Sunday, February 28, 2016

The New Times Square, And The Old

I might as well admit it:  I hate going to Times Square now.

From the moment that the New York Times moved uptown and built the building from which the New Year's Eve ball drops, at the southern end of the bow-tie "square" created by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan, and re-christened a horse-stable district known as Longacre Square with its own name, the so-called Crossroads of the World has been, at any minute in history, a mirror for the rest of American society.  It has always been an odd but exciting mix of commerce and culture, of celebrations and news tickers, of ordinary people making a decent living, and hucksters living on the edge of, and off of, the rest of society.

During World War II, its theaters and signs brought news of the war, and encouraged us to buy war bonds and support our troops.  During the decadent, self-absorbed 1970s, it became a shopping market for sex and drugs.  And more recently--and, sadly, perhaps permanently--in the corporate 1990s and today, it has become what a theater preservationist friend of mine refers to as a corporate theme park, one in which skyscrapers and supersigns have squeezed many smaller, more idiosyncratic businesses out of existence.

True, the sex and drugs are gone, or are at least banished to other neighborhoods.  But they've been replaced by different forms of hustle.  Painted topless women and men dressed as comic-book characters now offer to pose with tourists for photos--and very hefty fees.  And many legitimate businesses that gave the neighborhood personality and bargains are gone, replaced by franchises and names that carry high prices along with their ubiquity.

I vividly remember taking my stepdaughter on one of our theater trips to New York to the now-departed Tower Records, so that she could by sheet music.  I am so grateful that we could share that experience--but angry that she won't be able to share it with her daughters.

My wife and I were recently in Times Square one Wednesday morning after we attended a family wedding in Brooklyn the night before.  We sat in a pair of very uncomfortable chairs in the pedestrian mall that was created by closing off parts of the streets, making midtown traffic even more insane than it had been previously.  I found myself looking around with a sense of despair.

I had been a part of the Save-the-Theaters movement in the 1980s that ultimately got most of the Broadway theaters landmarked.  In hindsight, I found myself thinking that the goal should have been to declare the whole theater district a protected area.  That way, people coming into it wouldn't feel like they were in the middle of the world's biggest video game.

But my wife and I had come there anyway, looking for tickets at the half-price TKTS booth to a Broadway matinee.  After looking at the alternatives, we settled on "The Gin Game," with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, at the John Golden Theater.  This was a very special choice for me; nearly forty years earlier, as a college student on an internship in New York, I had gone to see the same play at the same theater, with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.  Then, I was in the back of the balcony; this time, we were third row center.

The play, unchanged of course, was wonderful.  Jones and Tyson brought their own brand of stage magic, as Tandy and Cronyn had four decades before.  And the Golden was still the Golden, beautifully designed and immaculately maintained by the Shubert Organization.  For an afternoon, we were part of a larger cultural tradition and experience, one that, with the help of landmark laws, has become timeless.

Whatever doubts my experience in the pedestrial mall gave me, the John Golden wiped away.  It had been worth the effort to save the theaters, even though I still wish we had done more.  All of us involved in that effort helped to keep one of the best aspects of New York alive; its ancient legitimate theaters, the birthplace of so much of our culture.

So, when the new Times Square gets you down, be sure to enjoy what's left of the old Times Square, where the magic of history and culture still mingle and can come alive for you.

No comments: