It should be a property owner’s dream. Thirteen acres in the heart of America’s largest city, bordered by two of its most prominent streets, Broadway and 42nd Street. Famous shopping and tourist attractions are all within walking distance. Broadway theaters, Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden. Major transportation hubs like the Port Authority bus terminal and the New York City Subway lines move people in and out all day and night. Pedestrian foot traffic is in the millions. It’s an unparalleled opportunity for gainful use of property: a dream come true.
Instead, it is a nightmare. Thirteen of the nastiest acres in the Rotten Apple, with most of the buildings on 41st and 42nd Street boarded up and padlocked between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Of the handful of stores still open, the overwhelming majority are selling pornography. At all hours of the day and night, lunatics and vagrants belligerently panhandle for money, drink cheap liquor, and urinate openly in the street. Crack cocaine is hawked to passersby. And here’s the crowning insult: some of the padlocked storefronts have been given over to “artists,” like the infamous Karen Finley, who have added their own “works” regarding—what else preoccupies the intelligentsia these days?—sex, sodomy, and AIDS. Thus, shuttered theaters nevertheless have “messages” on their marquees, such as “Deviants Are Sacrificed to Increase Group Solidarity,” “Raise Boys and Girls the Same Way,” and “Murder Has Its Sexual Side.”
What calamity gave rise to this wasteland? A force more powerful and destructive to property owners than hurricanes, earthquakes, or war: the government. In this case, it was the State of New York’s Urban Development Corporation (the “UDC”), and the havoc was wrought through its 42nd Street Redevelopment Project.
Like virtually all meddlesome and ill-fated government plans, the project was conceived with the best of intentions. The southern end of Times Square has reflected the baser aspects of society’s ills since the I950’s, when the first proposals for government action were made. As with earlier proposals, the project sought to drive out the petty pornography shops and close down the movie theaters that predominantly showed X-rated features and “action” movies. Those movie screens were located in beautiful old theaters that had once been among the most prominent on Broadway, and the UDC wanted them put back to their original use. Only a government agency could fail to see that, when it comes to artistic merit, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon are first cousins. The project contemplated the construction of mammoth skyscrapers, adding over four million square feet of office space. A new hotel with over 500 rooms was planned, along with a 20-story, 2.4 million- square-foot “Wholesale Mart” for computers and apparel. Improvements would be made to the abysmal Times Square subway stations, which interlock in a confusing and dangerous labyrinth for blocks on end. Seasoned New Yorkers learn to ignore or decipher the old signs that still direct the unwary to the BMT, the IRT, and the IND—the names of the independently owned lines that preceded the current unified system some 55 years ago. A wrong turn down a passageway at the wrong hour can lead to a dead end and a young man with a gun seeking to relieve you of your wallet.
Throughout the 1980’s, those 13 acres of Times Square were not dominated by padlocks and shutters. The storefronts were all in use, though admittedly not all the stores were suitable for children and discerning adults. Then, as now, shops selling pornography and sexual paraphernalia were prominent, well-lighted, and open for business. The difference is that so were other businesses. There were delicatessens and takeout stores, and some of their signs can still be seen over the boarded-up doorways: Bill’s Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Palasan Grocery, Papaya World, and Fiorentino the King of Pizza. There was Maniak Shak Electronics, One-Hour Framing Shop, Forsythe Books, Western Grocery & Deli, even Readings by Ann, a fortuneteller. The old Broadway theaters that had been converted to movie houses—the Lyric, the Apollo, the Times Square, plus others—predominantly showed pornography and action films, but they also showed the most recent mainstream Hollywood films. There were businesses, some involved in the garment industry, where people came to work every day. Times Square was loud, busy, smutty, seedy, crowded, exciting, even dangerous and in need of more cops walking the beat—but it was not boarded up.
Then came the government. With the righteous fervor common to 19th century missionaries and 20th-century social workers, the project was hatched. In 1984 public hearings were held, giving rise to one of those surreal moments that really happen only in New York: Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Ed Koch, and New York gossip column swells like designer Diane Von Furstenberg and actor Anthony Quinn taking turns at the microphone politicking for the project. Governor Cuomo gave a speech that would have made Lenin proud, quoting from the 1939 W.P.A. Guide to New York and extolling government progress. He predicted that within seven years, the project would “restore Times Square, rejuvenating its physical surroundings, redeeming its soul.” Maybe Mario should have left predicting the future to Readings by Ann. And Miss Von Furstenberg, whose expertise was heretofore believed to be limited to pleats and the resiliency of taffeta, waxed eloquent on massive government planning with the maxim “beauty is what beauty does.” All Times Square ever really needed was a facial and a good make-over.
In August 1984, the two-volume, 1,100-page Final Environmental Impact Statement was issued, prompting a slew of lawsuits. Still, the project rolled on through the 1980’s, although it started picking up a little dirt along the way. There were allegations of improper influence through campaign contributions, sweetheart deals for insiders, and a payoff by a developer to a city official. The payoff charges prompted state and federal criminal investigators to shout, “Oh my ears and whiskers, you mean there’s been illegal activity at a New York City construction project?” But after some halfhearted investigations, things calmed down and the public’s fancy turned to other scandals. Everything seemed normal in the curious wonderland of massive government urban re- development projects, and finally the government was ready to take the property.
Of course, the government couldn’t just take private property without paying for it—the next century’s clever legal minds will have to figure out how to accomplish that feat. Property was condemned and property owners were entitled to “just compensation” for their land, so the issue naturally came up as to what exactly was “just.” Enter the we don’t work for free (unless its “mandatory pro bono,” but that’s a property and liberty interest tale for another day). After more heavy litigation, a court order of condemnation was issued in April 1990, and the UDC was the proud owner of 13 acres of prime real estate. Property owners wound up being paid a percentage of what they believed was fair for their property; and many are still fighting over the inadequacy of the compensation today.
So, one might ask, if the UDC took the land, what happened to the project? Why are there now padlocks and ply- wood instead of shiny new office buildings, a gleaming and safe subway station, and a smashing revival of L’il Abner at the Lyric starring Marla Maples and Fabio? Good question, and the answer, in a word, is the one thing the government tries so hard to control but ultimately cannot: economics. The massive office towers were going to be built by two private entities, the giant Prudential Insurance Company of America and Park Tower Realty Corporation. To simplify the end game but nevertheless characterize it fairly, Prudential and Park ‘rower Realty finally told the UDC: “If you think we’re going to build 4 million square feet of office space in these economic times and in this city, when every corporation is packing up and moving to Georgia or New Jersey, you people are crazier than those people on the street we are supposed to drive out.” The UDC, despite having a contractual right to force them to build the towers or forfeit $250 million, looked Prudential and Park Tower Realty in the eye—and blinked.
In September 1993, the UDC and the city proudly unveiled new and improved modifications to the much-modified project. The New York Times reported the announcement with one of its incomprehensible headlines, “Choreographing Times Square Into the 21st Century,” as if the UDC were going to organize the street bums into a kick-line. Governor Cuomo was still making wild predictions, years after driving Readings by Ann out of business: “All that blight, all that obscenity, is going to be gone.” Instead of building those huge skyscrapers, the governor continued, “We’re going to recreate the old Times Square, trying to keep that slightly eccentric magnificently artful excitement and thrilling variety of the old Times Square.” In other words, keep it as it was around 1980 or so, before—well, you get the idea.
So now the UDC is trying to rent those 13 acres of prime real estate it owns, and is looking for small businesses that need storefronts and street access. The ideal small businesses for the UDC are delicatessens, grocery marts, pizza joints, hot dog stands, electronics stores . . . Hey, does anyone know where the UDC can reach Fiorentino the King of Pizza? But before trying to track down Tad and his steaks and Bill and his gyros, the UDC and the city had to do something with those 13 empty acres in the middle of Manhattan. They gave it to a group of artists.
