Beginning in 1899, a burst of construction on the mid-Manhattan block of West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue created the greatest concentration of theaters America had ever seen, giving birth to today’s Broadway theater district. When the New York Times built a slender twenty-five-story tower on an odd, triangular site formed by the convergence of 42nd Street, Broadway, and Seventh Avenue, the city named the square facing the tower Times Square, which quickly became New York’s gathering place for all important civic events.
In its heyday, 42nd Street was excessive, expensive, unpredictable, loud, fun, and, at times, dangerous. Forty-second Street’s Golden Age of entertainment ended by 1930 and the street quickly devolved from the nation’s first show business capital into its first retail porn center, becoming even more infamous for its squalor. Its denizens rechristened 42nd Street as “Forty Deuce” or simply “the Deuce.” This downward trend continued into recent decades, when 42nd Street was largely demolished and rebuilt in the largest urban renewal project in New York history, creating the Times Square of today — still known far and wide as the “Crossroads of the World.”#
Anthony Bianco’s Ghosts of 42nd Street is the dramatic and definitive story of this legendary strip. He joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a December, 2004 conversation about this neighborhood’s history, its impact on the city of New York, and America’s imagination of it as a culturally important thoroughfare.
“[Times Square is] the only New York possessing a thrill. It is the carnival supernal.”
– J. George Fredericks, author of Adventuring in New York, published in 1923
JJM You wrote, “Who does not know Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Wall Street, or Broadway? But 42nd Street in its heyday was the quintessence of the quintessential American metropolis — excessive, expensive, unpredictable, loud, fun, and a bit dangerous. No place in America has ever evoked the glamour and romantic possibilities of big-city nightlife as vividly as did 42nd Street in its Golden Age.” What was 42nd Street before Oscar Hammerstein opened the Olympia Theater in 1895?
AB It was a dusty center for the carriage and horse trade, on the edge of inhabited Manhattan. The history of Manhattan is that it was civilized, or occupied, by the southern tip and worked its way up. Oscar Hammerstein took a leap beyond the current northern boundary in his day, which was 40th Street — into what was then called Long Acre Square — an area that had nothing to do with entertainment until he got there; it was where people stabled their horses or bought carriages. It wasn’t lit, and at night it became a center of prostitution. This area was beyond respectability then, it was the frontier. Because Broadway ran through it, you could imagine how one day entertainment would extend into Long Acre, but it was Hammerstein and his audacity that pulled it off.
JJM Hammerstein became known as the “Father of 42nd Street.” How did he earn that title?
AB He built the Olympia on 44th and Broadway, and then, on the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, he built the Victoria. It was the second proper theater on 42nd Street, but the one that really established the street as a theatrical address. The Victoria actually didn’t last that long, but it had lots of really interesting incarnations, and it became the first great national center of vaudeville in America. Hammerstein built a second theater next to it, the Republic, which was a theater of a very different sort — a drawing room of drama. He then built two more theaters down the street. He built four theaters of the ten on 42nd Street at its theatrical peak.
JJM So he promoted a whole variety of shows within these theaters.
AB Yes, although his love was opera, and he himself was musically talented, he had a democratic notion of entertainment. Within one theater building, he had an ability to offer different forms of entertainment to appeal to different segments of society, and they were priced that way, especially when the roof of the Victoria was opened. Because his venues were priced for all classes and to all tastes, they established the basic character of 42nd Street as a place where everyone would go for excitement and entertainment.
JJM Yes, it was like a one-stop shopping center for entertainment at the time.
AB Its appeal was enhanced by the fact that so much was pushed together in essentially a block or two. It was really over-the-top night time glamour and excitement concentrated in a small area.
JJM It was written of Hammerstein that he was a modern day folk hero. How did he win over the New York audience?
AB He was an eccentric character, for real, and then he also played to his eccentricities; for example, he only dressed in formal evening wear at all times of day. He also really knew how to cultivate the press. Reporters liked him, and he was accessible to them. So, in his day, he was one of the most famous people in America and his every foible and exploit was duly recorded by the press. Although he was a product of high culture, he had a genuine connection with the little guy, and he spanned the gap between high and middlebrow cultue, which was especially hard in that era, when the gap was larger than it is now. He understood all segments and had something that appealed to all of them, and everybody read about him all the time.
