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Naughty, Gaudy, Bawdy, Sporty, and Gone: Times Squares Old and New

Times Square is mutating steadily, and its relation to the rest of the city is changing as well. Despite its central location, it has never really been the heart of the city; if Manhattan is viewed as an organism, the Times Square of the 1970s and ’80s was its cloaca. Crime and porn defined the place, at least as much as the grit, the funk, the crowds, and the dodgy street food ever did. (At one point in this panel’s reminiscences and reflections, Alexander Cooper, FAIA, expressed astonishment that “we’ve gone an hour-and-a-half and the word ‘porn’ hasn’t come up.” After that observation, it came up quite a bit.)

Many New Yorkers recall aspects of the pre-renovation Times Square fondly, and perhaps even more lament its Disneyfication, but there are few who would seriously want the conditions that journalist Robert Lipsyte called “an oasis of celebration and a sewer of crime” to have endured. The area, Cooper observed, offered “a moment of opportunity” for the patient efforts of city planners and the visionary exercises of architects, established and young. This panel, an initiative of the AIANY 2014 presidential theme “Civic Spirit: Civic Vision,” recalled and analyzed that transformative work, leaving NYC Planning Commission Chairman Carl Weisbrod’s ultimate question, “Did we do it right?” unresolved, but also leaving little doubt that something dramatic had to be done.

Moderator Carol Willis, founding director of The Skyscraper Museum, opened the discussion with the suggestion that the character of today’s district, combining the “two Times Squares” of the northern bowtie and the 42nd Street corridor (“The Deuce”), was largely encoded in the 1980s. That post-fiscal-crisis era witnessed, among other things, the peak of Postmodernism; the demolition of the Helen Hayes, Bijou, and Morosco Theaters for the construction of John Portman’s Marriott Marquis; and a long struggle to come up with alternatives to a 1970s plan (“The City at 42nd Street”). Cooper termed it “a very sensuous scheme and a very serious scheme,” but that Mayor Ed Koch, among others, had vigorously opposed on the historically ironic grounds that it resembled Disneyland. Defining the city’s tougher identity with an exceptionalist, oft-paraphrased line to the effect that New York should be about “seltzer, not orange juice,” Koch resisted the sorts of urban renewal that had scorched the earth and sterilized the souls of other cities. A series of matching Philip Johnson/John Burgee megatowers in the 1980s fared no better with either the architectural community or the 42nd Street Development Project, the entity created by the Empire State Development Corporation with the charge to coordinate redevelopment.

A 1984 Municipal Arts Society/National Endowment for the Arts ideas competition yielded designs ranging from the surreal to the hyper-theoretical to the berserk, none of which was ever built. Still, The Skyscraper Museum’s current exhibition “Times Square, 1984: The Postmodern Moment” makes the case that during that long period of apparently intractable delay and decay between 1984 and 1997, governmental actions, particularly rezonings and guideline publications, generated the essential DNA – the preferences for density, delirium, daring, and displays, minus the decadence – that shaped today’s Times Square. Detailed 230-page 1981 Development Project guidelines for 42nd Street’s luminosity, density, transit and circulation, bulk, and the district’s special features, Cooper pointed out, overcame general skepticism about guidelines as an effective development instrument. Multiple plans crashed and burned over the years, but the more important inference is that the combination of ambition and persistence on the part of planners, whose role has long been obscured by louder attention-getters – including a certain ’90s mayor whose habit of claiming credit for others’ achievements, anachronistically in this case, was treated here as essentially irrelevant – yielded lasting change.

Hugh Hardy, FAIA, offered a long-range view of the district’s evolution since Oscar Hammerstein I, a cigar salesman/inventor/impresario and the librettist’s grandfather, first built a theater at 42nd and Broadway (later losing multiple properties to sharper operators). Signage and façades came to define the area, a legacy that would outlast the peak crime period and all the false-start plans. Weisbrod’s leadership of the Development Project saw theaters preserved and restored rather than demolished. Hired by City Planning Commissioner Herbert Sturz to get crime under control during the years when “you’d scurry with your head down” through the area, Weisbrod recognized that even though the Times Square of 1978 had harbored 200 sex-based businesses, including live sex shows, and was “a Petri dish and launching pad for crime,” the blandness of an office park was the wrong answer to decay.

Sturz recalled dreading that efforts to remove the sleaze would fail on First Amendment grounds. Critical changes had to occur before the event widely recognized as a turning point: the commitment of Disney Development Company, on the last day of David Dinkins’s mayoralty in 1993, to help restore the New Amsterdam Theater. Disney would not have entered the area as “a loss leader,” Hardy observed, if it weren’t for the efforts of Sturz, Weisbrod, and now-defunct agencies including the Board of Estimate and the Development Project to make conditions suitable for families and others who didn’t fancy scurrying amid the pickpockets and pimps. “No fear in the street,” said Sturz, became the policy watchword. (As for the other pervasive source of fear in streets, Willis noted, today’s car-free pedestrian plaza has deep roots as well, stretching back as far as a 1969 Regional Plan Association scheme.)

As Lynne Sagalyn emphasized, in the years after the fiscal crisis and the Westway controversy, many people believed that “New York can never think big again,” but the Times Square redevelopment showed that it remained possible for public policy to shape what market-driven organizations would eventually deliver. “Cities have latent fiscal muscle,” she noted, and can find funding when it’s needed despite constraints. The expectations that 42nd Street would change allowed the whole area to redevelop, said Weisbrod. If “the definition of urban design is to tease out the character of place,” as Cooper once told Paul Goldberger, the entities that guided Times Square’s evolution deserve credit for distinguishing vigor and energy from squalor and hazards as the aspects of its character that would survive. Now it’s in the hands of today’s inheritors of that legacy – Snøhetta, the Department of Transportation, the Police Department, the media/advertising/entertainment sectors, and others – to envision the forms its future energy will take and the populations, local and tourist, who will share it.

Event: Times Square Revisited: Urban Planning and Urban Design
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.30.2014
Speakers: Carl Weisbrod, Chairman, NYC Planning Commission; Herbert Sturz, former Chairman, NYC Planning Commission; Alexander Cooper, FAIA, Founding Partner and CEO of Cooper, Robertson & Partners; Hugh Hardy, FAIA, Founding Partner, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; Lynne B. Sagalyn, Earle W. Kazis and Benjamin Schore Professor of Real Estate, Director, Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate; Carol Willis, Founding Director, The Skyscraper Museum (moderator); Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, 2014 President, AIANY
Organizers: The Skyscraper Museum and the Center for Architecture
Co-sponsors: AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee