THROUGHOUT THE 1980s, the 42nd Street Development Project had appeared to consist of a cluster of office towers dragging a tail of theaters and stores, and a giant wholesale mart glimmering in the remote distance. By the end of the decade, though, the office towers were locked in the doldrums of a sinking real estate market, the mart had become a tar baby from which one developer after another had extricated himself, and the planned hotel across the street was barely a hypothesis. The only noticeable effect of this immense public venture was on 42nd Street itself. In 1990, the lawsuits that had held up the development having finally been settled, the Urban Development Corporation formally condemned the eastern two-thirds of the block, which included all the theaters and most of the proposed retail space. Soon the storefronts were emptying out and the street was turning into a wasteland of shuttered shops. There were afternoons when it looked as if you could drive a golf ball down 42nd Street without hitting anyone, though porn continued to thrive at the uncondemned Eighth Avenue end. Here was a wholly unexpected situation: while the office towers languished, the condemnation process had taken a wrecking ball to 42nd Street’s perverse ecology.

The block had finally become the tabula rasa developers always wished it to be; the question was whether anyone would come along to write a new script. The premise of the 42nd Street Development Project had always been that everything had to happen at once; in fact, George Klein had originally bid for the entire package in order to protect himself from a situation in which he was trying to attract corporate tenants at one end of the street while the wrong sort of people streamed out of Ginger’s Wet Dream at the other. But now the street was being held captive to the towers.

It was the condemnation process, oddly enough, that freed public officials to see the street anew. The 42nd Street DP now owned much of the block, and thus had to take responsibility for it. “The best thing that happened is when we took over the street,” says Rebecca Robertson, a former New York City planning official who became the DP’s executive director at the time of the condemnation. Robertson spent a good part of 1990 talking to the sex shops’ owners, and the theater owners, and the lighting and costume suppliers and rehearsal studio managers who worked in the buildings upstairs. She came to realize that 42nd Street was not simply a case history of urban pathology, as it seemed to George Klein or Philip Johnson, but a great mecca of entertainment in serious disrepair. She saw, or felt she saw, the vanished traces of Hubert’s and Nathan’s and the penny arcades. “If you spent time on the street,” Robertson says, “it spoke to you. Much of it was in ruins, but there’s something more powerful about ruins than any reality.”

The city-state plan had envisioned that the theaters on the block would be restored to operation as legitimate theaters, which of course they had not been for more than half a century; two, the Victory and the Liberty, were to open as nonprofit venues, while the others were to be self-supporting. Exactly where the audience for these new theaters would come from was hardly clear. And it was obvious to Robertson, and to everyone else in the theater world, that, with the exception of the New Amsterdam, the 42nd Street theaters were too small to turn a profit. Robertson concluded that the public planners had cynically dangled the prospect of theater preservation before the public in order to win approval for commercial development. But preservationism itself seemed like a specious response to 42nd Street’s crude, commercial, hectoring soul. “If they had more respect for what the street had been,” Robertson says, “they never would have fashioned a plan like that.” Her vision for 42nd Street was not so very different from Hugh Hardy’s for Times Square: flashing lights, big signs, popular entertainment. The new Times Square zoning rules offered a forward-looking program designed to preserve the area’s essential character—though they, too, conceded the inevitability of overscale office towers.

Robertson’s ambition was to fashion a populist alternative to the backward-looking and in any case unachievable elitism of the original plan. And she had arrived at her job at what turned out to be an oddly propitious moment to forge a new 42nd Street. It was becoming fashionable to embrace the heady chaos and cheap thrills of Times Square, as it had not been a decade earlier, when Cityscape would have enclosed 42nd Street in glass. Pop culture, which is to say commercial culture, was lapping at the ramparts of high culture. The controversial “High and Low” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, held in 1990, questioned the hierarchical distinction between high and low art. Herbert Muschamp, who replaced Paul Goldberger as The New York Times’s architecture critic in 1992, brought a very new voice to the newspaper of record. In an article in the summer of 1992, Muschamp described Times Square as a pop icon where “the Popular and the Cultural converge, where crowds cross paths with icons: pop songs, pop drinks, chorus lines, headlines, hemlines, posters, cartoons, paperbacks, magazine covers, billboards, blue jeans, lipsticks, double features.”