JJM He had a streak of independence that seemed to appeal to the immigrants of the era who wanted to find success as well.
AB That’s right. He was an immigrant himself. While he was from a pretty affluent background in Germany, he had come to America with nothing. Since he then made a series of fortunes on his own, it’s easy to see why he had such appeal with those who were struggling and trying to imagine a better life. He epitomized that to a generation of immigrants.
JJM You wrote that he had “defiantly expensive booking policies” that assisted independent producers. Did his independence change the face of theater at all?
AB Hammerstein was the first major independent producer to stand up to the Theatrical Syndicate, which meant, in part, that he was paying entertainers more than the Syndicate would, and was also allowing them a latitude the Syndicate’s tightly controlled scheduling wouldn’t. He caved in for a bit, and backed off from his fight, but then came back at them. That certainly gave exposure to theatrical talent that might never have been able to get into the syndicate system, so it had a broadening, democratic effect on who was doing the entertaining. Hammerstein didn’t break the syndicate, though; it was the Schubert Brothers who did that. They also emerged on 42nd Street, and then acquired many theaters in New York and across the country. They took on the Syndicate head on and really bested them. But they coexisted on the street at the same time, and since Hammerstein and the Schuberts were friendly, they were sort of spiritual allies.
JJM Of Hammerstein’s downturn, you write, “Utterly broke, Oscar had to borrow $500 from son Arthur to buy food. The elder Hammerstein seemed to take a certain perverse pride in the totality of his ruin. Meeting a friend on Broadway, he offered him a cigar. ‘I have lost all my theaters, my home, and everything else,’ he said. ‘My fortune consists of two cigars. I will share it with you.'” What was the cause of his downfall?
AB I think that period you are quoting from is after the fall of the Olympia, which was a huge financial failure. He was overextended commercially.
JJM And he came back after that
AB Yes. That story is very much quoted about him, and it could be true. He wasn’t that interested in making money. Like many great promoters, he was more interested in the venture than the profit, and he had a compulsion to do things first class. So from time to time, he would get overextended financially and collapse. But he had so much drive, imagination and personal appeal that he could always pick himself back up and start over again.
JJM How did the emergence of the subway affect 42nd Street?
AB The subway expanded 42nd Street into a hub of entertainment for the whole city. The first subway stations opened in 1904, and one of the first important ones was at 42nd Street, Seventh Avenue and Broadway — the “crossroads of the world” intersection — which made this area accessible from distant parts of the city for the first time. It also created a tremendous amount of traffic through there, which is of course vital for a popular entertainment district.
JJM Why was the subway station on 42nd Street and not three blocks down, or four blocks up? In other words, how did it get to be there?
AB It was mainly determined by the street grid of Manhattan. The grid was laid out well before this time — I believe it was 1868 — and at intervals, there were double-wide streets. There is one on 42nd Street, then as you go toward downtown they are found on 34th, 23rd, and 14th Streets. These double-wide streets, of course, were bigger thoroughfares, so 42nd Street’s fate partly was decided by that mapping. The midtown nexus of the subway system was there, and just a few blocks to the east is Grand Central Station, which also had concentrated traffic. All this mass transportation brought many thousands of New Yorkers through the site every day.
JJM You write, “The Great White Way was steeped in sex from the outset, onstage and offstage — especially off.” How so?
AB The whole Times Square area was a center for prostitution. There is a long history of theater districts doubling as red light districts, and part of it has to do with the prevalence of aspiring young actresses who can’t get the work they want. This was certainly true of Times Square, which was home to hundreds of brothels in the early 1900s.
42nd Street really began to flourish at the turn of the century, and very quickly there was a parallel evolution of prostitution. There was this dovetailing of theatrical entertainment and prostitution — nightlife in all its forms. It was quite open and public in many ways. The most popular brothels had people lined up outside them on a Saturday night. It was tolerated because New York was a real open city for a while. The story of 42nd Street is a series of moral crackdowns led by the police and other independent reformers against open vice.
