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Forty-Two Pickup

The headline on the full-page newspaper ad reads, “Times Square: The greatest retail opportunity in New York at the Crossroads of the World.” The ads text gushes over the “80,000 square feet of prime retail space now available on New York’s most exciting four corners—42nd Street where Seventh Avenue meets Broadway—a new world of shopping, dining and entertainment!” The fine print politely but firmly informs us that “Crossroads of the World is a registered service mark of Times Square Center Associates.”

So it has come to this: In what was once the greatest city in the world, realtors, acting with the full complicity of city government, spin ludicrous schemes to unload mountains of overpriced square footage that nobody wants in a neighborhood most sane retailers abandoned years ago. A neighborhood where nobody has “dined” in nearly three decades and where most of the “shopping” and “entertainment” revolve around peep booths. A neighborhood where every development plan over the past twenty years has come crashing down like rubble from a structurally deficient tenement. In the umpteenth attempt to transform Times Square into a silk purse, the city is now resorting to the governmental equivalent of a three-card monte game designed to dupe unwary tourists.

Tourists, as it turns out, are the key element here, for today’s New York, unable to sustain itself on indigenous revenues alone, now relies increasingly on an influx of cash from wide-eyed outsiders who come to town to see the sights and, naturally, spend some dough. The sad irony, of course, is that the dismantling of the city’s manufacturing base over the past few decades, which has necessitated this tourism-dependent approach, has also made New York a much less interesting place to visit. Once a city teeming with light industry (the NYC garment trade, now almost wholly absent except for a few sweatshops, once featured over half a dozen shops that did nothing but sew buttonholes), New York is now a perfect example of the country’s shift away from production and toward a service economy. And the best place to see these forces at work is in Times Square.

The city’s recent anti-smut campaigns may play well in November, but these latest sweeps have less to do with puritanical moralism than with hardball economic concerns.

The Square, of course, was once a tourist magnet in the classical sense: people came here to gawk because it was the center of a living, working metropolis. Like the rest of the city, it never had to aggressively market itself—local retailers and manufacturers provided a viable economic base, and if out-of-town travelers felt compelled to drop some cash during their visits, well, so much the better. At this point, however, the Square’s fabled billboards and movie marquees have long since become the stuff of memories and over-blown legend. The huge billboards that populate the Square today are little more than self-parodies, super-sized monstrosities that serve to institutionalize a marketing myth that few of today’s young ad-agency go-getters are even old enough to remember. As for the theaters, 42nd Street (or “the Deuce,” as it is called here) appears destined to be known more for the pornographers who have taken over the movie halls in the past twenty-five years than for the big-budget Hollywood epics that once held sway there.

Not that the city isn’t trying to do something about that, however. After years of being treated as a tolerable nuisance, maybe even a necessary evil, the skin merchants are now finding that a tourist-centric New York is a much more image-conscious New York, which means even the Square is no longer a safe haven for them. The city’s recent anti-smut campaigns may play well in November, but these latest sweeps have less to do with puritanical moralism than with hardball economic concerns: as one industry after another has deserted the city, lured elsewhere by the promise of lower real estate costs, cheaper overhead, lower prevailing wages, and so on, Gotham’s tax base has crumbled, leaving New York more dependent than at any other time in its history on a steady influx of awestruck tourists, a cavalcade of gullible out-of-towners who can be counted upon to stop staring up at the skyscrapers just long enough to eat a few meals, see a show or two, and buy a bunch of souvenirs. As the reality of this increasingly desperate environment began to unfold, the porn trade’s adjacency to the still-lucrative Broadway theater district could no longer be tolerated—the sex-peddlers would have to go.

The crucial step in accomplishing this was the early nineties establishment of the Times Square Business Improvement District and the Times Square Redevelopment Project, the latter of which allowed the state, acting under its broad powers of eminent domain, to begin condemning a series of Times Square properties and evict the tenants—primarily pornographers—therefrom. Not all of the pubic panderers have been given the heave-ho—indeed, a noontime stroll down the Deuce or the immediately contiguous strip of Eighth Avenue still offers some very interesting variations on the Businessman’s Lunch—but a fair number of the establishments have been shut down, a fact that the city, the Redevelopment Project, and the Business Improvement District trumpet to the press at every available moment. But in a public-relations mess that nobody appeared to anticipate, many of the T&A merchants simply relocated elsewhere in the city, often in largely residential neighborhoods, prompting many NYC denizens who hadn’t given Times Square a second thought for years to suddenly pine for “the good old days” when the XXX crowd could be counted upon to remain safely on the Deuce. The current mayoral administration has responded with a rezoning plan designed to move the sex trade to the very outskirts of the city, although this scheme appears so unlikely to pass First Amendment scrutiny that it can only be assumed to be a cheap show of face-saving effort for the voters.