Goldberger had, after some hesitation, taken the traditional preservationist view that tall buildings violated the historic scale of Times Square; but Muschamp embraced the office tower as the perfect symbol for a new Times Square devoted to the production of pop culture: “Why not,” he deadpanned, “an intersection where Sony, Disney, ABC and Spike Lee Enterprises square off against one another from King Kong towers?” Muschamp elicited suggestions for a new Times Square from four architects and designers, who proposed among other things a twenty-four-hour glass-walled health club where pedestrians could gape at hard and curving bodies, or a twenty-four-hour “News Café” set in the Times Tower in which passersby would be invited to “tell us your dream” by means of a video monitor connected to a screen mounted atop the building.

Here was a new, frankly celebratory urban aesthetic, reveling in the goofy contradictions of pop culture and, perhaps even more important, prepared to accept the giant corporations that pumped it out. The phrase “a corporate Times Square” was no longer an automatic term of opprobrium; what mattered was the difference between a vital and a moribund corporate Times Square. A new atmosphere had arrived; Rebecca Robertson was one of the few public officials who got it. “The idea of populism had changed,” she says. “You couldn’t bring back the carny populism of the thirties”—Hubert’s and Lindy’s and shooting galleries. “What populism means now is corporate culture, whether you like it or not. Our idea of populism was whatever it is people would choose for entertainment in their spare time; it required that we be nonjudgmental.” Once you choose to be nonjudgmental in matters of taste, you will eventually find common ground with the equally nonjudgmental purveyors of mass culture.

From a pragmatic point of view, the immediate question was how to uncouple the fate of 42nd Street from that of the office towers. Robertson and other officials reached an agreement with George Klein to develop an interim plan that would allow a new 42nd Street to rise even as the developer waited for the market to return. The idea had the virtue of mollifying the developer, and the development community in general, for whatever went up could always be dismantled when the time came. Robertson asked the architect Robert Stern to draw up the interim plan; he had the insight, or good fortune, to ask the designer Tibor Kalman to coauthor the plan. They made, to put it mildly, an odd pair. Stern was in many ways a backward-looking figure, a historian of architecture who was sometimes derided for designing charming homes that simulated a genteel past for the benefit of the newly rich—the Ralph Lauren of architecture. Kalman, on the other hand, was arguably the most brilliantly inventive and free-spirited designer of his generation—a prankster and a provocateur, a sixties radical and eighties entrepreneur who managed to alchemize his sense of the absurd into a thriving practice. Kalman’s designs featured self-referential jokes, incongruous objects, fractured lettering, and scrambled logic; he famously designed a watch face with the numbers out of sequence. The twenty-four-hour News Café and its dreamcast had also been his idea. Kalman (who died, aged fifty, in 1999) loved disorder as much as Stern loved order. The two men argued constantly. “He was always afraid I would turn it into mainstream Disneyland,” says Stern, “and I was afraid he would turn it into something in outer space.”

Stern did, in fact, sit on the board of Disney and had designed a house for its chairman, Michael Eisner. But he was also a former student of Robert Venturi’s at Yale, and he had absorbed Venturi’s reaction against the high modern aesthetic into his own form of postmodernism, more playful than Johnson’s. He was, as well, a New York kid who had fond memories of the era of carny populism in Times Square. Stern would resist what he called “the Rockefeller Center impulse.” Though he shared none of Kalman’s subversive impulses, Stern, like Robertson, felt that you could use pop culture and kitsch to trace a path back to the old 42nd Street without losing yourself in nostalgia.

The interim plan, evocatively called 42nd Street Now! and released in September 1993, was a Kalmanesque manifesto as much as it was a planning document. Probably it was the first document of any kind in the history of Times Square redevelopment that excited urbanists more than it did real estate developers. Stern and Kalman evoked the “thrillingly unpredictable daily drama” of the block’s street life in its age of glory, as well as its shameless commercialism: “42nd Street celebrated, as perhaps no other street or neighborhood did, the individual entrepreneur, whose brash confidence and on-the-money commercial instincts went such a long way towards defining the city’s energy and outlook, at once wildly optimistic and coolly bottom line.” The idea that there need be no contradiction between the drama of the streets and the ring of the cash register, between “authenticity” and the marketplace, was itself something of a revelation, at least in the debate over the future of 42nd Street. Indeed, the document pointedly, if hyperbolically, observed that “top quality office buildings have always been part of the 42nd Street Project Area, and will continue to be a major part of the long-term redevelopment.” Even office towers need not be incompatible with a vibrant street life. (And by this time, the original Johnson/Burgee design was history.)