JJM The original concept Hammerstein and some of the other visionaries had for 42nd Street began to transition as the market changed. How successful was the assimilation of vaudeville into this area known for theater?
AB Vaudeville came on the heels of the legitimate theater and coexisted with it on 42nd Street for two decades. A huge theater boom occurred along the blocks going uptown from 42nd Street, especially on 44th. 42nd Street was really where the modern Broadway district started, and the street was pretty quickly filled by 1910, although there was some building later. Then, on 43rd, 44th, 45th and up, larger and more modern theaters by the dozen were built. So, in a technical way, the theaters on 42nd Street were pretty quickly outmoded and not very cost effective to operate compared with these other theaters, which did not have a third balcony and had better sight lines. After a time, then, the theater owners and impresarios of 42nd Street were stuck with outmoded theaters. Although it resulted in a lot of good entertainment, as a business strategy, being on 42nd Street fairly quickly became a disadvantage for theater producers.
JJM Some of the vaudevillians who performed on 42nd Street were the “who’s who” of entertainment then. W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Buster Keaton, Harry Houdini
AB Yes, and many of them also appeared directly across the street at the New Amsterdam in its heyday.
JJM Who were some of the freak acts that earned the Victoria the reputation as vaudeville’s great nut house?
AB The Cherry Sisters were three sisters from some parts distant, who thought they were pretty good singers but in actuality were absolutely awful. They were so awful, in fact, that people took a liking to them. Hammerstein booked them a number of times, and they succeeded, so theirs was entertainment that was so bad that it was good. Part of the ritual of appreciating a performance by the Cherry Sisters was throwing rotten fruit at them — which I believe started at the Victoria — and even then, according to Hammerstein, the performers didn’t get it. Of course, Hammerstein in his persuasive way encouraged his performers to believe that rotten fruit was a form of appreciation. The Cherry Sisters were kind of a freak category to themselves.
JJM Hammerstein also hired people who weren’t necessarily entertainers, but who gained notoriety through bizarre circumstances, criminal acts
AB Yes. The term “freak act “goes beyond the circus freaks. It included giants, malformed people of different sorts, as well as notorious people in the headlines — accused murderers, disgraced playboys, boxers, and famous athletes of all kinds would be included in the term “freak act.”
JJM Jack Johnson was in vaudeville and must have performed in these theaters.
AB At the ignominious end of his career, I believe he appeared at Huber’s, the dime museum down the street. So the term “freak act” was very broad, and it reflected Willie Hammerstein’s great feel for what we would today call “tabloid journalism.” Willie, who was Oscar’s son, was a great promoter in his own right. Willie had a talent for finding all the misfits and notorious headline grabbers of the day. Perhaps the ultimate one was Evelyn Nesbit, who was in a famous murder triangle with Harry Thaw, a playboy from Pittsburgh, and prominent New York architect Stanford White. Nesbit had a series of salacious incarnations on 42nd Street, and ended up at the Victoria. She was another person who fancied herself an entertainer, though she really couldn’t sing or dance — not that it mattered, because her notoriety was such that she packed the house just with her presence.
JJM Were people able to earn middle class incomes from this kind of work?
AB The stars did much better than middle class money, and even some of the rank and file strippers made a working class salary. Someone like Gypsy Rose Lee did considerably better than that in burlesque, which followed the vaudeville era.
JJM Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr’s biographer Charles Higham wrote of Ziegfeld, “His driving force was one of demonic sensuality and a passion for vivid artifice. From the very beginning his stage productions were direct expressions of his essentially primitive sexual character. He was at once witch doctor and organizer of tribal dances. The Follies were an astonishing demonstration of the mind of a man who sought to release his need for women in displays of adulation.” What would an audience see during a Follies performance?
