“Ground zero for the manufacture, exhibition, and distribution of pornography, drug dealing, pedophilia, prostitution, and violent street crime,” the old 42nd Street gets a root-tootin’ sendoff.
As a home to raunch, the stretch of 42nd Street west of Sixth Avenue has long been true to itself, writes Eliot (To the Limit, 1998, etc.). Even back when it was known as Long Acre Square, in the days before the New York Times moved in and changed the address, it had as many brothels as it did horse stables, as many hoodlums as rats. The author charts the street's sordid past, in which everyone seemed to have a scam to run, from supposedly reputable businessmen like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Chrysler through Boss Tweed and on down to the pimps, cardsharps, and real-estate developers. Eliot has a talent for cutting through the city's byzantine politics without a loss of nuance to explain how mayors from Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia to Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani played the 42nd Street card to their aggrandizement. He also does a fine job conjuring a sense of the street's atmosphere beyond the sleaze, particularly the diverse world of the performing arts, ranging from the great spaces and great stars to the rehearsal halls, script services, wigmakers, makeup companies, costume-makers, and violin bow–makers to capture the entire theatrical community. Well researched and impressively detailed, the narrative paints a rich picture of the street's evolution. It’s marred only by Eliot’s tendency to logorrhea and weakness for purple prose (“the air began to stink from a turgid waft of human sweat and canned Lysol that hung tough at the nostril level”) that quickly wears thin.
Few will mourn the eradication of the violence and drugs that once defined 42nd Street, but neither will they cheer its transformation into a “big-ticket corporate alley.” (Illustrations throughout)