A brief on behalf of a theory about a place, 42nd Street Now! was more a rhetorical document than a planning one. “The new 42nd Street will be an enhanced version of itself,” Stern and Kalman wrote, “not a gentrified theme park or festival market.” But there was a problem. How can a plan foster a spirit whose essence is spontaneity? How can you intentionally recreate a thing never created by intention in the first place? Martin Gottlieb of the Times had asked the same question ten years earlier, without offering an answer. Stern and Kalman argued that the answer lay in 42nd Street’s peculiar archaeology. “New had been heaped on old,” they wrote, “so that the street now has a richly layered, collaged look almost unique in the world’s great entertainment places.” Forty-second Street was “a collage awaiting yet another layer.” They proposed to add, not subtract; and what they would add, essentially, was a gaudy layer of lights and signs and shiny new outer surfaces. They could not specify how these would be added without destroying the spontaneity they hoped to spark; indeed, 42nd Street Now! presented itself as “an unplan”—a very Kalmanesque word—whose goal was to provoke wild diversity by prohibiting “any uniform or coordinated system.”

Stern and Kalman’s premise was that if you gave 42nd Street a new skin to wriggle into, the old spirit would eventually return on its own. The plan included three “conceptual drawings” of 42nd Street sites decked out in glowing signage, but these are only suggestions (though the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth now looks very much as Kalman and Stern imagined it). Stripped to its essentials, 42nd Street Now! was a mildly redacted version of the 1987 Times Square guidelines. The plan mandated minimal levels of signage and lighting up and down the street, transparent façades, long hours of operation, sidewalk amenities, and the like. Like the earlier guidelines, it largely left the question of usage—of what would actually happen on the street—up to the tenants themselves.

It was a bold idea, though the language may have been more brilliant than the idea. Absent the polemics, the design itself was just a little bit . . . Disneyesque. The conceptual drawing for the eastern end of 42nd Street, with a huge globe plastered with TV screens and a giant can of Diet Coke launched halfway out of a billboard and a wrapped gift box on a rooftop, looked like a delirious version of Disneyland. There was no Ferris wheel, but one wouldn’t have been out of place. Wasn’t this, then, old orange juice in new cartons? The answer was “Not quite.” The City at 42nd Street had offered a semisealed and altogether controlled environment, an unspontaneous monument to urban spontaneity. The 42nd Street Now! plan offered a design matrix, a set of materials and dimensions and aesthetic principles from which infinite possibilities could spring. And the plan was oriented to the street—to the pedestrian—rather than to the interior; it embraced the daily drama. Nevertheless, the new willingness to explore pop culture, with whatever level of irony or camp, meant that “Disneyesque” was not the epithet it had been in 1980. The Technicolor world of the urban theme park no longer inspired the horror it had before.

A public that had long since given up hope for the block greeted 42nd Street Now! excitedly. (Muschamp called it a “wonderful plan,” which would “encourage the dormant genius of the place to shine.”) But the Cooper & Eckstut guidelines had been admirable, too, and they had been brushed aside when they proved inconvenient (though the design principles for Times Square had been strictly applied). George Klein was just as eager as Rebecca Robertson to see glimmers of life on 42nd Street, and Prudential Insurance, which was financing the office development, had agreed to pay $20 million to bring the interim plan to life. But the plan applied to Klein’s five sites as well as to the rest of the block; and Klein was still dreaming of Rockefeller Center. “If you’re tearing an area down because of tawdriness,” he asks plaintively, “why are you putting the tawdriness back in?” Klein argued, correctly, that the welter of signs and the flashing lights were native to Times Square, but not to 42nd Street; Stern and Kalman had, at the very least, stretched a point. But Klein was in a much weaker position than he had been in 1984: Prudential had already paid out well over $200 million for condemnation and improvements. “We had so much money in this already that we really didn’t have much of a choice,” as he says. And Robertson would not back down. So this time, when the real estate dynamic came up against public values—or at least against a publicly determined sense of the common good—it was the latter that won.