AB The Follies entertainers were very diverse; there would be comics and singers and entertainers, but what they were famous for were large chorus groupings of beautiful, voluptuous women dressed in very flamboyant and creative ways, all moving in synchronized fashion. The Follies were great dramatic displays of female beauty and fashion, woven together at the highest level of theatrical artistry. They were spectacular in that way, and in between the chorus girls were comedians like W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and acts like that. It was a very diverse set of entertainments, but the stars of the show were the anonymous chorus girls en masse.
JJM It was a time for the “cult of the chorus girl.”
AB The cult went beyond the Follies and also predated it. Some years before the Follies started, Evelyn Nesbit had made her debut in a show called Floradora, which was sort of the founding of the “cult of the chorus girl.” During its performance, six chorus girls would come out and parade around on stage but say hardly anything. It created such a sensation that they packed them in every night.
JJM And this work provided attractive women with an opportunity to make it on Broadway even in that small way, although there was certainly a down side as well. In Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser wrote of them, “Girls that stand in line and look pretty are as numerous as laborers who can swing a pick.” So, while it was an opportunity, there must have been a lot of disappointment among the performers as well.
AB The fame of 42nd Street was featured all the time in national publications, so its allure reached deep into the heartland. Thousands of young women would come and try to make it on Broadway. There was one estimate at the time from the early twentieth century — I can’t be sure of how credible it is — that indicates there were ten thousand unemployed chorus girls in New York. That is an enormous number, and since there were nowhere near that many chorus girl jobs, many of them no doubt ended up as prostitutes. Broadway was a tremendously alluring attraction for young women, and also, of course, for admirers of young women.
JJM When was the first instance of on-stage nudity on 42nd Street?
AB I don’t know what the very first instance was, but there certainly was nudity in Oscar Hammerstein’s shows.
JJM Blatant nudity?
AB It would be done in what we would think of today as being tasteful, but it was actual nudity. The chorus girl shows that came later had quite a bit of nudity in them, but ironically, Ziegfeld set himself up as a moral reformer against nudity, although he had it in his own shows. There were others among his competitors who would take nudity farther, and it was really a sort of competitove reaction to Ziegfeld.
JJM What, if anything, were the politicians of the era doing about that?
AB There was a crackdown. Anti-vice reform groups involving church people, society people and others eventually organized a movement that cracked down pretty hard on nudity on the Broadway stage, and it did disappear.
JJM What era was this?
AB This is before the burlesque era, in the twenties, and even before then. There was a constant tension. In the teens, right after World War I, there was a wild outbreak of dancing, which at the time was seen in some circles as being licentious. So, in addition to the nudity on stage, explicitly sexual dances were being performed — popular dances that would catch on. There would be wild carrying-on in the dance palaces and the nightclubs that also grew within this entertainment district. This also incensed reformers. At the same, throughout America, the building of political sentiment that led to prohibition was taking place. All these things are tied up together. All of the forms of licentious behavior that were censured by reformers were epitomized by 42nd Street.
JJM Well, it must have been an interesting place, particularly at that time. Legitimate theater was playing right next door to burlesque, and to the marketer’s credit, they were able to succeed in filling both of the venues. Whether you were going to attend a theater performance, a burlesque show, or go to a dime museum, there didn’t seem to be a lot of fear about walking down the street that was an impediment to success years later.
AB From what I was able to tell, the fear of what might happen to you on 42nd Street started in the early thirties, when the character of the street began to change. There was no sort of general fear of crime on 42nd Street before then.
JJM You wrote, “By 1934, Father Joseph A. McCaffrey, the outspoken new pastor of the Church of the Holy Cross at 329 West 42nd Street, was publicly complaining of ‘a hoodlum element that was frightening decent people off the street.'” Was 42nd Street any more dangerous than any other parts of the city during the Depression?
AB From what I was able to find from crime statistics, I don’t think it was. There was a perception that it was, because it was always a place where diverse kinds of people congregated — people who were roving from city to city, homeless people, hoboes and others, would naturally go to 42nd Street. So there was a great deal of “riff-raff” there, and it could look menacing through certain eyes, but the crime statistics of the time don’t really support that it was a center of crime. Politically, though, just the sense that it was menacing was as important as if it actually were.
