Monday, March 22, 2004

Department of Must-Read Articles

Adam Gopnik on the "new Times Square" in last week's New Yorker.

One of the many reasons why I enjoyed this article and consider it a must-read for New Yorkers is that in it Gopnik debunks the myth — which I myself had believed — that Giuliani and Disney were the chief architects of the "new," sanitized Times Square.

Referring to two recent books about the transformation of Times Square — The Devil’s Playground, by James Traub, and Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon, by Lynne B. Sagalyn — Gopnik writes:

"Traub and Sagalyn agree in dispelling a myth and moving toward a history, and the myth irritates them both — Traub’s usual tone of intelligent skepticism sometimes boils over here into exasperation. The myth they want to dispel is that the cleanup of Times Square in the nineties was an expression of Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against crime and vice, and of his companion tendency to accept a sterilized environment if they could be removed, and that his key corporate partner in this was the mighty Disney, which led the remaking of West Forty-second Street as a theme park instead of an authentic urban street. As Traub and Sagalyn show, this is nearly the reverse of the truth. It was Mayor Koch who shaped the new Times Square, if anyone did, while the important private profit-makers and players were almost all purely local: the Old Oligarchs, the handful of rich, and mostly Jewish, real-estate families — the Rudins, Dursts, Roses, Resnicks, Fishers, Speyers, and Tishmans, as Sagalyn crisply enumerates them. Mayor Giuliani, basically, was there to cut the ribbon, and Disney to briefly lend its name."

As I say, this is but one of many reasons why Gopnik's article is worth reading. At several points, Gopnik takes to task those who sentimentalize about the old, pornified Times Square. And yet neither does he give the new Times Square a stamp of approval.

"All the same, there is something spooky about the contemporary Times Square. It wanders through you; you don’t wander through it. One of the things that make for vitality in any city, and above all in New York, is the trinity of big buildings, bright lights, and weird stores. The big buildings and bright lights are there in the new Times Square, but the weird stores are not. By weird stores one means not simply small stores, mom-and-pop operations, but stores in which a peculiar and even obsessive entrepreneur caters to a peculiar and even an obsessive taste. (Art galleries and modestly ambitious restaurants are weird stores by definition. It’s why they still feel very New York.) If the big buildings and the bright signs reflect the city’s vitality and density, weird stores refract it; they imply that the city is so varied that someone can make a mundane living from one tiny obsessive thing. Poolrooms and boxing clubs were visible instances of weird stores in the old Times Square; another, slightly less visible, was the thriving world of the independent film business, negative cutters, and camera-rental firms.

"There is hardly a single weird store left on Broadway from Forty-second Street to Forty-sixth Street — hardly a single place in which a peculiar passion seems to have committed itself to a peculiar product. You have now, one more irony, to bend east, toward respectable Fifth Avenue, toward the diamond merchants and the Brazilian restaurants and the kosher cafeterias that still fill the side streets, to re-create something that feels a little like the old Times Square. (Wonderful Forty-fifth Street! With the Judaica candlesticks and the Japanese-film rental and the two-story shops selling cheap clothes and stereos, lit up bright.) Social historians like to talk about the Tragedy of the Commons, meaning the way that everybody loses when everybody overgrazes the village green, though it is in no individual’s interest to stop. In New York, we suffer from a Tragedy of the Uncommons: weird things make the city worth living in, but though each individual wants them, no one individual wants to pay to keep them going. Times Square, as so often in the past, is responding, in typically heightened form, to the general state of the city: the loss of retail variety troubles us everywhere, as a new trinity of monotony — Starbucks, Duane Reade, and the Washington Mutual Bank — appears to dominate every block. We just feel it more on Broadway."

Read the article.