New York's Times Square is experiencing an anniversary of sorts. The last of the new glass-clad towers is being completed, the capstone of what has appropriately been labeled a "tortuous redevelopment" effort going on for 30 years. Most of 42nd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues has been replaced. Huge corporate towers anchor every corner and new towers dominate the whole Great White Way north of 42nd Street as well.
With the completion of this transformative project, one can anticipate much self-congratulations from different quarters of the city; all kinds of good things will be attributed to this Times Square replacement.
Credit will be given to it for bringing down crime (forgetting crime is down everywhere in the city where mega-projects aren't), for showing the strength of the free market (forgetting the inestimably valuable zoning changes, tax incentives and city capital contributions), for displaying the strength of retailing (make that chain stores, please), for bringing the tourists (spare the illusion that tourists ever stopped coming to Times Square, even at its worst) and for bringing corporate towers to the area (is this really a characteristic that Times Square needed?).
And then there are the lights, action, billboards and advertisements. Here's where history is not only being forgotten, it is being totally distorted. Developers had to be brought kicking and screaming to accept the tradition of billboards and lights in the rezoning of the 1980s. I remember it well and not only wrote about it in my first book (The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way) but I was part of the obstreperous group of New Yorkers fighting to save the 33 historic theaters which remained - finally landmarked after an intense civic battle - as the heart of what is left of the authentic Theater District/Times Square. The civic warriors, by the way, were without support from any of the traditional civic organizations.
Recent history is easily forgotten or erroneously remembered in the highly successful New York City of today. The Times Square/Theater District had reached the same lowest point in the city's history as the city itself had in the 1970s. Only big mega-projects were thought to offer salvation for an injured city.
Over the years, and until the area became ripe for development schemes (and there were several before the current incarnation), the illusion of this storied place sustained the district. It never really needed defending from itself; the same ills that plagued Times Square plagued many areas of the city to different degrees.
By the 1980s, however, the Theater District was one of the last Manhattan neighborhoods not yet under a development siege. No area exhibiting this neighborhood's vehicular congestion, clogged mass-transit facilities and pedestrian traffic despite its high crime can be labeled under-developed. When city officials labeled the area under-developed in the early 1980s, however, they meant that not as many large office towers had yet been built there as in other areas of midtown and city officials were willing to make generous concessions to developers willing to build them.
The Theater District became the new frontier for development.
For the first time, it needed protection. Twenty-one legitimate theaters had been demolished since the 1940s. Theaters had become an endangered species. Whole blockfronts were assembled for new mega-projects.
Varying accounts of Times Square history reveal that speculators - conventionally called "investors" - bought Theater District land in the 1950s and 1960s in anticipation of a series of master plans sponsored by the city for the area. The name of the game was "Wait to see what happens." Planners' blight - the deterioration that follows the rumor or announcement of a new city plan - took hold.
Deliberate neglect was discovered on the part of some unscrupulous developers who boarded up windows, let paint peel and buildings deteriorate into "eyesores." Under these circumstances, the district never had a chance to regenerate naturally. Some impending Plan was always in the wings to set things right. Despite this planning brinkmanship, scores of positive small things happened: new restaurants, building conversions, upgraded retail stores that served the entertainment industry and its audiences. There had long been room for something large, but not overwhelming, to complete a balanced equation of change.
Real-estate and political leaders promoted the misguided notion that only large-scale new building plans bring significant renewal. In New York, economic health is erroneously measured by the level of new construction, not just new construction but "big" new construction. (Nationally too, we only hear in the news about "new housing starts" that are up or down). The contribution to the office and residential market of conversions and additions to existing buildings never seems to get counted.
The drama began to unfold here long before it caught the public eye, culminating in the soon to be completed 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan. Ironically, without many other big plans, the city itself regenerated around it.
Now Times Square suffers from tourist congestion. Piles of garbage bags from the abundance of highrise towers crowd out pedestrians. The distinction between density and congestion is ignored. Relief comes primarily from the new Times Square Plaza, resulting from the closed Broadway created by the city's innovative Department of Transportation. But, alas, Times Square is no longer where most New Yorkers choose to gather for the authentic New York experience. Many avoid it entirely, except to go to the theater. For locals and tourists alike, New York now offers many wonderfully regenerated public spaces all over town, in keeping with the rejuvenation of the larger city itself. For many, however, the old song, "Give My Regards to Broadway," now has a soulful ring.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of the recently published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books, 2010). For the full history of the Times Square/Theater District that you won't read elsewhere, check out both earlier books: The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way (1989) and Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown (1998).