JJM When Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor, he went after the marketers of burlesque. His biographer Lawrence Elliott wrote of him, “(La Guardia’s) puritanical streak, that sense of moral outrage, was so highly developed that he could make no distinction between a truly original theatrical genre, and ordinary prostitution; or between a work of literature with some four-letter words, and magazines with flagrantly lewd cover illustrations publicly displayed; or between church bingo and the numbers racket. To him, they were all the same.” Was La Guardia’s crusade against burlesque at all successful?
AB Yes, ultimately it was successful, but it took a long time. Burlesque basically survived through the thirties and into the early forties on 42nd Street. La Guardia was outraged by its presence, but legally speaking it was not a simple matter of just shutting the burlesque houses down — there was a whole legal song and dance that went on. Gradually, though, the city government squeezed burlesque out of existence on 42nd street.
JJM Following World War II, what was big business’s view of 42nd Street?
AB The dominant business interests in the Broadway theater district were the owners of the big legitimate theaters, which were no longer on 42nd Street following World War II. On 42nd, the so-called legitimate Broadway theater had been replaced by all-night movie houses and burlesque houses. The legitimate theater interests saw the burlesque palaces and ‘B movie’ houses of 42nd Street as tawdry stains on the image of the Broadway theater, so they were lobbying and pressuring the city to shut them down. Even though in a sense they were in the same business, they considered themselves far above what was taking place on 42nd Street, and they agitated for the city to take them down.
JJM But, basically nothing happened.
AB Gradually, political pressure did build, and the city made it impossible for the Minsky brothers and other burlesque promoters to operate on 42nd Street. The same sort of thing happened again in the sixties and seventies, the porn era, where you had the police going beyond the law in their zeal to put XXX operators out of business. There was constant monitoring, constant arrests, and constant prosecutions. The judges would rule that there was a difference between what was politically popular and what the law allowed, so new laws would be passed. It wasn’t a simple thing to shut it down. Also, the adult bookstores, peep shows and massage parlors had a constituency — people wanted to go there, and they didn’t want these businesses to be shut down. They usually weren’t as politically influential as the enemies of lewd public entertainment, but still, there they were, buying tickets and dropping quarters in slots.
JJM During the fifties, 42nd Street became a glamorized block to the hipsters of that era. What was going on during that time that would have attracted them to that neighborhood?
AB In the thirties, 42nd Street — and to some extent Broadway — basically became a kind of carnival street in the middle of Manhattan. From that time on, there was no new construction, and the district became conspicuously different than the rest of Manhattan. There was a concentration of entertainment that remained there that was no longer legitimate theater. Movies that in some cases were not shown elsewhere in town would run in continuous fashion all day and all night. There were the beginnings of the adult bookstores and different game arcades as well. And because 42nd Street was a place that stayed open all night, it attracted everyone in the city who had unconventional notions of what was fun. Even with all the changes, it remained a heavily trafficked area, so just walking down the street was entertaining. While it wasn’t quite an X-rated carnival during the fifties, 42nd Street remained a raffish, “anything goes” kind of street, and that appealed to hipsters.
JJM Many of the businesses that populated the neighborhood during that time — the all night movie houses, the cafeterias that didn’t have waiters — were all pretty easy to just hang around in.
AB The Automat, where you would buy your food through an automatic machine, stayed open all night, and for anyone who didn’t have much money and no place to go, it and the other all-night cafeterias on 42nd were havens. Herbert Huncke, the hobo hipster patron of the beat writers who was the unofficial mayor of 42nd Street for a time, would hold court in the all-night cafeterias.
There was illicit trafficking going on at the time on 42nd Street, but the scene wasn’t yet defined by it. The X-rated element wasn’t yet predominant, nor was 42nd Street fundamentally a center for prostitution or drug trafficking, although those things went on. Because there was such a swarm of humanity of all kinds, it was still a benignly unconventional place in the fifties, and in some ways it was the height of the movie era on 42nd Street.
JJM Yes, the era of the grinders.
AB These famous grinders influenced all sorts of people in the film business, from Woody Allen to Stanley Kubrick — all sorts of up and coming filmmakers spent time on 42nd Street.
JJM You wrote of Mayor John Lindsay, “To a man of Lindsay’s sensibilities, 42nd Street was just plain ugly. How could he hope to beautify the city and to elevate its cultural life with this honky-tonk strip running right through its midsection?” What was Lindsay’s plan for Times Square?
AB To his credit, Lindsay paid attention to Times Square and 42nd Street in a comprehensive sense. He had an elevated notion of the aesthetics of the entire city, which was something new for New York. He had a number of ambitious projects for Times Square and 42nd Street. There was to be a big convention center — which was later built, the Jacob Javits Center on 34th Street — that was originally was going to be at the end of 42nd Street. There were a number of different attempts — none of which went very far — to initiate concepts that would revive 42nd Street as a street of theater. Lindsay was a great lover of theater — his mother was an actress who had appeared on 42nd Street in its heyday — and his administration tried to cook up some schemes to bring plays back to 42nd Street. He envisioned these plays performed in restored theaters that would also be tied to large-scale real estate development. He created an agency — Midtown Economic Development — that moved into a building on 42nd Street and came up with different schemes to try to provide incentives for property owners who built or remodeled. All it led to, really, was the construction of three or four small theaters in Times Square, not on 42nd Street per se. Despite all its good intentions, 42nd Street continued to deteriorate in real estate terms.
JJM His attempt to crack down on porn was probably a larger task than he thought it would be.
AB Yes, 42nd Street really exploded as a porn center during Lindsay’s years, not particularly because of anything he did, but due to the invention of the peep film machine and its popularization by the “King of the Peeps,” Marty Hodas. Because there was a huge untapped demand for pornographic entertainment, the peep film machine led to a wild fire of commercial evolution that no government could control. By that time, just in terms of the buildings and the real estate values, 42nd Street had deteriorated to the point that the landlords were desperate for just about anything.
JJM There was a ton of money in porn on 42nd Street. You wrote that it was common for Hodas to deposit in the neighborhood of 85% of all the quarters in the local bank.
AB In the local Chemical Bank branch, that’s right. These collectors were going down the street with big steamer trunks filled with coins, a couple times a day, to deposit them in this bank.
JJM And then the Mafia got involved.
AB Quite early on, yes. The Mafia followed the chink of coins, basically, and started to muscle its way in. Some fairly low-level mob people bought and ran their own adult bookstores. They also financed a coin peep show machine distribution business, in competition with Hodas, and then they started muscling people for protection money. The cash flow was irresistible for them.
JJM In many ways, the hero of this whole story is a guy who sort of took on this entire sordid community, not through intimidation but through courage — the playwright and Horizon Theater Company founder Robert Moss.
AB Courageous and desperate, yes.
JJM He needed to find a theater quickly because he was on the verge of being evicted?
AB Yes, his not-for-profit theater group was going to be evicted from the YWCA, so he had to scour the city for a place. By this time, in 1974, 42nd Street was really pretty scary. It was the height of the massage parlor era and street crime was epidemic. Moss was a theater person who had no larger ambition than to find the cheapest place he could to put on a play. He was so alarmed by what he encountered on the block of 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues that the first time he went there, he walked down the traffic line in the middle of the street because he didn’t dare set foot on the sidewalks. Luckily for him, there was on this block a half dozen Off Off Broadway theaters that had been built in the sixties by Irving Maidman, a real estate developer who was years ahead of everyone else in terms of anticipating the revival of 42nd Street. These places had failed as theaters, but Bob Moss had the guts and the need to rent one of them for Playwrights Horizons, his very prolific theater company. In the most basic way, day by day, Moss and Playwrights Horizons recreated 42nd Street as a theater street on a small scale. He had this tremendous enthusiasm and charismatic power to get actors and other theater people to follow him.
