TAKE THE SUBWAY to the Times Square station. It only costs two dollars, you can get there from practically anywhere, and it’s been working perfectly well, more or less, for one hundred years. Emerging onto the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, you will be much impressed by the sheer scale of the neighborhood. Four immense glass office buildings tower above you. None is particularly distinguished as architecture, though the lights and signs they wear make them more playful than their kin on Sixth or Third Avenue. The Reuters Building, on the northwest corner of 42nd and Broadway, even has a bit of V-shaped deco-style trim running around the corner, a wan recollection of the Rialto Building, which once occupied the same spot. The principal tenants of the office towers are law firms, investment firms, and media and entertainment firms, which is to say that they are not much different from office towers elsewhere in midtown Manhattan. The biggest of the towers, at the northeast corner of Broadway and 42nd, houses Condé Nast, publisher of such glamorous magazines as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. Times Square is no longer interesting enough, or chic enough, to be an important subject for these magazines, as it was seventy-five years ago; it is, on the other hand, a far more suitable setting for their corporate headquarters than it ever was before.
Now you may turn back toward Eighth Avenue. Immediately to the west of the office zone is the culture zone, which is also the preservation zone—the lovingly restored New Amsterdam Theatre to the south and the New Victory Theater to the north, as well as the Ford Center, where the play 42nd Street has long been entrenched, and an entirely new building, known as the Duke, which houses studio space as well as the Roundabout Theatre, a highly respected nonprofit theater company. The Duke is a nine-story building that at night lights up with multicolored horizontal neon strips; it is the only aesthetically pleasing new structure on 42nd Street. The street also has a museum. On the south side, where Peepland and, before that, Hubert’s Museum once stood, is Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, an institution that traffics in immaculately reproduced copies.
The remaining two-thirds of the block, where once the all-night cafeterias reigned, and the penny arcades and the shooting galleries and the novelty shops and the hot dog stands, is now a Global Retail, Fast Food, and Entertainment Concept Zone. Moving east to west along the southern blockfront, you would find (as of the middle of 2003) the world’s largest McDonald’s; a food court where the visitor can choose among Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chili’s, Cinnabon, and yet others; an HMV music store; and New York’s largest multiplex, the AMC 25. Crossing the street and reversing course to the east, you would first encounter Chevys, a bait-shack-themed restaurant that sells thirteen kinds of margarita, including the Midori and the Lava Lamp, and then a Japanese fast-food place, a Yankees merchandise store, and the Sanrio store, purveyor of the Hello Kitty line. In the middle of the block are the Broadway City arcade and the B.B. King Blues Club, both owned by actual New Yorkers, making this the Indigenous Institutions Microzone.
Richard Simon, owner of the arcade and heir to its traditions, is in fact the last unimpeachably authentic son of the soil left on 42nd Street. Simon is a middle-aged, balding gentleman, slightly querulous, with the classic New York sense of preulcerous aggrievement. “I’m the only legitimate New York entrepreneur who’s not sending the money to the home office in Peoria,” he says. “I’m the quintessential New York guy.” (It takes a quintessential New York guy to imagine that the home office is in Peoria.) The Broadway City arcade is a lineal descendant of the Broadway Arcade, established in the late fifties by Simon’s father, Albert, on Broadway between 51st and 52nd Streets. The old arcade had pool and Ping-Pong tables downstairs, and upstairs pinball, a magic shop, costumes, homemade candy and home-roasted nuts, and of course arcade games—a juicy slice of Times Square, Late Golden Era.
Simon, the son, fondly recalls that far-off time when things were where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be: when Lindy’s, Damon Runyon’s old haunt, sat right there on 49th Street. When your dad took you to lunch there you ate chopped steak and creamed spinach, and never thought to ask for anything else. Simon’s office, in a quiet warren behind a door at the otherwise insanely noisy arcade, is a shrine to his hero of heroes, Mickey Mantle, the blond god of the fifties, and to the slightly ratty pizzazz of his father’s era. In the time even before the Broadway Arcade, Albert sold coin-operated arcade games from an office on Tenth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned pinball as part of his campaign against vice, and Richard has a photo of goons smashing his father’s stock. More authentic than that, you don’t get.
The Broadway City arcade is generally a nice place, which can’t be said of all arcades. The Playland, which flourished for years along the west side of Broadway between 42nd and 43rd, was an ominous dive where both fake driver’s licenses and male hustlers were readily available. I never set foot in Playland, though at one point in my life I walked past it daily. On the other hand, I often go to the Broadway City arcade with my son, Alex, who is always up for a few rounds of virtual boxing (bob, weave, kayo the reigning heavyweight champ). It’s a clean, inviting, and safe place—except late at night, when it isn’t. But you wouldn’t mistake it for the old Broadway Arcade. A sculpture of old-fashioned construction workers eating their lunch on a plank is suspended from the ceiling— a retro touch designed, Simon says, to convey the old-time “warmth and character” that he remembers so well. Of course the very act of evoking that atmosphere italicizes it, makes it a marketing decision rather than an aspect of the place’s character. Perhaps the simple fact that the Broadway City arcade is new, and that it is (mostly) safe and clean, and that it is located in the middle of the new, safe, clean, bright 42nd Street, opens up an immense gulf between it and its progenitor. Simon could serve home-roasted nuts, and it might not matter.
To which one might well say: So what? Simon himself says, “I wanted to be part of the resurgence of Times Square, and especially Forty-second Street.” And he plainly is (though he complains that the rent is stratospheric, the local businessmen don’t patronize his “corporate space,” and he is besieged by the “Eighth Avenue crowd”—that is, black kids). Forty-second Street had become the kind of place where many New Yorkers, and certainly many tourists, wouldn’t set foot in an arcade. Now, on the new 42nd Street, they do. As in so much of modern life, material progress offers itself as compensation for spiritual loss.
IT IS PERFECTLY OBVIOUS that 42nd Street could not have become once again any of its past selves—not, at least, without unintentional self-parody. Neither could it have become the enclosed gallery of futuristic entertainments imagined by the authors of the City at 42nd Street plan. But did it have to be this? Did it have to be Chevys and Applebee’s and Hello Kitty? In 42nd Street Now!, Stern and Kalman had promised that 42nd Street would become “an enhanced version of itself,” not a “gentrified theme park or festival market.” The possibility that it might become a honky-tonk theme park seems not to have occurred to them. New Yorkers tend to view the block as a deracinated fragment of global monoculture grafted into the city’s street plan—a place with none of the characteristics of locality. Couldn’t it have been more . . . real? The Bright Light study had suggested all sorts of exotic entertainment activities for the block, including a “sports exhibition center” where amateur athletes could compete in pickup basketball games, skateboard slalom, karate, and so on; a roller disco; a jazz cabaret; and a gallery of “futuristic electronic amusements.” (Actually, that sounds like the Broadway City arcade.) What’s wrong with that?
The answer is that roller disco doesn’t pay the rent. The 42nd Street Development Project was designed to make the block attractive to private developers, who would lease most of the space on the street. Public officials would establish design guidelines, but the marketplace would decide who would occupy the space. And the marketplace was going to supply the lowest common denominator. Bruce Ratner, a former city official who had become a major real estate force in Brooklyn, ultimately purchased the lease on the south side of the street, while John Tishman, a member of one of the city’s great real estate clans, took over the north. Both men believed that immense crowds would flock to the new 42nd Street; that these tourists and office workers and passersby constituted a tremendous new market; and therefore that they could charge tenants stratospheric rents. And the kind of tenants who pay $1 million a year for a modest storefront are not normally adventurous.
Ratner says when he sought tenants in 1997, he received proposals from the Hard Rock Café, the Rainforest Café, the Moulin Rouge nightclub, Cirque de Soleil, Fred & Busters game rooms, Universal Walk, the ESPN Zone, and so on. It was, he says, “the era of entertainment concepts.” None of these chains had even existed twenty years earlier, when the CUNY researchers had suggested their charmingly homemade entertainments. In the interim, Disney and Warner Bros. and Viacom had transformed the very nature of entertainment, while the Gap and Barnes & Noble and HMV had similarly transformed the nature of retailing. “Popular culture,” that localized, handcrafted thing, had become “mass culture,” an extrusion from mighty corporate ovens. These entertainment and retailing leviathans roamed the globe in search of sites suitable to their brand. To see how mass culture has changed the places where it is situated, you need only think of Las Vegas. As recently as the 1970s, Las Vegas had consisted of the eccentric and largely family-owned casinos that so fascinated the authors of Learning from Las Vegas; by the nineties it had turned into a giant Monopoly board of entertainment concepts. So with 42nd Street.
The idea that the city is the home of intense particularity, of the untrammeled individual—the idea at the heart of so much of Balzac and Dickens and Dostoevsky, and then of Dreiser and Howells—has given way, in recent years, to a new and alarming idea of the city as the site for a deracinated, universalizing popular culture: the city as Las Vegas. The architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas calls it “the generic city”—“the city without history,” “the city liberated . . . from the straitjacket of identity.” (Koolhaas likes—or straight-facedly claims to like—the generic city.) Another architecture critic and urban theorist, Michael Sorkin, writes, “The new city replaces the anomaly and delight of [the old] with a universal particular, a generic urbanism inflected only by appliqué. Here, locality is efficiently acknowledged by the inclusion of the croque-monsieur at the McDonald’s on the Boule Miche or the Cajun Martini at the airport lounge in New Orleans (and you’re welcome to keep the glass).” In other words, authenticity has been reduced from a touchstone of value to a marketing concept, a salable commodity the up-to-date city traffics in.
Along 42nd Street, locality is acknowledged by the sculpture of the workingman in the Broadway City arcade, and of course by the lights and signs that line the street. The most common epithet that critics, and for that matter contemptuous New Yorkers, apply to 42nd Street is “Disneyesque.” In fact, the very first sentence of a recent critique of the redevelopment process reads, “The cheerful face of Mickey Mouse now greets visitors to Times Square from atop a Disney superstore.” Used as an epithet, the word “Disney” conjures up the image of a meticulously engineered, and thus secondhand, and thus spurious, form of fun. It must be noted, in all fairness, that if anyone has Disneyfied 42nd Street in this sense, it’s not Disney, which has meticulously re-created the archaic splendors of the New Amsterdam Theatre and has used it to present The LionKing, an exercise in avant-garde puppetry that has confounded the company’s critics with its insistent modernity and its unmistakable stamp of individual authorship. But the street may be Disneyesque nevertheless. The author of the critique, Alexander J. Reichl, goes on to predict: “From the towers to the superstores to the orgy of lighted advertisements, Forty-second Street and Times Square will epitomize the corporate dominance of publc space.”
And yet . . . somehow, 42nd Street doesn’t feel like a simulacrum, or like a “site” of global entertainment culture—at least, not only like that. Take that subway once again to the IRT station, but this time at night. Now the generic street is suddenly alive. When you stand in front of the station and sight down the block, 42nd Street looks like the inside of one of Richard Simon’s arcade games, glowing red and blue and green. The buildings, with their inane products and cardboard food, seem to subside behind the wildly flashing signs, just as Stern and Kalman hoped they would. The sense of arid calculation subsides as well beneath the great tides of humanity eddying up and down the block. On a warm summer’s night, 42nd Street is a kind of fiesta, a commercial carnival. Teenagers, mostly black, loiter in front of the subway station on the northern side of the street. An impromptu audience, gathered in a semicircle, watches a spray painter make moons and pyramids and skyscrapers on his little square of oaktag. A pedicab cycles past with a passenger, charging a hundred times the going rate in Calcutta, and then a great white limo slides by like a submarine before it plunges beneath the waves. The doors open up at the Ford Center, and the audience for 42nd Street spills out for intermission, forming little knots that block the sidewalk as they chat blithely about that last tap number.
Further along, another crowd waits for the late show at B.B. King’s, and a line of less patient teenagers wait to be patted down before gaining entrance to the Broadway City arcade, the bright white lights running around its jukebox façade. Three cops on horseback keep watch on the entrance. Sketch artists sit in folding chairs, waiting for customers for their portraits and caricatures. More cops; more swirls of tourists; more teenage boys, leaning against the wall, staring out at the passing show, enjoying a night out for the price of a subway token. It’s as if an electric current that was carrying the life of the great city all around had been strung just beneath the sidewalks. The street, which felt vapid and almost too wide in the daytime, isn’t big enough now, and you wonder how 42nd Street can contain the kids, the tourists, the cops, the vendors, the traffic, the noise, the lights, and the sense of possible violence that sometimes lies just below the surface.
It is, in short, the barely contained energies of that crowd, and the noise and the blur of the traffic, and the huckstering along the sidewalk, that save 42nd Street from the Disneyesque. The life of the place is on the streets. As I walked westward one Saturday night in late October 2001, I joined a big crowd watching a spray painter at work. The painter was a wiry young man with a red cap pulled low over his eyes, the bill expertly rolled. Another spray painter, farther down the street, stood idly by his wares, but here the crowd was two or three deep. When they finally moved away, I stayed to talk. The painter’s name was Ayhan Colak; he had come to Times Square from Istanbul three years earlier. Ayhan said that he always attracted a crowd because he understood something about his setting. “It’s very hard in New York,” he said; “there’s so much competition. But here I am on Forty-second Street; everybody is performing, and I give a performance, too.” And he did. Ayhan was swift, nervous, intent; as he moved rapidly with his spray cans over the surface of his cardboard canvas, he bristled with some of that manic energy you see in footage of Jackson Pollock, though it is probably fair to say that his work did not quite aspire to the same level of art, or for that matter to any level of art.
Ayhan had, in fact, never studied art at all; he was a street performer. But he was a virtuoso street performer. He wielded his paint cans like a master chef: sometimes he upended the can and popped the nozzle a few times against the canvas to produce a wedge of paint, or, by angling the can a little lower, a thick stream of paint. His tools also included a piece of crumpled newspaper, a pot lid, a chisel, and a palette knife. Ayhan had a limited repertoire; his big seller—and everyone else’s—was a painting of the pyramids of Giza superimposed on an imaginary Manhattan skyline, with the earth, the moon, and maybe Saturn suspended above in a black sky—a kind of spiritualized fantasy designed to lift the viewer above the neon bath of 42nd Street. The performance was free, and the work itself was available for $20. On this particular evening, the crowd burst into applause when Ayhan straightened up. A customer stepped forward to pay; one of the customer’s friends, overwhelmed in the face of genius, timidly asked Ayhan if he had anything else left in his portfolio.
I was on 42nd Street again two weeks later, on a chilly Sunday afternoon, and there was Ayhan once again surrounded by a crowd, which included three Hasidic men, a sailor, and a young woman from New Jersey named Michelle who had bought four of Ayhan’s works. I asked Michelle whether she had asked for a special bulk price, and she looked at me reprovingly: “You can’t tell an artist what to do.” They made, we agreed, perfect Christmas gifts.
