Friday, October 26, 2012

Times Square: A Lament

One Times Square, with Times Square Tower
(2004) in background (2010, photo by author)
One Times Square, 1904
Times Square is, for many, the defining image of New York City. "The Crossroads of the World," as the official Times Square website calls it, is the mega center of the city's famed theater district. Chock full of crowds and stores, ringed with ostentatious modern glass towers, and illuminated by enough wattage to justify its moniker, "The Great White Way," Times Square is London's Piccadilly Circus on steroids. And what American hasn't brought in the New Year by watching the Waterford crystal ball drop down the flagpole of One Times Square?

To me, however, perhaps not surprisingly, Times Square's sheer gaudiness fairly reeks of the sort of tawdriness that too often marks our American culture, the kind where commercial style overwhelms all semblance of cultural substance. When the New York Times erected their new headquarters building in 1904 on the site of what was formerly called Longacre square, it was the second tallest building in the city (behind only the still extant Park Row Building downtown on the flanks of City Hall Park). Before long, a subway line was extended to the area and the first electrified advertisement appeared on a building at the corner of 46th and Broadway. 

The Paramount Building in 2006. The clock and globe
at the top were once illuminated (photo by author)
Times Square, 1965 (photo
When, in 1927, the glorious Art Deco Paramount building was constructed, and in 1928, the first electric news ticker was installed at the base of the Times Tower to announce Herbert Hoover's victory in that year's presidential contest, Times Square had already established its preeminent position as a cultural crossroads. But the Great Depression and the decline that marked all of America's great cities in the middle of the 20th century took their inevitable toll on the Square. Indeed, the Times Square as I remember it from my youth had deteriorated to the level of the squalid collection of flea bag hotels and sex-themed "entertainment" venues depicted in Martin Scorsese's classic 1976 film, "Taxi Driver." The Square retained its squalid reputation until the 1990s, when it was cleaned up and transformed to what, for all practical purposes, has become a Disneyfied theme park plopped down in the heart of America's largest city. To be sure, the enhanced safety and more family-friendly atmosphere that now characterizes Times Square is a welcome development. But, I ask, at what cost? Could not the bright lights of the entertainment district have coincided with an approach that could have preserved some of the area's historic character?

Nothing, perhaps, signals the problems, as I see them, of Times Square more poignantly than the fate of One Times Square, formerly the Times Tower. As originally constructed, One Times Square bore more than a passing resemblance to Daniel Burnham's great Flatiron Building (1902) at 23rd, 5th, and Broadway. Both were built on triangular parcels caused by the imposition of the meandering Broadway on to Manhattan's street grid. And both were ornamented in classic Beaux-Arts style, lending a dignified ambiance to their distinctive wedge-like shapes.

Times Square, 1904. On the left is the Times Tower. To the right is the late,
lamented Astor Hotel with its exquisite mansard (photo

Times Square, 1919, showing crowds gathered to follow the World Series between the Cincinnati Reds
and Chicago "Black" Sox. In the rear to the left of the Times Tower is the old Knickerbocker Hotel (1906),
 still standing at the SE corner of 42nd, 7th, and Broadway (photo

One Times Square, 1960s
In a manner all too typical of the aesthetically-challenged 1950s-60s, the Times Tower was radically remodeled in 1961 after being sold to the Allied Chemical Company, who lent the building their name as they criminally stripped the facade of its limestone skin and terra cotta ornamentation. In its place they clad the building in an unornamented, marble and glass skin that remains to this day behind the massive advertising billboards that serve as its current public face, long after the building's associations with the company have faded into the mists of time. Looking at the building today, it is hard to imagine the beauty that once characterized it. And that, to me, is unimaginably sad.

What does this say about America and its culture? Nothing very complimentary, I'm afraid to say. I have nothing necessarily against advertising, even the type of garish electronica one sees today in Times Square. Nevertheless, I do abominate the desecration or destruction of beauty in the interests of such tawdriness. The preference of so many Americans of the cheap, shallow glitz of Times Square to the historic splendor of Soho or the city's unsurpassed cultural offerings likewise says plenty about the philistine character of the national aesthetic and intellectual consciousness. That is one thing I know for sure is not going to change.

I leave you with three pictures I took last week of the old Knickerbocker Hotel (now Six Times Square), one of the last unaltered survivors of the days of Times Square's original glory. The juxtaposition of its Beaux-Arts splendor with the banality of its tawdry modern neighbors causes me to shake my head in melancholy disbelief.

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