On the hundredth anniversary of the naming of Times Square, journalist Traub (City on a Hill, 1994, etc.) traces the colorful history of America’s premier theater district and appraises its most recent makeover by Disney and other global corporate brands.
From the days of Diamond Jim Brady and George M. Cohan in the 1910s through the reign of Irving Berlin in the ’50s, Times Square was both a veritable factory of theatrical magic and a real-estate mogul’s dream. Ever-changing and ever-increasing in value, its restaurants, arcades, theaters, and flashing billboards were a beacon to the world. The Great White Way always also had a seamy side; Traub quotes Jack Kerouac to the effect that it is the natural home of both the gentleman in the well-cut suit and the drunk in the gutter. By the ’70s, the drunk—and the drug dealers, pimps, and porno houses—had won the day and driven out all but the most persistent suits. At that point, the real-estate interests rose up in a bid to reclaim their lost cash cow. Traub trenchantly examines the warring commercial and government factions that at first promoted reconstruction, then stymied it for 20 years, and finally created what critics describe as a brand-name theme park ringed by outsized office buildings, again a real-estate mogul’s dream. The author visits the participating moguls, the corporate brand managers (including the boosterish head of the world’s largest Toys ’R’ Us), the famous architects and hip billboard designers, the theater owners, the street people, and the few remaining proponents of arcade games and experimental theater (including the rebellious daughter of Times Square tower builder Douglas Durst), to tell us what’s been gained and what’s been lost.
What’s gained here is the pleasure of watching exemplary reporting illuminate a fascinating crossroads of American popular art and commerce.