A Times Square for the New Millennium: Life on the Cleaned-up Boulevard

A Times Square for the New Millennium: Life on the Cleaned-up Boulevard

Seventeen years ago, in a devastating song, Lou Reed portrayed Forty-Second Street and Times Square as the “Dirty Boulevard.” Looking at this same place today, we would have to call it “the cleaned-up boulevard.” What can we say about life on the cleaned-up boulevard? The big thing is that it isn’t as bad, as antiseptic, as suburban, as many of us feared. It’s nice to see that Rudolph Giuliani’s project of turning the keys to the city over to Disney hasn’t turned the city into Disneyland. The thrill’s not gone.

There are some really good buildings in “The New Times Square.” The best ones are the oldest, and they are live and lively theaters: the New Amsterdam, once home of the Ziegfeld Follies, now the Disney flagship, and the neo-Baroque New Victory, now a terrific avant-garde and cosmopolitan children’s theater. They keep theater crowds flowing and overflowing at the Square’s core. The best new buildings are small, like the New 42nd Street Rehearsal Studios, whose delicate lighting blurs the boundary between building and sign. The big new buildings are more overbearing than the ones they replaced, but not one of them is as bad as the dreadful skyscrapers that blasted into the Square’s heart a generation ago (One Astor Plaza, killer of the lovely Astor Hotel; the Marriott Marquis Hotel that killed the Automat and the Helen Hayes; the blocks of giant slabs on Upper Sixth) or the four giant Egyptian tombs designed by Philip Johnson for developer George Klein in the 1980s, part of an immense, abortive plan to turn Times Square into “Rockefeller Center South.” (I called it “Albert Speer Plaza”; I still look back fondly on the hearings and demonstrations that kept it from being built.) The worst of the new buildings are mediocre, not monstrous, and they are oriented toward the street system, rather than being—like the Astor and Marriott buildings—blows against it. When I think of the appalling big buildings constructed in my lifetime, the mediocrity of “The New Times Square” looks like progress. Some of the new lines and planes are surprisingly graceful and delicate. The Condé Nast building and the Westin Hotel were designed to look dynamic and original from the angles at which they are most often seen, but utterly pedestrian from everywhere else. In the daytime, the sunlight reflects in striking ways off the skyscrapers’ glass, and the total ensemble looks more exciting than we had any reason to expect.

On any given day, there are people in many differently colored uniforms—New York Sanitation Department, Urban Development Corporation, Business Improvement District, and more. There are people in assorted law enforcement uniforms—the New York Police Department; the Department of Environmental Affairs; the U.S. Military Police; the “Hercules Units,” city cops with machine guns and light body armor; and a wide variety of street, building, and corporate security guards—working to guard the Square’s cleanliness and order. I am often sick of these uniforms and feel flooded out and menaced by them. But I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t find any uniforms at all. One twilight evening on the deuce in April 1980, I saw a man crack another man’s skull, with a club that looked like a prop from The Flintstones. The victim went down and spurted blood all over the street, from which everyone instantly disappeared. I yelled, “HELP!” and found myself totally alone. I couldn’t find a cop, no one in any nearby shop would let me call one, and the guy just kept bleeding. By and by the manager of one of the pornographic cinemas came out with his walkie-talkie (this was long before cell phones), and in a minute an ambulance came and took the man away. I don’t think he ever stopped bleeding, but if they keep your head uncovered it means you’re still alive, right? I’ll take the uniforms, thanks, so long as they keep people on the street alive.

Thanks to progress in computer graphics, the best of the new signs and the total ensemble of signs are more exciting than ever. The sign that attracted the most attention in the late 1990s was the electronic turret of the NASDAQ sign, on the north façade of the Condé Nast building. At first that sign was a museum of kinetic art, with an amazing variety of forms, colors, textures, and patterns of motion. Children of the 1960s loved it: it could wash over you, you could get high. But once NASDAQ’s book value plunged, its romantic graphics abruptly disappeared. As the Clinton boom became a memory, the sign decayed into a clunky, overgrown bulletin board, its adventurous graphics loved and mourned mainly by people who had little love for its market values.

Its eclipse drew attention to another capitalist beacon whose design made it less dependent on history’s ups and downs: the giant Morgan Stanley sign at the Square’s northwest corner, enveloping the company’s headquarters at 1585 Broadway. James Traub describes it as a spectacle of pure numbers in perpetual motion: “three bands of stock information,” prices on the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, and the Dow, “running across the façade at different speeds, [flanked by] forty-foot-high cylindrical maps, showing the time zones of Morgan Stanley offices across the world.”

Traub says it “makes essential statements about the company: that it traffics in information, not just in money; that it is a central switching device in the global economy; that it is in the moment; and that it is . . . a branding device both for Morgan Stanley and for Times Square.” Tama Starr, whose company built it, points out its curved corners, “an optical illusion designed to give the feeling that the information was coming out of the building, going across the front, and then going back into the building to be reprocessed, as if it were a manufacturing process.” It will keep on flowing whether times are good or bad, a classic rather than romantic spectacle, immune to time’s booms and busts. Traub savors the irony that so many of Morgan Stanley’s executives apparently did not want to be in New York in the first place, did not want to locate in a prominent part of the city, and did not want to have a spectacular sign. The company triumphed in spite of itself. Ironically, its built-in optical illusions will enhance its capacity to tell us the truth—but also its capacity to mislead us.

The most romantic new sign in the recent Square was the half-scale model of the Concorde, the British-French Airways jetliner, installed on top of the Times Square Brewery, right at the Square’s core, in 1996. The Concorde was one of the most glorious forms ever created by modern design, looking at it was always a thrill, and in the Square it was a perfect fit. It was mounted on top of one of the Square’s few surviving low buildings, and we knew it was only a matter of time before the model was evicted for some new skyscraper. What no one imagined was that the world tourist industry was even more volatile than the New York real estate industry, and that even before Boston Properties had a chance to pull the model from the roof, a close-to-bankrupt British Airways would pull the thing itself, the Concorde, from the sky. Did I say, “All that is solid melts into air”?

One more striking case of this process is the fate of the electronic “zipper” that transmits breaking news. The Square’s original zipper flashed fresh news across the triangular structure of the old Times Tower: it made breaking news part of the building. The zipper immediately became an integral part of the experience of being here: you would stop, read, and reflect. (“Meanwhile. . .”) It was a terrific ad for the Times, telling us that even in the midst of the Square’s carnival phantasmagoria, we could trust the paper to keep us in touch with what was going on in the real world. Its electronic power suggested not that newspapers were being superseded by “new media,” but that this paper was resourceful enough to do whatever it would take to keep the public in touch. That zipper was one of the highlights of the “paper America,” the America that existed to be written about, that Jack Kerouac celebrated in On the Road. The Times’s abandonment of its primal zipper is a parable of its betrayal of the Square as a human space. The zipper still zips, its century-old technology classically cheap and adequate. But the program, now sponsored by Dow Jones, consists mainly of stock quotations and sports scores. This sign works wonderfully as a travesty of what it was. For people old enough to remember, it is a lightning rod for rage.

In the void the Times left a generation ago, electronic media have finally begun to stake claims. ABC now produces Good Morning America live in the office tower at 1500 Broadway, between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. Late in the 1990s, it created a news zipper of its own, running along the building’s marquee. The most striking thing about the marquee is that, against a background of angular forms and voids, it is daringly, romantically curved. People with point-and-shoot cameras love to be shot, and to shoot each other, against the background of this curve. Its shape suggests a rollercoaster stood on its side; it evokes and strengthens the Square’s perennial claim to be carnivalesque. There is a giant video screen just above the curved marquee, designed to illustrate the news events the zipper describes. ABC’s texts and images alike run to the shallow and the horrific: debris after bombs, blood saturating streets in neon red. The rollercoaster structure of its sign suggests a world full of startling leaps and plunges, but one that can finally be contained, so that everything comes back to where it started, and a life full of dread can still be a carnival.

One of the first groups of people to fit itself comfortably into the new Times Square has been teenagers. They are all over the place, but their biggest crowds are on the sidewalk in front of (really underneath) the MTV production studio, on the west side of Broadway between Forty-Fourth and Forty-Fifth. The biggest continuing draw is a program called TRL, Total Request Live, broadcast weekdays at 5 p.m. The format is that “scouts” come down from above, survey the crowd on the street, and choose a few to “go upstairs,” where they can become a small part of the day’s action; if they look great or sound great, somebody somewhere, besides their parents and friends, will know. MTV’s production values fuse sexual display, salesmanship (or rather salespersonship), and spectacle, in a way that harmonizes with some of the Square’s oldest traditions.

Those kids could be auditioning for the primeval 42nd Street or A Chorus Line. Any one of them could be the Times Girl or the Jazz Singer of tomorrow. Many adults are scornful, and would like to throw it all out. But they will need a pretty big garbage bag, marked “popular culture” or “American dreams” or “city life.” Some adults are sure they can live without all that jazz. Others will have second thoughts, which is what adults are supposed to have.

Hardly any of those kids will get on the air, except as part of the crowd, which seems to mean a lot to quite a few. Some of them, if they hang out long enough, may make it as extras into one of the Condé Nast magazines produced here: Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Self, Allure. Because these publications are centralized in the Square, they have all been drawn to exploit what ad people call “the backyard.” You can’t keep MTV on for long without seeing a dramatic perspective of “the outside,” and MTV’s outside is Times Square. The planners who imagined the new Square as a center for media production, not just for consumption and display, were on to something real. The reality of production in the Square generates not only many new jobs, but a distinctive vitality and allure. This has been so ever since the coming of the New York Times a century ago.

One of the virtues of today’s spectacle is its capacity not only to contain but to nourish protests against it. In 2001, the New York Times ran a story by Neil Strauss about a one-man protest against MTV, in the name of Tupac Shakur, a rapper who had been murdered young:
“Adam Gassman, a 14-year-old from Queens, stood amid a gaggle of teenybopper girls outside MTV’s Times Square studios, as he does almost every day after school. While the schoolgirls begged producers to let them into the studios for the day’s taping of “Total Request Live,” Adam looked on dour-faced. In his hand was a large white sign with two words sloppily scrawled in thin black marker: TUPAC LIVES.”

This story is more complex than it looks. Gassman sounds like a great kid: the capacity of a 14-year-old to create a one-man demonstration intelligible to the Times four years ago is impressive; what is he creating today? But it may be premature for the Times to embrace his picture of reality, a reality divided into “a gaggle of teenybopper girls” who crowd the pavement, wave to the people in the studio upstairs, and are dying to be invited in to expose themselves, versus a solitary, honest avant-garde guy who stands alone, scrawls sloppily, and wouldn’t go inside if MTV paid him to. The Times is snide about those girls; but isn’t it a little early to write off kids who often haven’t even reached high school? And isn’t that bright boy part of their generation? Doesn’t he, like every avant-garde in history, share their desire for exposure and publicity? Maybe, too, considering the line of fire where he has placed himself, he even wants to meet girls? For boys and girls together, looking for publicity or for each other, the new Times Square looks like the place to be.

As for Tupac, his early death was heartrending. His murder in 1998 is still unsolved. But are we supposed to think of him as more heroic or more authentic because he’s dead? That was how people talked about James Dean and about Charlie Parker (they scrawled BIRD LIVES in the subway) when I was fourteen. Pac’s rapping was intense and powerful, so was his movie acting (see Juice), but he was flamboyantly theatrical, expert in creating spectacle, and deeply dependent on MTV, which has kept him in heavy rotation long after his death, and put him in platinum from beyond the grave. Neil Strauss might have learned this from that “gaggle of teenybopper girls,” if he had bothered to talk to them. If he had, it could have helped him confirm his story’s idea: Don’t mourn the new Times Square; its blend of toys, electronics, T-shirts, groupies, demonstrators, spectators, and reporters is developing into a fruitful place, a place where “the kids are all right.”

Epilogue: Reuters and MeI was standing in front of the Reuters building in June 2004 doing something I’ve done often through the past couple of years: sketching and taking notes on the people and the signs. As I noted the details of a LET THE NEW AGE BEGIN sign, I was disturbed by a man wearing a plastic vest marked SECURITY, a black man around forty years old, who told me I was not allowed to stand in front of the building. What? I saw three white men standing in front of the building, all large, middle-aged men in brown suits talking on cell phones. I asked, whether they, too, were forbidden to stand in front of the building? The guard shrugged and looked at me sadly: why was I making his job hard? I said I was writing a book on Times Square, and taking notes on what was there; where was I supposed to do it if not here, at the Square’s core? He clearly wasn’t prepared for encounters like this. First, he suggested “in the street.” As we observed the midday traffic rush by, he seemed to abandon that idea. He pointed to what looked like a pillar used by construction men, and said I could stand against or behind it; I replied that there I wouldn’t be able to see the things whose presence I was trying to record. Again he shrugged: look, he had his orders; if I didn’t leave, I would be “forcibly removed.”

Now I was really mad. Did Reuters think it owned the street? It sounded like it did. Was I making too big a deal of this? Maybe it was just a slow day, and the guard, a lower-level employee, felt that in order to keep his job, he had to convince his superiors he could handle strangers like me—an old fat man with a beard, in a T-shirt and shorts, with a red notebook. Maybe it was the “Alice’s Restaurant” syndrome in action, where lots of crime-fighting capability meets little crime, and cops get itchy. Or maybe Michael Moore has changed the ball game, so that wherever security forces meet, Fat Men Spell Danger?

