Can 42nd Street Be Born Again?

journalism

TIME: Spectator Column – September 27, 1993

Can 42nd Street Be Born Again?

Wisely, New York would preserve the honky-tonk diversity of 42nd Street

GOVERMENT-SPONSORED urban-renewal schemes are bad almost by definition, since they derive from the bureaucrat’s impulse to tidy up, to eradicate funk and chaos in favor of large-scale orderliness; planners fail to see the trees for the forest. During the past couple of decades, the relentlessly-raze-and- rebuild notion of progress has been overtaken by a mania for historic preservation, which is a great improvement. But preservationism can also tend toward the prissy, the anal and the monomaniacal and become a kind of by-the- book undertaker’s approach that makes dead and dying downtowns prettier but not quite alive.

At last, a post-control-freak third way seems within reach in New York City. Suddenly, even a skeptic can imagine that 42nd Street stretching west from Times Square — America’s most famous city block, glamorous turned squalid and now comatose — might really be on the verge of revivification. Of course, there have been grand plans before: in 1954 LIFE magazine said a new antisleaze law meant that “42nd Street will probably never again” be as tawdry as it was then (which was considerably less tawdry than it became).

This vision of renewal, however, is not only wiser, more civilized and pragmatic than its predecessors, but as of last week it was also a good deal more real. The city announced it would pony up $35 million to acquire the last private buildings on the block (since 1990, $185 million has been spent buying up all the others), and officials confirmed that the Walt Disney Co. is all but recruited to renovate and stage live performances in the New Amsterdam Theater, the grand Art Nouveau landmark where Ziegfeld had his Follies. “It is the deal that we all dreamed about,” says one of the project’s masterminds. “When somebody like ((Disney chairman)) Michael Eisner comes in, everybody follows.”

Essentially, if it’s pop — Sir Mix-a-Lot videos, cookie-dough Haagen-Dazs, Harvey Wallbangers, Beauty and the Beast trinkets, tickets to a Madame Tussaud’s waxworks — and doesn’t involve pornography, switchblades or free- base pipes, the powers that be want it on the new 42nd Street. “We’re after vulgar heterogeneity,” says the sly, donnish and influential architect Robert A.M. Stern, who drafted the new guidelines with the sly, perverse and influential graphic designer Tibor Kalman. Incredibly, they have persuaded the state and city to get behind an authentically populist spectacle, a potential mix of tourist traps and hip outlets, mom-and-pop shops and name-brand superstores. The goal is not a “themed” simulacrum of honky-tonk diversity but the real thing. Such a splendidly oxymoronic turn: a municipal code for discouraging tastefulness, a quarter-billion dollars spent to conjure a trashy Damon Runyon spirit. The Bizarro-world rules call for, among other things, giant loudspeakers blasting onto the street, commercial signs noticeably out of alignment with their neighbors and virtually no size limit for billboards. “The bigger and noisier,” says Stern, “the better.”

This basic recipe isn’t new: in her profoundly important The Death and Life of Great American Cities 32 years ago, Jane Jacobs declared that urban vitality depends on an eclectic mix of small stores. But that doesn’t mean developers and bureaucrats haven’t continued to pursue monumental, street- life-killing projects. Since 1981 the plan for 42nd Street envisioned four monstrous office towers. Lawsuits filed against that plan by neighborhood porno impresarios were beaten back, but they delayed the project for years — enough time, fortuitously, for the real estate crash to kill it last year. Because the developers still dream of building their high-rises around the turn of the century, they have acceded to the new vision for 42nd Street grudgingly, and insist that it is only a temporary recasting. But if Disney and other entertainment big boys become entrenched, if cash flows are positive, and if Americans fall in love with a reanimated 42nd Street, will New York permit dreary office hives to come in and spoil the fun?