Let’s take a walk down the Great White Way on a crisp October day in 1993 and see what’s on the street. First there are the marquee signs: “A Lot of Professionals Are Crackpots,” “Boredom Makes You Do Crazy Things,” “You Are Trapped on the Earth So You Will Explode,” “People Who Don’t Work With Their Hands Are Parasites,” “Slipping Into Madness Is Good For the Sake of Comparison.” Hmm, just the right messages for that psycho urinating through the chain-link fence over there—I sure hope he took his medication at the clinic this morning. There’s the Victory Theater’s facade on the north side of the street, which has been turned into something called “Victory Parade.” It feature a large color photograph of two naked, black homosexuals embracing, and next to the picture is a quote from Alice Walker about how this gay love “cannot be limited, cannot be controlled.” There is also a red neon sign that says “Our First And Last Love Is Self Love.” The man responsible for “Victory Parade” told the Times he wanted to project his views “into a public space and let the public deal with it.”
Nearby is a former store with a large new sign that reads “American She Male.” It is a faux store that specializes in condoms, with male mannequins dressed in female clothes made out of, well, condoms. A sign says, “Make a Statement, Wear Condoms.” Other slogans in the window are “All the Fashion to Come Between You & Your Calvins,” “Use Our Lay Away Plan,” “Be Chic, Wear the Sheath,” and “We Have Jimmy Hats, Sheath Dresses, Raincoats, Cover Alls, Rubbers, Slickers, Mini Maxi Fashions.” Boy, I sure am glad they’ve cut out the sex on this street and made it a place to stroll with the family again.
Walking on, the former police department substation on the square between Broadway and 7th Avenue has been boarded over with a huge yellow sign that says “EVERYBODY” on it. Colored chairs are screwed to the sign, a few feet off the sidewalk. Vagrants sit in the chairs and drink. It is nine o’clock in the morning.
Crossing south, Papaya World exists no longer on the corner of 42nd and Seventh. Here we find the work of the notorious Karen Finley, a “performance artist” known for her shrill, repetitive speechmaking and the startling physical activities that accompany her monologues, hi one of Miss Finley’s infamous little skits, she used to cover herself with chocolate syrup and place yams—there is no polite way to express it—in her posterior orifices. Artists have always been a little nuts, but given Miss Finley’s attraction to starchy tuberous roots, I’d rather have Van Gogh cut my hair than let Finley in my kitchen. Here on Times Square, Miss Finley has given us something called “Positive Attitude,” which features large colorful drawings of a naked man, woman, and child, arms akimbo and bodies covered with reddish and purple skin blemishes. There is poetry, of a sort, that says in part, “I tell myself I am visited with raspberries,” “I am a polka-dotted little pony,” “Lollipops of cherry and grape adorn me,” and “I am a speckled wild cat with a coat of rare beauty.” Then a little orange placard fills us in: this piece is about Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare and fatal form of cancer that is common among people with AIDS. It causes one to break out in red and purple lesions.
It is true that the UDC and its 42nd Street Redevelopment Project are not wholly responsible for the entropy of Times Square. Successive city administrations have sucked tax dollars to maintain their own bloated bureaucracies, attacked property rights through rent controls and excessive economic regulation, and shirked their law enforcement duties by allowing vagrancy and petty crime to become the norm. An activist, imperious judiciary has enshrined what was once socially unacceptable behavior into “rights,” and has cut away historical property rights in the name of the public weal. Credit also a faithless and perverse elite who have found it chic to reject and injure the very social structure that has fostered their freedoms and their affluence. And finally, the most important contributor has been the lethargic and indolent public, rich beyond comparison with any other peoples of any other era, whose precious birthright of civil and economic liberties is being sold off piece by piece in return for the thin lentil soup of collectivist promises, class envy, and unprincipled sentimentality. When future historians and archaeologists pick through the ruins of what was once the greatest city in the world and contemplate its spectacular decline, those 13 acres in the heart of Manhattan will be a very good place to start looking for answers.