In any case, this guard wasn’t on routine patrol: he had come out of the building specifically to accost me; he had a cell phone attached to his belt, and he had clearly been talking to somebody. This situation oozed irony. On one hand, Reuters, the British news service, is probably the freest in the world, offering a picture of reality that is more incisive and generally accurate than any of its American competitors. (It carried an excellent series on the anti-GOP mass demonstration that took place just a few blocks away from this building, on August 29, 2004.) On another hand, here it was acting just like the many despotic regimes it covers so well around the world, regimes to which the British feel so superior, regimes that deny that their people are a public and deny that their city streets are public space. New York City had offered immense tax breaks to Disney, to Virgin, to MTV, and at last to Reuters, in the context of what Lynn Sagalyn calls “a dramatic shift in values, from corporate business to popular culture.” But so much of our popular culture today is organized by media conglomerates, which are just as suspicious and hostile to people as steel conglomerates, liquor conglomerates, cereal conglomerates, auto conglomerates! Some of their products are thrilling and humanly liberating. The fact that they depend on our fantasies and dreams for their money has not done much to bring them and us humanly closer.

I felt terrible, and I still feel terrible, that I just let it be. What kind of citizen was I? I should have stayed on the spot in protest, forced a confrontation, got arrested—I wonder what would it have been for, for “loitering”? “disorderly conduct”? “disturbing the peace”? I might have had an unpleasant night, but I would have spoken up in court for the freedom of the city; my wife would have called people we know in the press, and some of them would have seen something alarming enough to print. But it was my son Danny’s tenth birthday. In fact, I was also in the Square that day to buy him gifts: an Eminem CD, an MTV Times Square T-shirt. His long-planned party was going to start in an hour uptown. There was no way on earth I could explain not being there to him: not yet. I moved on—the guard said, “Thanks”—and I got on the subway and headed back home. If I were a serious citizen, as I like to think I am, I would protest another day. The Reuters Building has a castlelike bulk and heft, so I could be sure there would be plenty of days.

What has made Times Square special for a century is that, to a remarkable extent, it really did belong to everybody. It enveloped the whole world in its spectacle of bright lights; it gave everybody a thrill; it was a trip where the whole world could cruise. The old spectacles are gone, but the people on the street look like they have the life and energy to create new ones—including big or small demonstrations (“TUPAC LIVES”) that things are wrong. But the people look great, the lights look great; so I let it be, until the day one of these global corporations touched me, and told me I wasn’t allowed to stand on the street on Forty-Second Street and Broadway.

Where did these guys get the idea that they own the street? How many more of the Square’s new corporate giants share this belief? And how did they get it? When Disney arrived on the deuce in the middle of the 1990s, some people said it was turning Times Square into one of its private theme parks. I and many other people said this was silly, because on the sidewalks of New York, unlike inside Disneyland (and all other theme parks), they didn’t control the space. But maybe somebody in city government gave the big boys a signal, or at least a hint, not to worry. Could it have been Rudolph Giuliani, who was so proud to be photographed signing the documents that brought them in? No, this sounds too conspiratorial. More likely, it was a misunderstanding. World-class conglomerates take it for granted that their plus-size bottom lines entitle them to control the space around them. When they signed in, nobody wanted to complicate the party by explaining that New York’s everyday life depends on the simple but complex practice of sharing space. Will our city government explain it now? Will it be posted on the zipper, or on the Morgan Stanley sign? I’d hate to wait for that post. Most likely, people who care about our streets and our spaces and our city will have to make signs and make noise and find ways to post it ourselves.

As I close, there are two big ideas to sign. The first big idea, which goes back to the start of the Enlightenment, is that the right to the city is a basic human right. The second, flowing from the first, is the right to be part of the city spectacle. This spectacle is as old, and as modern, as the city itself. Most forms of city spectacle are designed at once to give their spectators a thrill and to reduce them to docility. This was true for the Roman circuses lamented by the poet Juvenal in the first century and for the Nuremberg Rallies that typified the horrors of the twentieth. Must it happen here? Times Square, all through its “one hundred years of spectacle,” has always been a place that wakes people up and makes them feel alive, more alive than they are supposed to be. It presents the modern city at its most expansive and intense. It gives people ideas, new ideas about how to look and how to move, ideas about being free and being oneself and being with each other. I have been telling stories about how the Square has enticed and inspired all sorts of men and women to step out of line, to engage actively with the city, merge their subjectivity into it, and change the place as they change themselves. Sometimes this has crushed the self (Edward Hurstwood’s “I’ll quit this”), but sometimes it has brought joy and creative triumph (The Jazz Singer’s “my name in electric lights”). There are other stories I could have told, and still others I can’t tell; there are whole generations of stories waiting to be lived. If people want a chance to live them, they must get a foothold on the street. If they want to be here now, they can’t be made to move on. The squarest and soberest people who love Times Square today may have to do what those Marx Brothers of Rap, the Beastie Boys, told their MTV audience they would have to do in 1986: “You gotta fight for your right to party.” Whatever this fight consists of, it may be the only way we can translate the Enlightenment idea of “the right to the city” into twenty-first century Times Square.


Marshall Berman, author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, teaches at the City College of New York and the City University of New York. His new book, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, from which this essay is excerpted and adapted by permission, will be published by Random House in February 2006.