Yet even Ayhan is not exactly “authentic,” at least not if authenticity requires indigenousness. Street culture has become almost as globalized as retail culture. Ayhan, who speaks Russian, Bulgarian, and German in addition to Turkish and English, traveled a circuit that includes Tokyo and Houston, and he learned his art from a Mexican guy he met in San Francisco; another spray painter I met learned in Paris, and also worked in Miami, where, he said, he was expected to paint fish rather than office towers. You can buy the same caricatures and the same Chinese calligraphy that you find on 42nd Street on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and probably in Kathmandu as well. The street population is globally mobile and transitory; few people return to the block year after year. And so even the vendors and artists do not “belong” to 42nd Street much more than the shops do. By the time you read this, Ayhan will have been replaced by someone else. Does it matter? Indigenousness is an anachronism in a global city like New York. Creativity and spontaneity should be enough.
One of the few aspects of the street’s culture invented and practiced by natives is break dancing, which is featured in the Times Square subway station and up and down Broadway and Seventh Avenue, wherever a large enough parcel of sidewalk makes performance possible. With their one-handed handstands and standing somersaults and dizzying head spins, the break-dancers are arguably the most talented performers in Times Square. And, like Ayhan, the dance crews understand the need for theatricality in the world’s epicenter of the theatrical. One afternoon I encountered Rasheem, who comes down from Harlem with a crew of younger kids, on the traffic island between 44th and 45th Streets. He had recruited four volunteers from the crowd, who would, when so instructed, line up side by side and bend over at the waist; a crew member anchored the group. Rasheem strutted around the gathering crowd, explaining that he was going to jump over “all six”—well, actually five—and land on the other side. “First, I want everyone to hold up a ticket,” he cried. “Everyone know what a ticket look like?” Rasheem held up a dollar bill. Then he cranked up the rap music from his boom box, went to the far end of the island, and commenced to flex and twist. “Everybody outta the way!” he shouted. “I don’t got no insurance.” Another crew member went around with a bucket; Rasheem wasn’t going anywhere until the audience had deposited major tickets. This turned out to be a very long process. Finally, Rasheem began to trot, picked up speed like a broad jumper until he hit his mark just in front of the first person, launched himself into a somersault, and landed clean on the other side. It was the human equivalent of Evel Knievel on his motorcycle. Rasheem later admitted to me that though he had never landed on a volunteer, he did occasionally hit a crew member. Such mishaps, he added, were the fault of an uninspiring audience.
It is not all that easy to make money on 42nd Street. Many of the vendors I came to know had made more money, and lived a distinctly better life, back home, wherever home was, than in Times Square. Many of them talked about leaving, and some of them did abruptly disappear. There were simply too many of them, even given the great size of the crowd. And the trade was tightly controlled. Vendors who deal in artwork enjoy First Amendment protection, but they can be regulated with regard to time, place, and manner of expression. The city prohibits vendors from setting up shop on 42nd Street before seven P.M., in order to give the rush-hour crowd time to dissipate, and then forces them to close up around eleven, as the theater crowd is pouring out onto the street. One night I watched the cops order everyone to close up shop at ten-thirty. I asked an officer what the hurry was, and he said, “The captain says it’s ‘exigent circumstances.’” This was apparently the technical term for dangerous overcrowding. “We don’t want someone to walk out into the street and get hurt.” By eleven, the vendors had vanished, save for a lone sketch artist, squatting, a pad propped on his thigh, while he drew a picture of a little boy whose mother looked on patiently.
Most vendors fail, but few fail tragically. Virtually all of 42nd Street’s sidewalk merchants are young male immigrants, and most of them have the immigrant resilience that has been one of New York City’s defining characteristics for the last century. One slightly chilly evening in the spring of 2002 I met Ivan Ivanoff, the pride of Veliko Tirnovo, in Bulgaria. Ivan was pale, with a blocky face and a determined set to his jaw. He was a man of many professions. He said that when he had first come to New York, he had joined a break-dancing crew, which he had quit in disgust over the group’s spotty work ethic and his low-man-on-the-totem-pole share of the take. I asked whether he had learned to break-dance in Bulgaria. “I have been break-dancing for, like, seventeen years,” he said proudly. Ivan was thirty, and as a teenager he was, he said, “one of the most successful break-dancers in Bulgaria.” He and his friends had learned from American movies and music videos. “We would have break-dancing battles, between different crews,” Ivan explained. “But the problem is, there is no profit in break-dancing in Bulgaria. People do not pay money to see it. Also, nobody dances on the street in Bulgaria.” Ivan opened up a pizzeria, and then a second and a third. “Then I realize,” he said, “is good business, but is local business. I want to do national business.” So Ivan started a factory to produce women’s clothes. “I put in all the money from the pizzeria; and I lose everything.” There had been, apparently, a drastic softening in the Bulgarian economy. And so he had left Bulgaria with his girlfriend, in search of opportunity.
Ivan had now taken up spray painting, and he said he was earning $100 on good days, which this manifestly was not: nobody came by to disturb our conversation. But Ivan was not discouraged. “I have many ideas for what I will do,” he announced. Idea number one was transferring photos onto T-shirts. Ivan had already spent $5,000 to buy a top-quality digital camera, a transfer press, and a printer. But even that wasn’t the big idea. “I want to go back into the food business,” Ivan said, almost conspiratorially. This idea was so powerful that he couldn’t take the risk of revealing it. “It’s a very good product,” he allowed. “The product is new. It will cost only two or three dollars.” He was still refining the concept, but he promised that it did not involve Bulgarian cuisine.
The “street culture” of the new 42nd Street consists of pavement dwellers like Ayhan and Ivan, and the middle-aged Chinese ladies who glumly peddle their photographs of the Flatiron Building and the World Trade Center, and the great tides of pedestrians passing this way and that, and also the visitors who roost long enough to be described as loiterers. And that population consists largely of black teenagers. This is a peculiar irony, for critics of 42nd Street redevelopment described it at the time, and have continued to describe it, as a gentrification process designed to erase the street’s minority population in order to lure back white professionals. If you ask kids, they will tell you that 42nd Street is a good place to pick up girls, that you can hang out for free as long as you don’t mind being moved around by cops, that you can see a movie at the AMC 25 and then have a cheap meal at Applebee’s—just what William Kornblum, the principal author of the Bright Light study, said that kids had been doing back in the 1970s. The Broadway City arcade attracts a heavily minority, and of course young, clientele. And 42nd Street tends to become less white later at night; sometime around eleven P.M., the movie theaters shift from a largely white to a largely nonwhite audience.
The arcades, and the kids who hang out near them, have had the effect of restoring a soupçon of the old 42nd Street sense of menace—perhaps just enough to satisfy critics who fear wholesale embourgeoisement. One Saturday night I waited in line to be admitted to Bar Code, an arcade on Broadway and 45th that closed up in early 2003. A sign prominently posted in the window announced that no one wearing “colors,” “do-rags,” “skullies,” sports jerseys, or “velour suits” would be admitted. In front of me were four high-school-age boys from Sussex County, apparently a rather pastoral zone of New Jersey. A tall, skinny kid with his cap on backward asked what “colors” were, and I explained that the word referred to gang insignia. He blanched. He worried that his high school football sweatshirt would fall afoul of the rules.
I had never heard of banning sports jerseys, and when I got to the front of the line I asked the security official. “Let’s say you come in wearing a Giants jersey, and the other guy, he’s wearing Jets,” he explained. “That’s enough to start a fight.” Velour suits? They were banning sweat suits, and so they had to prohibit the far more expensive designer track suits to prevent an aggrieved kid from saying, “How come me and not him?” Once inside, we were forced to empty our pockets, and then each of us was very briskly patted down, our shoes squeezed, a metal wand waved over us, before we were allowed to pass upstairs to the arcade itself. Bar Code seemed to have reached a DEFCON 4 level of antigang alert: once I finally got inside, it was so quiet and modestly populated that you had to wonder if the place was scaring away its own clientele. Perhaps that’s why it closed.