Now a stunning new script was ready for 42nd Street; but it was still only a script, until someone actually decided to move in. Since the street would be about popular entertainment, it plainly needed one of those giant entertainment companies Herbert Muschamp had fantasized about. And this led to a crowning irony. The single brand name that could do the most for 42nd Street was plainly Disney. But Disney was not only a nonurban but a fundamentally antiurban entertainer; the supremely orchestrated environment of a Disneyland was utterly incompatible with the accidental nature of urban life, not to mention the thrillingly unpredictable daily drama of 42nd Street. But by 1992, Michael Eisner, the chairman of the company, was thinking about creating live stage plays from Disney’s hit movies, starting with the new Beauty and the Beast. And Eisner was himself a New Yorker and a theater buff who rarely missed a Broadway play.

Both public and private officials in New York had been urging Eisner to look at Broadway as the flagship for his new theater effort. Eisner had consistently declined, unwilling to bring Mickey Mouse into such close proximity with massage parlors and head shops. In March 1993, Eisner paid a visit to New York and went to see the blueprints for his new house in Robert Stern’s office. Stern showed him the twenty-five-foot-long foam core model for 42nd Street Now! and suggested that the new 42nd Street would be perfectly compatible with the new Disney. They talked about the New Amsterdam Theatre, the home of Ziegfeld and the fabled rooftop theater, as well as the site that had launched the Ford Foundation’s ill-fated dalliance with 42nd Street; and the following day, Eisner, his wife and children, Stern, and Rebecca Robertson took a tour that has since become the stuff of legend in the little world of Times Square redevelopment—boots plowing through deep water, pigeon droppings, crumbling masonry, the dim outlines of the art nouveau splendor. Eisner immediately said that he would be interested in taking over the theater, though he made no further commitment.

Disney went through some odd contortions as it began to seriously contemplate the alien idea of an urban environment. The company at first thought of closing off the entire block to produce a Disneyland in midtown Manhattan, or of converting the entire street to a unified Disney attraction. Eisner could have asked for almost anything and the city would have complied, for such was Disney’s reputation that 42nd Street was likely to fill up simply on the strength of its commitment; fortunately, the company recognized that it would be better off inhabiting the new environment being established on the street than throwing up a shell around itself. In the end, Disney insisted that the city pay virtually the entire $34 million cost of repairing the theater; and though this was the exact opposite of the strategy the city had pursued with the overall project, where the developer had borne all the costs, the city capitulated. At the end of 1994, with the negotiations almost at a close, Disney suddenly added a number of other conditions, two foremost among them: that the city find two “nationally recognized and reputable companies who are actively engaged in the entertainment business” to lease sizable amounts of space on the block, and that it clear all twenty or so sex shops from the area. The city reached agreements with Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, which had seen a deal for the Times Tower and an adjacent office site fall through, and with AMC Entertainment, which agreed to operate a multiplex near the Eighth Avenue end of the street; the new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, eagerly promised to rout the pornographers. The deal was signed on December 31, 1994; and so the new 42nd Street was born at last.

IT HAD BEEN AN article of faith among New York City planning officials for a good quarter of a century that the city’s future lay in the steady proliferation of office towers, and that those vertical factories of revenue would make it possible for New York to continue to produce the charming and noble artifacts of culture that gave the city its special character. Supposedly, the most precious asset theaters had was the air rights they could sell to developers. That was the central thrust of the 42nd Street Development Project: trade the air rights to developers, who would in turn pay for public amenities and the restoration of theaters. What an irony, then, that it was a theater that sparked the new life of the street, and that the kitschy exuberance of 42nd Street Now! was what gave the block a marketable new identity. And all this while the four office towers, supposedly the salvation of this derelict block, slumbered on. The project had taken so long that a new world, in which popular culture was as powerful, and as fully globalized, a product as cars or steel, had dawned meanwhile. In this postindustrial world, Times Square had natural advantages that scarcely anyone had noticed before.

George Klein, who had hung on for so long, could hang on no longer. By the mid-nineties, Prudential had laid out over $300 million in condemnation costs and public improvements. And the company, which had financed such colossal projects as the Prudential Center in Boston and Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, decided that it wanted out of the real estate business. By 1992, Klein was looking for new partners to buy out Prudential. “We tried desperately,” Klein says. “We went to every investment bank in the city.” There were no takers. Prudential began actively looking for buyers in 1995; it wasn’t hard by then, because the market had turned up once again. Douglas Durst, who had been one of the chief litigants in earlier years, and who had quietly subsidized other opponents of the development, now purchased the right to develop the biggest and most desirable parcel, the one at the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Broadway known as 4 Times Square. The Rudin family, one of the city’s ancient real estate clans, and Boston Properties, owned by the publisher Mort Zuckerman, bought the three other parcels. Prudential escaped with a small profit.

Only George Klein was left a loser. Klein virtually stopped building after the debacle of 42nd Street. He was hoping to work with Prince Charles, that arbiter of conservative architectural tastes, to rebuild the district of London, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, that was destroyed in the Blitz—but this project, too, fell through when the market sagged. An undemonstrative man, Klein is stoical in the aftermath of defeat. “It was,” he says, with a small smile, “an interesting lesson to learn.” Klein feels that the real hero of 42nd Street is not Rebecca Robertson or Robert Stern, but Prudential, for—while the developers for the mart and the theaters and the hotel decamped—the company stuck with the project, patiently laying out the money that made the revival of the street possible. “I think developers have some civic responsibility,” says Klein. “It isn’t just squeeze the last nickel.” He makes it clear that he is referring to figures like the Milsteins and the Dursts, who used litigation to block the project. He has, he feels, nothing to be embarrassed about. “I don’t think anyone ever said that we didn’t keep our word or have integrity or do our best,” he says. “We could differ about what ‘best’ means architecturally.” One cannot dispute this judgment.

IN SO FAR AS THE 42nd Street Development Project worked, it did so by failing. Public officials accepted a bid to build four enormous office towers in the heart of Manhattan before the developer had even chosen an architect, much less showed a model; and when the architect ignored the guidelines they had laid down to ensure that the buildings conformed to the civic ideals they had in mind, the guidelines were quietly discarded. Only public pressure forced a change in design. And then litigation, against which city and state officials were powerless, prevented the new design from being implemented. The collapse of the real estate market killed the office towers altogether. And the developers who had agreed to build the merchandise mart and the hotel, and to restore the theaters, slunk away one by one; one of them, a former Koch administration figure named Michael Lazar, who had won the bid to restore the five theaters on the north side of the block although he had no prior theatrical experience, was indicted, and later convicted and jailed, for accepting kickbacks while in office. These failures turned the street into the sort of blank slate that made the 42nd Street Now! plan possible.

Could it have been otherwise? Let’s imagine two alternative scenarios, which may be thought of more or less as the marketplace and statist scenarios. Both free market conservatives, who consider New York’s development process far too intrusive, and some real estate officials argue that the city would have been much better off had it simply waited for 42nd Street to become attractive to private development. Had the city done nothing at all to 42nd Street save make it as clean and safe as possible, the argument goes, development would have inevitably shifted westward as costs became prohibitive east of Fifth. Forty-second Street would have had its office towers just as Seventh Avenue and Broadway did. They would have been less dense, and perhaps there would have been fewer of them; whatever revenue the city lost would be made up for by the fact that the owners would be paying their full share in taxes. Likewise, the new global entertainment companies would have flocked to 42nd Street and Times Square—at least, assuming the kind of vigorous anticrime campaign Mayor Giuliani waged starting in 1994—for the same reason that European designers converge on Madison Avenue: the address confirms their status as world players. That city planners could not imagine such an outcome in 1981 only shows the limits of planning.

No one will ever know what would have happened had the 42nd Street Development Project never existed. But the essential problem with the laissez-faire theory is that 42nd Street already was a self-sustaining marketplace in the early 1980s—a market for pornographic and action movies, for drugs and alcohol and sex and con games. Absent outside intervention, the perverse ecology of the street would have remained— which is to say that the street could not have been cleaned up without the use of the state’s condemnation powers. And the pattern of fragmented ownership would also have precluded much new investment: there were 240 owners in the project area as of 1981. The real estate heir Douglas Durst insists that a patient assembler—like the Durst family—could have slowly amassed property until they were ready to build, but the Dursts themselves have been assembling parcels for thirty years on 42nd Street immediately to the east of Seventh Avenue without finding the opportunity to build—and this without the perverse ecology of Times Square. What’s more, developers eager to build office space on the Deuce would have had a tough time persuading tenants to relocate to a street whose sidewalks were crowded with hustlers and vagrants.

