Saturday, 8 February 2014

A New York Story

This is primarily a review of Lynne Sagalyn's 2001 book, Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon. The book is a magnificent display of thorough research, deep thinking, and professional handling of everything that makes the history of what the author calls “an internationally recognized symbol of urban redemption”. What she means by this phrase is the radical transformation of one of New York’s most iconic places: the Times Square in the title.

Lynne Sagalyn begins her book with a description of the gloom and privation that characterized the area up until the 1970s, when Times Square was known primarily for its criminal life: a red-lantern district where prostitution had replaced love and pickpocketing had taken over all economic enterprises.

(c) The Telegraph, UK
Sagalyn loves contrasts. She loves, for instance, to see how New York comes out glorious from this dark history of its depressive state preceding the Hercules Parade of 1997, when the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani (yet unacquainted with the 9/11 disaster) used a media event (the launch, accompanied by a lavish parade on West 42nd Street, of Disney’s Hercules) to promote the city as a major point of attraction.
The book never ceases marveling at these transformations. Early on, the author asks:
"How did the icon of sleaze and pornography transmute back into the popular entertainment and glitzy commercialism? What is it about the character of the transformation of place that derivatively wiped away New York’s image as a “big, bad city” and, in the process, put a shine on city life in general?"
The rest of the book sets out to answer these questions, by examining a large number of media accounts, from late-nineteenth century to the late twentieth, to compare them with the glory and decadence promised by the Big Apple right before the fall of the Twin Towers.

A polyphonic non fiction account

You get easily lost in the wealth of reproductions, mostly photograph, taken at various moments in the Square’s anything-but-linear history. There are so many of them, that the exposure to the very idea of transformation takes on extraordinary nuances.
The book opens a multitude of doors to a multitude of perspectives. It is not only an account of New York and its troubled past. It is also a history of architecture, of urban planning, of social movements, of financial manipulations and of political investments. It is, to a considerable extent, a history of America. The author is intent on clearing this history of all the myths that have accompanied the rise of the middle class away from the slummy Times Square of the mid-20th century to the fiscal, mass media and entertainment hub of the early 21st, when Ernst & Young, Bertelsmann, Viacom, Condé Nast, Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony came to dominate Manhattan’s cityscape.

Condé Nast Building in Times Square. (c)
The transformations of the 42nd Street are, in fact, marked by contradictions rather than a smooth, irreversible evolution. At almost every step, Sagalyn reminds the reader of all the protests, the resistance, the nostalgic refusal to alter, which have accompanied the metamorphoses of this New York landmark.

(c) Vintage 42nd Street
The author asks questions that veer into philosophical reflection, but which are utterly relevant to the assessment of any urban development plan ever undertaken in any other parts of the world. The claims of the volume are, thus, universal to a great extent.
“How can the unique history of a place be capitalized upon to make distinct places? What are the associations that give identity to a place and bind people to its legacy, its memories, even in the midst of decay? To phrase it another way, to what extent can city planning rewrite a place’s legacy? The answer is firmly embedded in the Times Square saga – not a lot and only at great political cost.”
The book follows the rise and fall of Times Square, from the turn of the 20th century, when the New Amsterdam was constructed along with an impressive number of 85 other theatres, which made the Square the centre of the Theatre District. This is the time (1927) when the dazzling display of extravagant lights advertising for Time Square’s explosive entertainment industry made Will Irvin, quoted in the book, to say:
“Mildly insane by day, the square goes divinely mad by night.”
All this changed in the 1930s, when tastes for public entertainment shifted from theatre to motion pictures.
“Movies merged extraordinarily well with the nation’s demographics because they occupied an economic niche between audiences for whom theatre was too expensive, vaudeville too crude, and nickelodeons too dark, dirty, and cheap.”
What had brought the glory of the Square in the first decades of the 20th century ended up turning it into a garish, sordid, indecent, and unsafe location, where cheapness of entertainment converted into trademark, and where, as it quickly became apparent, old entertainment could not keep up with the pace of progress.
The book often turns to very plastic, rhetorically rich, stylistically abundant treatments of the places that it sets out to describe. When the decline of the 42nd Street comes up, for instance, one can almost feel Sagalyn’s aesthetic pleasure in the admiration of the sordid:
“The slide downhill  from grinders to burlesque to grit to commercialism to honky-tonk debauchery to sex on the hoof to a marketplace for pornography is a story in itself, a moving montage of cultural images, societal mores, and sexual boundaries.”
It’s fragments like the one just quoted that make the reader commit to this monumental book, whose snippets of eloquence run along with sustained close readings of straightforward historical documents and unappealing development plans and blueprints meant solely for the eye of the professional architect.
The time frame comprised between the 1930s and the 1980s is described, with quick flair, as a period of continuous regress:
“By 1980, when the city and state started to formulate plans for West 42nd Street, the tally of years added up to more spent down-at-the-heels than in commercial glory.”
That should be enough to describe Times Square’s pre-planning period. But the author doesn’t leave it at that. The book allows her long digressions into the economic and political aspects that moved the former Theatre District back to its glory and beyond. And most importantly, it allows her to highlight the contradictions that characterize not just the reconfiguration of Times Square, but that of any place, anywhere in the world.

