PRINT January 1990


the New Times Square

IF ONE THING CHARACTERIZES the city of New York, it is the bravado with which everything is shamelessly laid out on the table. New York is the city of showing, from the Bigger-Is-Better mentality of skyscrapers, to the competitive gallery scene, to street life and outrageous fashions, up-front sexuality, big spending, and Madison Avenue exhibitionism. Penultimate in this culture of display is Times Square, landmark of crime and capital, the seamy and the splendid, where a mass of social contradictions are by turn glorified and dismantled. The entertainment and tourist district of New York, Times Square is simultaneously the site of Broadway musical theater, porn palaces, art, news, and neon signs from around the world, all branded into American collective consciousness every New Year’s Eve. Times Square is that dangerously tempting, sleazy, corrupt, surprising, disgusting, delightful locus of “inner city” id.

And, one might add, an obvious gold mine for developers who have been watchdogging the high-blown expansion of Midtown along Broadway for nearly a decade. These developers are now determined to remake Times Square in the 42nd Street development mega-project, a multimillion-dollar enterprise consisting of four gargantuan towers scantily clad in “deconstructivist-style” facades for commercial theater and luxury office use. And of course the developers provide a moral agenda that nicely masks their profit motive: they will “clean up” Times Square by shooing out the sleaze so many Americans have come to know and love to hate in their favorite TV fantasies. Well, who could complain?

Who, indeed. The scheme will physically alter midtown Manhattan from Times Square and west, through Hell’s Kitchen to the waterfront, raising property values and dramatically shifting the composition and texture of immediate and surrounding neighborhoods from dense to ultradense, from moderate and low-income to luxury and ultraluxury (a doubling of the allowable square-footage ratio from 18 to 36). But it is not only the scale of profitable use that makes this project an urban and political hazard. The Times Square project is particularly significant as it brings into sharp focus the nature of “development” as it is being defined by entrepreneurs and city bureaucrats. Sensitive design and social development could only improve Times Square, but as in many “revitalization” projects of this type, we are being sold the usual bill of goods that we have only two options: porn, drugs, poverty, prostitution, etc., or the kind of luxury expansion that will attract upscale commercial enterprise to a surefire homogeneous domain. Implicit in this moral program is the assumption that the surrounding ethnically mixed and lower-income neighborhood cannot generate the capital necessary for improvement; moreover that the homeless, nonrich, and nonwhite like it this way!

While developers aspire to the renaissance of Times Square as that Happy-Days-Are-Here-Again place where we all remember our boys returning from war, we find ourselves tuning into the nostalgic dreamland of reactionary nationalism. We know from experience that projects like the New Times Square displace urban peoples and reintroduce their histories as superficial commercial styles to be bought and sold. And for whose memory? Meanwhile, the area is deindustrialized as this high-tech entertainment “Utopia” overshadows and even subsumes smaller theaters and arts organizations. As more and more areas of all major cities are given over to projects that dominate space, separate class from class, and celebrate sentimentalizing, historicist narratives, we are forced to ask some basic questions, for instance, how much capitalist centralization and spatialization can the forms of life in any city withstand?

Recently, a number of economists and planners have proposed a term for major urban centers whose economic infrastructure and social class composition have been transformed over the past decade: world cities or global cities. These include New York, London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, all of which are experiencing the rapid aggregate growth of industries providing services necessary to a transnational economy—banking, finance, telecommunications, control services, real estate, and insurance—and the loss of blue- and white-collar jobs in light manufacturing. These global industries generate on extreme split between high-end management and a low-end service economy, which is in turn reflected in the spatial organization of the city itself.

Behind this reorganization is the propelling force of private-developer marketeering, instrumental in persuading “the public” of the value of such mop-up jobs as the New Times Square. For who will benefit from the 42nd Street Entertainment Corporation’s projected profits? Granted, new jobs will be created in this drive for a depoliticized world of fun and comfort, partially justifying the enormous public expenditure and tax increases. But they are jobs created primarily within informal economies to serve the high-income tenants of the revamped neighborhood; the project will not fundamentally redress the ailing industrial and social economy of New York City. In fact, the optimism behind developer projections is based on speculation, not on any realistic assessment of the area’s needs. But then, this was never the point.

And perhaps it is naive to be shocked by the destruction of landmarks in the decade of junk bonds, but it is still frightening that planners, financiers, and designers can so nonchalantly project the “future” of a place while doing away with its past. Developers smugly shrug their shoulders in response to efforts to preserve and protect old and beautiful theaters like the recently demolished Helen Hayes. In post-Spielbergian culture, after all, mass-media entertainment outdoes live art any day. And architecture, too, can succumb to the vulgarity of Philip Johnson’s tackily coined New Modernism (for what is new is apparently wonderful).

New Yorkers have not ceded to the plan without a tremendous fight. Public interests have battled the Times Square megaproject for more than half a decade, generating a varied critical discourse, not least of which questions the removal of two lively centers of artistic and socioeconomic activity, the theater and fabric districts. Meanwhile, city government and developer’s concerns seem focused on a host of trivial pursuits, lodged in assumptions that a mythologized class of upscale inhabitants are somehow morally superior, that planned use “cures,” and that ultimately profit has the last word on our futures. So, despite all critical opposition, it looks as though Times Square will be rearranged, making way for new urban, historical, and social permutations in the built environment. In spite of appearances, New York is not simply a showcase, but it is fast becoming pure commodity spectacle. Hey Daddy Warbucks, where will the ball drop next?

Molly Hankwitz is an architect and writes regularly for Artforum.