What about the opposite scenario—a more obtrusive, more intellectually serious, and better-heeled state? Look at the city of Paris, which in recent decades has rebuilt its highway system, expanded its periphery, and built such extraordinary monuments as the Pompidou Center. This last, in fact, was a part of a much larger project to level and rebuild the ancient quarter known as the Marais—a project as large as the 42nd Street redevelopment, and occurring at much the same time. In Post-Industrial Cities, H. V. Savitch compares the two projects, as well as the renovation of Covent Garden, in London. Paris, as Savitch points out, is the great pride of France and of the French people; it would be unthinkable to leave so profound a matter as the expansion or preservation of an ancient Parisian neighborhood to the marketplace. The French government bore much of the $1 billion cost of the redevelopment of the Marais, and the plan was fashioned by the Prefect of Paris, an haut fonctionnaire operating at the highest reaches of the bureaucracy and insulated from virtually all outside influence—a modern version of Baron Haussman, who dynamited ancient Paris and created the modern city in the middle of the nineteenth century. The public had virtually no role in the reconstruction of the Marais: the great market area of Les Halles was leveled without so much as a hearing. And private developers had little more say than the public. In New York, by contrast, as Savitch writes, development is a matter of “political entrepreneurship” in which various contending forces struggle to assemble a coalition of the self-interested. It’s no coincidence that Paris feels like a supremely planned city, and New York like a supremely unplanned one. Paris is shaped according to a set of beliefs about its nature; in New York, Savitch writes, “The momentum for growth is so strong that little is sacred when it comes to matters of architectural preservation.”

If New York were more like Paris, then the redevelopment of 42nd Street would have been guided more by a sense of the street’s place in New York’s history and culture, and less by the wish to expand commercial space westward. Planning would be a far more serious occupation than it is now. And city government would not have surrendered its municipal obligations to the private sector by counting on developers to pay for public amenities. Presumably, if Americans loved their great cities as the French do, New York would not have been permitted to suffer through its fiscal crisis in the first place.

Of course, it’s impossible to imagine New Yorkers sitting still nowadays as an ancient neighborhood is demolished. After all, New York City once had an omnipotent haut fonctionnaire of its own; his name was Robert Moses. And Moses’s very name is now synonymous with the discredited vision of bulldozer development. Much of the messy and time-consuming panoply of the 42nd Street development process—the hearings, the guidelines, the environmental impact statement—is a reaction to that autocratic form of development. New Yorkers have decided, in effect, that they would rather risk getting nothing built at all than to have a vision of the city simply imposed on them. And the process does not inevitably lead either to paralysis or to mediocrity: it was another city-state entity that chose the acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind to design a new complex on the site of the World Trade Center in 2003.

The competition over the rebuilding of the World Trade Center offers a model for urban planning that does not submit to the whim either of the developer or of the government functionary, and that allows the public will to express itself without descending into chaos. Of course, the city-state body overseeing the development process at the World Trade Center site agreed to stage a worldwide architectural competition only after an impassioned public rejected the unimaginative choices that were initially offered. That was an unprecedented moment in the history of urban development; the rebuilding of 42nd Street took place under more normal conditions of public disengagement. And in the early 1980s architects had nothing like the kind of prestige they have today; the idea that an architect’s vision might transform a neighborhood, or even an entire city, was something quite foreign. In New York, architecture has, until very recently, functioned almost entirely as the handmaiden of development.

And so perhaps it is vain to wish that Mayor Koch and Governor Cuomo had invited the half-dozen greatest architects in the world to reimagine 42nd Street, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki ultimately did in the case of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t in the cards. And yet it would have been one of the most thrilling and illuminating architectural competitions ever staged. Great architects love great cities. Who among them wouldn’t have viewed the opportunity to reinvent the greatest urban space in the greatest city in the world as the achievement of a lifetime? Who would have sneered at “the goddamn corny image of what’s in Times Square,” or fantasized about giant wrecking balls crushing decaying structures? It’s true that the horror of urban life so widespread a quarter century ago might have made the prospect of erasure appealing, as it was to Philip Johnson. But others might have designed a 42nd Street Futurama, like the architects of Cityscape; or a 42nd Street of the decorated shed in the manner of Robert Venturi; or something else nobody ever thought of. What 42nd Street needed, as Robert Stern and Tibor Kalman understood, was not an architectural straitjacket, but a master plan—a plan that could pay homage to all that the street and Times Square had been, while launching it into an unknowable future.

It’s too late for regrets, or even for blame. One can only imagine what might have been and take comfort in the fact that the public seems more aroused on matters of architecture and design than it has ever been before. Perhaps the next time, whenever the next time is, the process will work because it worked, and not because it failed.

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