Sex and the City

The book, indeed, asks general questions, based on philosophies of space and place, but does so by constantly referencing back to its prime target: the history of New York as seen from Times Square and its iconic 42nd Street.

It’s interesting, for instance, to follow the fate of the sex industry at its peak, in a passage that preserves the concreteness of historical accounts, but without divorcing the taste for the out-of-ordinary:
“In 1970 the pornography business in midtown Manhattan had just begun to locate its best customers – the vast population of office workers proximate to West 42nd Street, who on either side of the journey home were within striking distance of Times Square. The people count was higher than that of Rockefeller Center, by a great deal: 49,000 persons entered 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue during the morning rush hours, compared with about 12,000 at Rockefeller Center.”
And a few lines farther down, another count takes front stage, the count of financial returns:
“Well positioned, erotica could afford to pay high rents, rents sometimes as much as twice the front-foot rate prevailing for an ordinary store on West 42nd Street. Operating on a 24-hour basis, the theatres and especially the peep shows generated heavy gross revenues; for instance, in 1978, when they studies the scene, CUNY researchers estimated that the weekly gross of peep shows ranged from $74,000 and $106,000 or roughly $5 million a year.”
Statistics and financial details of this kind help the book breathe in the air of academic examination. Consider only the 70 pages of endnotes and 26 pages of bibliography, and you get my point. Thorough investigation of primary sources and detailed analysis of relevant literature (whether journalistic, architectural, sociological etc.) makes this, I believe, a source worth taking into account by readers interested in the history of New York, and of the United States at large. One would be quick to single out, for instance, the treatment of the so-called LUTS (Light Unit Times Square), the system of measurement of light brightness invented specifically for Times Square; or the fascinating journey from architectural modelling to physical construction. These topics, as well as others, like the politics of zoning, with its “premium on pragmatism,” the tribulations of urban planning, as illustrated by the rebirth of the New Amsterdam, or the constant fight for preservation, create an atmosphere of intense scrutiny.

The New Amsterdam (c) Inpark Magazine - News
Add to this the fact that the book was published in the same year as the other crucial moment in the history of Manhattan: the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. A reminder, perhaps, of the glory that preceded the fall of the Twin Towers, but also of the troublesome past which makes New York one of the most interesting places on Earth.

Post Scriptum

Times Square Roulette reminded me of the video I watched earlier this year: a recorded visual history of the metamorphoses of the streets of New York:

And to show that New York is far from complete, it may be worth thinking of the multitudes of representations it has been made the subject of. Here's an example of a dystopian New York, constructed on the basis of fictional accounts, taken primarily from literature and film. A fiction of a fiction, as I like to think:

Great books of non fiction may be envious of such representations
A map of a dystopian Manhattan (c) The Grid