The Broadway City arcade had a much less rigorous security system, and was a much more wild and woolly place late at night. For all his distaste for the “Eighth Avenue crowd,” Richard Simon understood perfectly well that they were his clientele, and he had opened up a dance space on the second floor for the late-night weekend crowd. At 2:40 one morning, as rap music shook the walls, a mêlée broke out between two groups of black teenagers from the same neighborhood in Queens; there had been “a look across the dance floor,” a detective later said. Weapons, undetected at the door, were suddenly brandished; eight people were shot and two stabbed (none fatally) before the police were able to rush in and quell the violence. Here was a sudden and terrifying reminder of 42nd Street as it once had been. The overwhelming irony of the event was that the violence had issued from the street’s most “authentic,” least Disneyesque, spot. This was more authenticity than even the most single-minded opponent of development could have wished. It also constituted an implicit argument for the virtues of embourgeoisement, of regulation, even, perhaps, for the corporate dominance of public space. You never heard about gang violence at Applebee’s.
BRUCE RATNER, THE DEVELOPER responsible for Madame Tussaud’s and Applebee’s, is all too familiar with the complaint that New Yorkers—at least New Yorkers in his class—make about 42nd Street. And so he was at first inclined to be defensive when I asked him about all the mass-produced dreck on the block. But the more he thought about it, the less inclined he was to be apologetic. Ratner is not a native New Yorker with a New Yorker’s possessiveness over the city’s past; his father had started the family real estate business in Cleveland, and he remembers visiting the city as a boy. “Look at it in 1960,” Ratner said, sitting in his office in the renovated business district of Brooklyn. “It would have had arcades. I remember the arcades; I remember the movie theaters. Now there are arcades with electronic games in them; twenty-five years from now, people will remember that.” Ratner began to pick up speed as he warmed to his topic and perhaps saw his way clear to his own position in the new 42nd Street. “Applebee’s and Chevys—they’re what America is today. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, any more than Bond Clothes was.” Bond, on Broadway and 44th, was Times Square’s biggest retailer in the forties and fifties. “That’s what it has been for seventy years. I would argue it’s more of a mirror of America. In 1900 it was a mirror of that genteel way that America was: it was ruled by a small group of people who went to see plays and stuff like that. For the last seventy years, it’s been for the average person. It’s a reflection of America.”
Ratner’s implicit point was that 42nd Street was being true to its own past precisely by virtue of being dominated by McDonald’s and the ESPN Zone. Forty-second Street was the home of popular entertainment, and in our own time mass culture is produced by giant companies. The elite can afford the local and the particular; ordinary folks consume less expensive, franchised products. And so a “corporate” 42nd Street was a democratic 42nd Street. Ratner’s aides were now chuckling with some embarrassment at the boss’s swelling oratory, but he plunged on, the bit between his teeth. “It’s always been a place to go out for the lower-middle-income New Yorker. You go out on a Saturday night, and it’s basically people of low-middle-income means, from the boroughs, from New Jersey, from Long Island, out for a date. If you think about all the great streets in the world, it’s about seeing people from that culture. And it does that. And you know what? Maybe at the end of the day, that’s what a successful street is. Should it be Applebee’s or should it be someplace else? Who knows? It’s a great place.”
Is 42nd Street a great place because it’s a mirror of America? If that’s so, then the average shopping mall is a great place, too. When 42nd Street really was great, it stood for something larger than itself—glamour, excess, sex appeal, decadence. The one thing 42nd Street stands for now is the power of global marketing—and perhaps “the corporate dominance of public space.” Forty-second Street is not a great place anymore; on the other hand, it hasn’t been one for a very long time. Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, 42nd Street mattered only as a case history in urban decline. Perhaps what one should say of this new 42nd Street is simply that it worked: it drew people to the heart of the city. People wanted to stand on the sidewalk and watch Ayhan paint; they wanted to hang out in front of the subway and even, alas, at Applebee’s. Perhaps that was enough.