Meanwhile, as one property after another has been condemned and shut down, the city has been frantically attempting to lure new tenants into the Square, which explains the desperate advertisements like the one cited at the beginning of this essay. In an attempt to make the area more palatable for tourists during this interim period when the Bad Guys (i.e., the libido brigade) are on their way out but the Good Guys (i.e., anyone who can be tricked into investing in the Square) haven’t yet arrived, the Business Improvement District and the Redevelopment Project have embarked on a series of programs designed to put a rosy tint on all things Square-related. In a 1993 move that bordered on the surreal, a team of conceptual artists was turned loose on 42nd Street, transforming condemned storefronts into postmodern art galleries (the worst aspect of all this: marquee after once-proud marquee displaying vacuous statements by the very annoying Jenny Holzer). How this played with the tourists from Peoria is anybody’s guess, but the Redevelopment Project and Business Improvement District aren’t taking any chances. In the tradition of so many unimaginative tourism boards before them, the groups have convinced themselves that what out-of-town visitors really want is a touch of artificial nostalgia—hence the plans to run a thoroughly useless trolley across town from the Square to the United Nations building. One can easily envision the Californians—hell, the Japanese!—burning up the phone lines to their travel agents: “Listen, book me and the family on a flight to New York, pronto—I’ve got to ride that trolley!”

In the midst of all this nonsense it should be noted that the city’s shell game has succeeded in attracting a few well-heeled saps into the fold. The New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street is being renovated by the Walt Disney Corporation, a dream investor that surely fits the city’s profile of an ideal partner: deep pockets, plenty of experience in the service sector, and from out of town. The Disney honchos apparently found the Square so well-suited to their plans that they more recently announced a scheme to build a hotel/entertainment center on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eighth. The city had hoped that the presence of the Mouse That Bored would attract other entertainment moguls to the Square. But it took over a year and the humiliating prospect of Disney threatening to withdraw their investment to force the city fathers to put together a sufficiently cushy deal to entice others into the fold. In mid-July, with Disney on the verge of pulling out from the New Amsterdam, a relieved group of redevelopers announced that the Livent theater production company would be renovating the Academy and Lyric theaters. A day later, long-simmering negotiations were completed to bring the British Madame Tussaud’s and the Kansas City-based American Multi-Cinema firms into the Square. All this to reassure the Disney brass, who had already been given enough city-financed low-interest loans to cover 75 percent of their Deuce-related costs.

The desolate string of abandoned storefronts now dotting the Square’s streets can hardly be described as a visual improvement

In any event, not even the Disney coup can overshadow some of the uglier realities of the current Times Square campaign. The Redevelopment Project, in its zeal to sanitize the area via ritual evictions, has succeeded in putting scores of small businessmen, and their respective staffs, out of work. Not all of these were pornographers, either—a cigar/candy shop on the northwest corner of 42nd and Seventh, for instance, had to go in early 1993 in order to make room for a pamphlet-dispensing Visitors Center, an object lesson in how the new urban priorities cater to out-of-town money at the expense of home-grown entrepreneurism. In a move that essentially amounted to rubbing salt in the wound, the Visitors Center stayed in the space for only about eighteen months, after which it was relocated down the block to the Harris Theatre. As of this writing, the storefront that housed the cigar shop is closed, shuttered, and locked.

Other non-pornographers unlucky enough to have been in the way of the Redevelopment Project’s master plan include a group of about two dozen artists facing eviction from their loft and living spaces on 42nd and 43rd Streets. Armed with hand-held signs depicting a death skull wearing Mousketeer ears, the group staged a small protest at the corner of 44th and Broadway on March 30th of this year. While their claims of being owed special status simply by virtue of their creative endeavors was typical art-community claptrap, their basic point—that it makes little sense to evict them when it’s far from certain that any corporate tenant will ever be brought in to replace them—struck at the heart of the current Times Square situation.

In fact, the desolate string of abandoned storefronts now dotting the Square’s streets can hardly be described as a visual improvement over the way the area looked before the sex biz was given its walking papers—at least the neighborhood still looked alive then. The many establishments that now stand vacant, offering mute testimony to the Redevelopment Projects purge of pornographer and non-pornographer alike, include a popular deli on 43rd Street, an arcade and a series of novelty shops on Seventh Avenue, and a pair of taverns on 43rd, among them the venerable Gough’s, which for decades served as the prototypical newspaperman’s bar, second home to generations of New York Times reporters, photographers, and pressmen. Gough’s, as it turns out, may have suffered the most humiliating chapter in this entire enterprise—in a classic case of adding insult to injury, the bar was shut down in early 1994 in order to clear the way for a back door to a theater being renovated on 42nd. Years from now, when the trolley is just another dimly remembered fiasco, when Disney has abandoned their experiment on the Deuce and taken their tax write-off, when the majority of the city’s populace is employed selling Statue of Liberty pencil sharpeners and Empire State Building snow domes to foreigners and strangers, someone should remember the perfect irony of a tradesman’s bar, a worker’s bar, being displaced by a tourist trap. Welcome to the modern metropolis.