JJM Moss said, “The way to clean up this area is not to harass the prostitutes, but to open up the theaters. The rest will follow.” He had a lot of success with that, and in the eighties, the 42nd Street Development Corporation, in some ways, tried to do what Moss did, but in a cynical sort of way. They wanted to deal with the problems of 42nd Street by building skyscrapers surrounding it and then putting theaters inside these buildings.
AB Theater Row, the development that grew from Bob Moss’s first theater, was organized by a man named Fred Papert. Its base was not-for-profit theater. The theaters within Theater Row were small, ninety-nine seat theaters, mostly, that were subsisting off ticket sales and donations. Theatre Row had a commercial effect, in that businesses flourished around it and property values went up, but it was not fundamentally a commercial venture itself. This development was on a block between Ninth and Tenth, but when you move east to the center of old 42nd Street and Broadway, there are much larger scale theaters, and therefore much more commercial potential. So, instead of just conceiving of this as a theater reclamation project, the city and state government wrapped the old theaters into a large-scale commercial, office and retail development.
The idea was cynical because the Koch government, in particular, pretended like the main object was the theaters, when it really wasn’t — it was to revive 42nd Street and Broadway as a commercial center. There was a whole series of misadventures, and the project was stillborn a couple of times. It wasn’t until in the late eighties/early nineties, when a state official named Rebecca Robertson carved out the revival of the theaters as the reason for the project, putting them ahead of the office building component that had stopped short. In the end, redeveloped 42nd Street included all of these things — theaters, office buildings and stores — but it didn’t really work as a development until the theaters were made the priority again.
JJM Robertson had a real appreciation for the area. She said, “You have got to feel its ghosts,” and; “Do right by the theaters and the rest will follow.” Her plan was incredibly visionary, and whether you like it or not, the result is that 42nd Street is a destination for theater-goers and tourists, and amid a save environment again.
AB Yes, at its worst point of decay, 42nd Street was a dangerous, rather depraved place, with lots of crime of all sorts — including child prostitution. Not only tourists but many New York residents were afraid to see foot on West 42nd Street. The state didn’t help by condemning much of 42nd Street in the late eighties to pave the way for its redevelopment. They condemned dozens of properties with the idea that redevelopment would start promptly, but it was delayed for years and so what you had was the worst of both worlds. It was like that for quite a bit of time.
JJM Concerning those displaced in the redevelopment you wrote, “The final roster of 42nd Street evictees included fifteen video stores, six peep shows, five porn movie theaters, eight sex paraphernalia shops, four action film houses, two hairdressers, twenty-five lawyers, twelve fast-food restaurants, ten artists, two sporting goods stores, two newspapers, one hatter, one television studio, one joke store, one boxing gym, one pimp, and one sadomasochist therapist.” Where did these displaced businesses go?
AB Some of them went out of business, and quite a number of them were redistributed around the edges of 42nd Street in lower-priced real estate. A smattering of porn stores of different kinds remains today along the far reaches of Times Square, and they keep getting moved out, because the 42nd Street Redevelopment Project continues. The New York Times is building a new headquarters building on another block, so that is having another flushing effect. Some of those displaced, like the radio host Joe Franklin, have landed on their feet, and in fact he owns a restaurant there now. A lot of the old-time Times Square businesses found other quarters, or they just folded them up.
JJM There is a tenderloin district in every city. New York certainly isn’t going to be without porn theaters and pawn shops.
AB Yes, but they are far more dispersed and less visible than they used to be. Much of it isn’t even in Midtown anymore — it has moved out to the outer boroughs.
JJM You wrote, “In transplanting a particularly glitzy version of shopping-mall theme-park culture from the suburbs into the heart of the big city, the redevelopers of the theater district enhanced its tourist appeal at the cost of disappointing and even alienating many New Yorkers.” What is the overall verdict on the redevelopment?
AB Mine, or the world’s?
JJM Well, I can understand that New Yorker’s may feel there is something antiseptic to the area now. While there appears to be a lot that is wonderful about it, at the same time, it leaves the impression that the area — in addition to the theaters — has become a bunch of big box retailers and restaurants that replaced much of its heart and soul.
