- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND: A CENTURY OF PLEASURE AND PROFIT IN TIMES SQUARE

By James Traub

Random House, $25.95, 335 pages, illus.

WATERFRONT: A JOURNEY AROUND MANHATTAN

By Phillip Lopate

Crown, $25.95, 422 pages

REVIEWED BY REX ROBERTS

There are shelves of books celebrating New York, but two recent ones are so in sync in their approach to the city, as well as their evaluation of it, that they make a matched set.

In “The Devil’s Playground,” James Traub explores Times Square on its 100th anniversary, prowling Midtown’s fabled five blocks in search of Damon Runyon’s ghost. In “Waterfront,” Phillip Lopate leads his readers on a walking tour of Manhattan’s 32-mile shoreline, attempting a salty biography of the island, wharves and all.

Taken together, the books evoke a kind of state of the city, examining New York from core to extremities, as it were, in an effort to evaluate its ever-changing built environment.

Works about public spaces are not what most people consider beach reading. But the authors are belles lettrists, their styles and sensibilities colloquial and anecdotal. Indeed, Mr. Traub and Mr. Lopate break into first person at the least provocation, offering examples from their own lives to illuminate their points.

“Each New Yorker can seem like a minor character who has honed his or her persona into a sharp, three-second cameo,” writes Mr. Lopate in a typically confessional aside. “You have only an instant to catch the passerby’s unique gesture or telltale accessory … Once I passed a man in a three-piece suit who let out a sigh as intimate as if he had been sitting on the toilet.”

Of the two, Mr. Traub, a former staffer with the New Yorker and frequent contributor to the New York Times magazine, is more journalistic, more amenable to research. He devotes the first third of “The Devil’s Playground” to Times Square’s rococo past, starting with “the era of epic eating,” when lobster palaces with names like Murray’s Roman Gardens were the rage.

“Diamond Jim Brady became one of the great celebrities of the age simply by out-eating everyone around him,” explains Mr. Traub. “Brady once explained his philosophy of dining by saying that he started each meal with his stomach four inches from the table and ate until the two made contact.”

Eating soon gave way to cabaret, nearly-nude revues and so-called tea dances, where unescorted ladies could find handsome partners to tango.

At the same time, impresarios like Florenz Ziegfeld, songwriters like Irving Berlin and playwrights like George S. Kaufman were transforming American culture. Theater became so popular that Broadway producers mounted an average of 225 shows a year during the 1920s. In 1927, the figure climbed to 264, the all-time record, the total including “Strike Up the Band,” “Funny Face” and “Show Boat.”

Mr. Traub profiles lesser-known figures, too, such as O.J. Gude, the billboard advertiser who erected the first electric signs in the neighborhood. In 1905, just after Adolph Ochs built the Times Tower at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue and persuaded Mayor George B. McClellan to rename Longacre Square in honor of his newspaper, Gude unveiled his petticoated Heatherbloom girl, an early example of incandescent cheesecake.

Much later, after 42nd Street had devolved into a gauntlet of drug dealers and porn parlors, developers threatened to tear down Times Tower — where the ball falls on New Year’s Eve — and rid the area of garish Gude-inspired signage. Ironically, the plan was nixed by the Municipal Art Society, the very group that had vigorously protested so-called “spectaculars” 50 years earlier.

The tension between what Times Square was, and what it has become, is at the heart of Mr. Traub’s book. After years of infighting, speculation and political maneuvering, through several real-estate booms and busts and numerous municipal commissions and studies, Times Square has risen from the dead, resplendent with renovated theaters, kitschy skyscrapers, digital video displays and, above all else, corporate sponsorship.

Midtown is safe, clean and family-oriented. It’s also Disneyized, to repeat an oft-used pejorative.

“Within the four corners of the crossroads itself,” writes Mr. Traub, ” … Times Square is almost as uniform, as gigantic, as ‘totalized,’ as Disneyland or the Strip: it is one pulsating global media-financial services-information-entertainment zone. All traces of an older, more localized, more organic life have been obliterated.”

Mr. Traub relishes the remnants du temps perdu — he writes lovingly of survivors such as the Edison Coffee Shop on 47th Street, McHale’s pub on 46th and Eighth, and the melancholic Howard Johnson’s that clings to a sliver of Broadway.

But today’s Times Square is basically a bustling suburban mall lined with Toys “R” Us megastores and Hello Kitty boutiques, Loews and AMC multiplexes, Applebee’s and McDonald’s … the same stuff Americans can find anywhere in the United States.

Not that ordinary New Yorkers haven’t played a part in the homogenization of their own city. As Mr. