leading scholar of this subject, cites a tabloid in the early thirties to the effect that “The latest gag about 2 A.M. is to have your picture taken with one or two pansies on Times Square.”
With the onset of the Depression, the hustling scene, according to Gilfoyle, became less theatrical and more grimly commercial. Forty-second Street became the center of “rough trade,” forcing overtly effeminate gay men to Bryant Park, one block to the east. The unnamed main character of John Rechy’s City of Night, published in 1963, arrives in New York determined to make a living with his body, and is immediately directed by a wiser hand to Times Square—“always good for a score.” And indeed it is. Standing at the corner of 42nd and Broadway, he says, “I can see the young masculine men milling idly. Sometimes they walk up to older men and stand talking in soft tones—going off together or, if not, moving to talk to someone else.” The signals are all terribly discreet, but nonetheless unmistakable, at least to the initiate. After taking in two “sexy foreign movies” at the Apollo, Rechy’s narrator stands under the marquee until a middle-aged man approaches him and says, “I’ll give you ten, and I don’t give a damn for you.” And so he is inducted into the life of 42nd Street.
This moment in the early 1960s marks a middle point in the downward spiral of 42nd Street. The street is not nearly as violent or degraded as it is soon to become; on the other hand, it has lost the gift for evoking a euphoric sense of liberation from social convention—the Baudelairean sense—that it had borne for the Beats. It is a place of melancholy epiphanies. City of Night opens with the line, “Later I would think of America as one vast City of Night stretching from Times Square to Hollywood Boulevard. . . . One-night stands and cigarette smoke and rooms squashed in loneliness.” The operative word is “squashed,” for Rechy’s 42nd Street is a furtive, joyless world.
Much the same feeling of failure and constriction arises from the other important hustling novel of the era, Midnight Cowboy, written by James Leo Herlihy and published in 1965. Herlihy’s knight-errant, Joe Buck, heads straight for the Times Square Palace Hotel when he arrives in New York from El Paso. The first thing he sees from his room is “an incredibly sloppy old woman sitting on the sidewalk under a movie marquee across the street” who “poured something from a bottle on to her filthy, naked feet, and rubbed them with her free hand.” Here is a form of degradation he never saw, or even imagined, in Texas. Joe’s tenure in New York is an unsentimental education. Despite his unsinkable enthusiasm, he suffers a string of mortifying failures: arriving in triumph as a stud, he is soon reduced to the status of hustler, and an unsuccessful one at that. He sleeps in the all-night theaters and dines on baked beans at the Automat. In the end, he leaves for Florida, as he must; the only permanent citizens of Times Square are grotesques like his sidekick, Ratso Rizzo, who dies before he reaches the southern promised land.
Just as Joe was climbing aboard that Greyhound, Times Square was taking another turn down the spiral of decay. Times Square had been a refuge for self-expression and self-gratification at a time when social conventions kept most Americans toeing the line of propriety; this was as true in 1950 as it had been in 1910. But in the sixties, when those conventions lost their moral force, and ordinary citizens began to live by the motto “If it feels good, do it,” Times Square sank from impudent naïveté to genuine debasement. In 1966, a vending machine operator, Martin Hodas, purchased thirteen old film machines, outfitted them with stag films showing the kind of frontal nudity then commercially unavailable in New York, and distributed them to the Times Square bookshops that specialized in risqué material. At first the owners resisted, since this kind of thing had been a provocation to police action from the days of burlesque; but they soon found that the “video peeps” were the most popular items they carried.
Police enforcement might have eliminated, or at least suppressed, this new level of erotica, but starting in 1966, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions extending First Amendment protections to explicit sexual materials. Real estate in Times Square had always adapted to the most high-profit uses; now, with remarkable speed, pornography became the boom industry of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Martin Hodas was soon a major producer and distributor of hard-core material, allegedly in collaboration with the Mafia (claims he regularly denied). And he and others began buying up the leases on storefronts up and down 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. The camera shops, gadget stores, delis, cafeterias, and pinball arcades that had lined the street, and that had accounted for what remained of its raffish feel, gave way to pornographic bookstores and peeps. Soon there were stores specializing in gay porn, kiddie porn, and S & M. Stores with forbiddingly blacked-out windows and kinky posters out front lined the street. Hubert’s Museum, the last relic of the old honky-tonk 42nd Street, closed in 1975. Three years later, Peepland, a porn emporium, opened on the site, a change just as portentous in its way as the replacement of Murray’s Roman Gardens by Hubert’s had been half a century earlier.
The Supreme Court rulings also cleared the way for “massage parlors,” which were storefront shops with booths where men could buy sex—in effect, street-level brothels. By 1967, Eighth Avenue was lined with massage parlors: the Sugar Shack, the Honey Haven, the Danish Parlor, the Love Machine. According to Josh Alan Friedman, the author of Tales of Times Square, a zestful romp through the neighborhood’s lower depths, the first live sex act, where customers paid to watch a man and a woman have sex on a stage tilted toward the audience, was conducted at the Mine-Cine, on 42nd Street, in 1970. Friedman dates the first “Live Nude Girls” act, where customers could look through a slot as the girls touched themselves, to 1972. Within a few years, he writes, the partitions separating customer from performer came down, so customers could pay extra for quickie sex, or just a feel. The films became more explicit, and kinkier. At Peepland, a customer could rent, according to show cards cited by the unflinching Friedman, films in which “Two wild girls shove live eels up snatch and asshole,” “Farmboy fucks cow,” “Man fucks a hen,” and “Girl takes on dog, horse and pig simultaneously.” These are among the less baroque subjects Friedman lists.
By the mid-seventies, many of the 42nd Street movie theaters had switched to pornography, a change that further degraded the life of the street. Prostitutes often worked the aisles of the theaters, bringing johns to bathrooms in the basement, while thieves preyed on the derelicts who often camped out in the theaters all day, slashing open their pockets while they slept. Adam D’Amico, a New York police detective who worked in Times Square, recalls a time when a wall was torn out of a theater being refurbished, and forty to fifty wallets, some with identification dating back to the 1950s, came tumbling out; thieves had apparently tossed them there after removing the contents. D’Amico says that he spent several months staking out one fetid movie-house bathroom where gangs of kids would wait for a patron to go to the urinal and then grab his wallet, yank his pants down to his ankles, and run. Usually, he says, they targeted Asian men, who tended to carry a good deal of cash, speak little English, and feel too humiliated to report the crime.
In 1960, the decay of 42nd Street had seemed anomalous; but by the end of the decade, the downtown of virtually every old northeastern and midwestern city had begun to totter, or collapse. Suburbanization had robbed the department stores and the restaurants and the movie theaters of their customers; and as companies followed people, the cities’ employment base had begun to dwindle as well. And just as middle-class whites were decamping, large numbers of blacks, most of them poorly educated and unskilled, were migrating up from the South—2.75 million between 1940 and 1960 alone. They were arriving just as the low-level manufacturing jobs they might have taken were leaving. It was a recipe for catastrophe. Crime rates, which had been remarkably low during the urban efflorescence in the middle decades of the twentieth century, began to surge. New York City had 390 murders in 1961; by 1964, the number had reached 637. In 1972, almost 1,700 New Yorkers were killed—a more than fourfold increase from barely a decade before. The number of reported robberies almost tripled from 1966 to the early seventies. Not only the volume but the nature of crime changed; knives and blackjacks gave way to the Saturday Night Special. Heroin hit the streets around 1964. The combination of guns, drugs, and enormous amounts of cash produced a lethal dynamic.
Times Square, which for generations had been understood to exemplify the freedom and the energy and the heedless pleasure-seeking of New York, now came to be seen as the emblem of a city deranged by those very attributes. The change can be measured in the difference between City of Night and Taxi Driver, released in 1976. Rechy’s narrator says in City of Night that he “surrendered to the world of Times Square” like an addict mainlining junk; Travis Bickle, the enraged and delusional loner at the heart of Taxi Driver, does the same thing, but with far more deadly results. Travis’s Times Square is the heart of darkness—his own darkness and the world’s. He returns again and again to the surreal streets, dense with hookers and hustlers and crazed street people. Iris, the fourteen-year-old hooker, tries to climb into his cab, but is yanked out by her pimp—and then meekly complies. The casual cruelty drives Travis mad. “All the animals come out at night,” he growls in an ominous voice-over as he prowls 42nd Street. “Someday a rain will come and wash all this scum off the street.” Travis wants to be that rain; he dreams of a vigilante act of purification. Ultimately he takes all the insane violence of the city into himself and slaughters Iris’s pimp and two confederates—for which a grateful city congratulates him.
By the time of Taxi Driver, the two precincts that covered Times Square, which not long before had recorded a relatively modest number of crimes, placed first and second in New York in total felony complaints; the next closest precinct, in Harlem, had about a third as many complaints. While they remained popular thoroughfares during the daytime, at night 42nd Street and the Eighth Avenue corridor had descended to an almost feral state. Here is Josh Alan Friedman on the area around the Port Authority Bus Terminal:
A Puerto Rican pre-op transsexual stabs a trick in the eye with a sharp fingernail to grab his cabfare before he pays the driver. Brain-damaged evangelists rave aloud to themselves; 300-pound hookers flip out their hooters to stop traffic. . . . Near-dead human vegetation takes root in their own excretion in condemned doorways— most of them have slit pockets from scavengers searching for their wine-bottle change. . . . Fifteen ghetto guerrillas wearing Pro-Keds (what transit cops call “felony sneakers”) swoop down on a victim, then scatter back into subway oblivion.
For the legitimate shopkeepers, restaurateurs, theater managers, pedestrians, and even police officers who worked in, frequented, or patrolled the area, Times Square had become a hellhole. Dale Hansen had left the small town of Wausau, Wisconsin, to become the minister of St. Luke’s Lutheran church, on 46th Street just west of Eighth Avenue, in 1975. It is safe to say that nothing in Wausau could have prepared the Reverend Hansen for what he found in Times Square. In the course of his first year, five congregants were killed, one of them by being pushed onto the subway tracks. In the ensuing years, a prostitute was killed on the front steps of the church, a seventy-four-year-old congregant was mugged while delivering flowers to a shut-in down the street, and Hansen himself was knifed twice. Dozens of prostitutes solicited on the corner; dealers sold crack openly. The building next door was taken over by Cuban transvestites who had been released in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. “Stuff would come flying out the windows,” Hansen recalls; “suitcases and garbage. They would break people’s legs with a baseball bat.”
The city had actually stepped up enforcement efforts in the mid-seventies. The mayor’s Midtown Enforcement Project targeted massage parlors and other sex establishments, and succeeded in closing many of them down and even keeping some of them closed. In 1978, the police established a new substation on 42nd Street and increased the size of its force until nearly eighty uniformed officers, and twenty-five plainclothes officers, patrolled the area on a regular basis. But to the officers themselves, it still felt like King Canute ordering the sea to turn back. The prostitutes and the drug dealers were back on the street almost as soon as they were rounded up. The daytime crowd of con artists and three-card monte players gave way every night to pickpockets and “push-in” robbers, who would throw a victim into a dark doorway and make off with his or her valuables. And the police were hobbled by a widely shared reluctance to view “victimless crime,” including pornography, vagrancy, prostitution, and even street-level drug dealing, as matters for serious enforcement. Much of what went on in Times Square was treated as the more or less inevitable and more or less tolerable consequence of urban life.
Police officers, says the Reverend Hansen, “would stand on the corner and watch drug deals going on like cigar-store Indians.” After a community meeting at which local residents had vented their outrage at the chaos on the streets, Hansen recalls that the precinct commander took him aside and said, “Father, you’ve just got to learn to live with it.” This was the kind of despairing surrender that drives Travis Bickle over the cliff of sanity; Hansen decided on a less violent, but almost equally shocking, course of action. At the time, a kind of citizens’ patrol known as the Guardian Angels had been formed. The Angels were teenage boys and girls, mostly from the ghetto, who wore red berets and affected a somewhat paramilitary air; they were widely condemned as vigilantes-in-training. But Hansen and the merchants of the area were desperate. They established a post near St. Luke’s and gave the kids free meals and walkie-talkies; Hansen blessed their berets in church. And the Angels essentially walked up and down the street; they were a presence, and very little more.
“At the height of the battle,” Hansen recalls, “we probably had twenty or thirty of them on the street at any one time.” The Angels, it is generally agreed, eliminated some of the more outrageous behavior on the street—though they could hardly suppress crime itself—and brought a novel sense of calm. Hansen was perfectly happy to live with the charge of encouraging vigilantism. But, of course, the very fact that the beleaguered citizens of West 46th Street had had to turn to a private security force—and a force consisting largely of impoverished teens—was an appalling indictment of the collapse of order in New York City.
In the summer of 1981, The New York Times ran one of its periodic articles on 42nd Street, which constituted the paper’s backyard; the difference between that moment and 1960, when Milton Bracken had explored the block, was far greater than that between Bracken’s 42nd Street and the one the Beats had discovered in 1940. The 42nd Street of 1981 wasn’t troubling; it was depraved. The reporter, Josh Barbanel, went to talk with the street people who had, he wrote, “witnessed the final moments of a naked 26-year-old man from Connecticut as he was chased to his death on a subway track in Times Square by a bottle-throwing crowd” nine days earlier. There was, it turned out, a simple explanation for the man’s death, and Barbanel heard it from a thirteen-year-old girl hanging out on the street in the middle of the night. “They wanted to see some action,” she said. “He was just bugged out, and everybody started going wild on him. They had nothing better to do.” A drug dealer, standing a few feet from a police officer, describes the stream of summonses he had received as the cost of doing business. A “squat young man with a crewcut” comes by to announce, “I rob people. I like to rob people.” A copiously bleeding man bangs on a theater door, demanding the arrest of a security guard who he says beat him with a nightstick. And the night rolls on, in its lassitude and its lunacy.
OVER THE PREVIOUS three quarters of a century, Times Square had inspired a literature of revelry and celebration, of withering contempt, of arch delectation, of prophetic disgust. And now something quite new appeared: a literature of diagnosis. Times Square had become not only a place, or a state of mind, to be limned, but a disease to be cured—if possible. By the late 1970s, moves were afoot to renovate Times Square, and especially 42nd Street. And in 1978, a group of scholars at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York published a study commissioned by the Ford Foundation and titled The West 42nd Street Study: The Bright Light Zone. The study constituted a definitive social anthropology of 42nd Street and the surrounding area—its “social ecology,” its markets, its sex and drug business, its hustles and so forth. The Bright Light study would soon be followed by yet others.
The Bright Light Zone documented the enormous volume of crimes committed in the area, but its essential subject was not crime but pathology— a pathology that seems to have defeated all attempts at control. Here is a typical excerpt from one researcher’s field notes:
As I returned south on 8th Avenue I saw an older black man urinating on the sidewalk. This same man has been around this corner of 42nd and 8th for years. He is sick and should be hospitalized. His street name is Cadillac. Year after year I’ve seen him there, drunk, loud, menacing the passers-by. A well-dressed white man appealed to two policemen about the man’s conduct. The police said in effect that there was very little they could do—about a sick, drunken man publicly urinating on the west side of 8th Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets!
The authors note that Cadillac “circulates in a world of bottle gangs”— groups of alcoholics—“and street violence which destroys the civic culture of West 42nd Street as well as the men themselves.”
The Bright Light study is generally quite sympathetic to the police, who appear to spend much of their time reviving wasted derelicts who have collapsed into the gutter, or dealing with the crazies who have come to live on the street. At one point a street character with no legs takes a bite out of a cop’s hand; handcuffed on the floor of the precinct house, he whacks passersby with his bloody stumps. An exhausted patrolman says to his partner, “This job’s like shoveling shit against the tide.” The problem is not even crime so much as rampant antisocial behavior; the drunks and the nuts and the bag ladies and the small-time hustlers have created a self-perpetuating street culture that seems beyond the reach of enforcement. One commanding officer says, “If we could go back to the old style of police work, when men on the beat could enforce standards of public decency and order, we could clean up West 42nd Street in no time.” But at that time neither the city’s judges nor many of its citizens—certainly not elites—would have tolerated such aggressive, and such moralistic, policing; nor was there any willingness to reverse the policy of “deinstitutionalization,” which had released thousands of mentally ill people to the streets with little supervision or care.
The Bright Light Zone was a work of cultural anthropology; the authors were at pains to demonstrate that Times Square served the needs, and satisfied the appetites, of many constituencies. “The heterogeneity of people and their life-ways along West 42nd Street is astonishing even to social scientists who are used to the wonderful layering and stacking of Manhattan neighborhoods,” the authors write. Far from being the “Ghetto Street” imagined by terrified suburbanites, they noted, 42nd Street was filled with a great throng of tourists, office workers, and fun seekers, and at least at midday was among the most crowded blocks in New York City. The cheap movie theaters and restaurants and arcades were a tremendous draw for perfectly law-abiding young people and families, especially from neighborhoods like Harlem with few movie theaters of their own. Forty-second Street was not beyond help. While only 21 percent of respondents to a survey said “I would enjoy” going to West 42nd Street, and 38 percent said “I would avoid” the area, a sizable majority also said that they would come to the street if “legitimate theater and dance” returned there. In other words, if you could somehow end the cycle of pathology, you might be able to restore something of the old life of 42nd Street.
This in turn raised the question of exactly how that cycle had gotten started in the first place. One of the authors of the study, Stanley Bruder, argued in a discussion of the history of Times Square that the demise of theaters and restaurants, and the rise of penny arcades and shooting galleries and grinders, which “tended to cater to the lowest common denominator,” drove away “respectable elements.” That is, bad uses attracted bad people, rather than the other way around. And so the opposite must be true as well: “eliminating these businesses through changing the use of the street should cause the undesirable population to leave on its own,” Bruder concluded. While several of his colleagues were more inclined to sympathize with the “undesirable population” than with the “respectable elements,” William Kornblum, the director of the study project, adopted Bruder’s view and made it the central prescriptive device of Bright Light Zone. “A check on the vicious circle of demoralization and decay in the 42nd Street area does depend on increased police details and more forceful application of police action,” Kornblum wrote. “At the same time, all authorities agree that only the economic redevelopment of the area can significantly alter the present patterns of street traffic and vice.”
Here was not only an urban policy but an important act of moral recognition, especially coming from liberal academics: vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated, or accepted as the price of “authentic” urban life, if the streets were to be made welcoming to “respectable” folk. At the same time, 42nd Street had a role as a low-cost entertainment center that ought not simply be discarded in its wished-for renaissance. And of course, it had a history to be respected, as well. The study raised a question to which there was no obvious answer: how could you eradicate whatever was pathological about 42nd Street and its environs without, at the same time, eliminating everything that made it worth caring about in the first place?