AB It is a bit monolithic, and it’s a bit too much like other big streets in New York and other big cities. The book was an exercise in establishing and finding the distinctiveness of 42nd Street. For many years, there really was no place like it, and that was as a result of an organic process of evolution — or de-evolution, depending your point of view. But for decades, starting with Oscar Hammerstein, 42nd Street was the glamour theater and night entertainment spot in Manhattan. It evolved in different ways, and each one of those evolutionary stages made it a distinctive place. You could argue that one of the reasons for that was that there was no new investment there, that there was none of the destruction and rebuilding that typically goes on in the centers of big cities all the time. Investment didn’t happen there for decades, but, part of what made it so distinctive in that sense also doomed it, because at a certain point — after eighty years — economic forces are not simply going to tolerate this kind of financial sink hole in the middle of a big city.
The way the city and state handled the redevelopment, in my opinion, should have been done more organically, on a smaller scale, step by step. But that was difficult since they left it for so long they created a bigger and bigger problem. The result was a monolithic redevelopment that was done all at once, and all with the same basic aesthetic. What salvaged it to some extent is that they did a really good job of preserving and fixing up the old theaters that did survive. Those are distinctive. What surrounds them is not so distinctive, and it would have been nicer if the current 42nd Street was as distinctive and memorable a place as it seems to have been in the old days.
It could be that 42nd Street will once again have that distinction, because it is increasingly heavily traveled, and it will wear down. It is interesting that many of the businesses that have opened stores there — chain stores with nothing special to offer, in particular — have gone out of business. There is a continual turnover as business people try to understand what will work there. Going to 42nd Street is not going to be like a trip to the mall, so people who are going to succeed there will have to find something that is in tune with the surroundings in a way that the typical big box retailer isn’t.
I remain hopeful that it will become, again, as interesting a place as it once was. Right now it is somewhere in the middle. From the point of view of the locals, all of Times Square is so crowded with people that you can’t even walk down the sidewalk half the time, so they boycott the area for that reason rather than for any sort of aesthetic boycott.
“…42nd Street was where tourists and locals alike went to mix with the moving crowd, to feel New York’s erratic, racing pulse. No place in the city was as vividly present tense as 42nd Street and yet so redolent of nostalgic associations, especially for the native New Yorker. Each of the street’s successive incarnations was deeply imprinted on the public consciousness and lived on in the city’s collective memory — in the 42nd Street of the mind — long after its day had passed.”
– Anthony Bianco
A History of America’s Most Infamous Block
About Anthony Bianco
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
AB I would have to say it was Willie Mays, which is a classic one.
JJM Yes. He was mine as well.
AB I was a sports fan, and Sports Illustrated was the first magazine I subscribed to, and I did so at a very early age. But I lived in Minnesota, so I had no real hometown reason to root for Willie Mays — I just really liked the way he played. He was an overwhelming talent with such style. I lived in Rochester, Minnesota, and it did not have a single black family — not one — so that was part of my fascination with him too.
JJM I just remember watching him on television when I was a little kid, and in that era there were only nine games televised a year — those against the Dodgers in Los Angeles — and this underexposure may have elevated our sense of fascination with him as well.
AB It is hard to believe that is how few games were shown, isn’t it?
JJM Yes, and when I was exposed to him, I remember being in awe of his play in center field and at the plate, and thinking that he was even more incredible to watch than he was to read about. I think this underexposure may have elevated the appeal of guys like Mays and Mantle.
AB There were no questions of steroids then, at least not that we knew of. Steroid use calls into question the basic achievements of someone like Barry Bonds, but you never had that kind of question mark over a player like Willie Mays. He probably didn’t even lift weights.
Anthony Bianco is a senior writer at Business Week. He is the author of two books, The Reichmanns: Family, Faith, Fortune and the Empire of the Olympia & York and Rainmaker: The Saga of Jeff Beck, Wall Street’s Mad Dog. He lives in New York City.
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This interview took place on December 3, 2004
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society author Ralph Blumenthal
# Text from publisher.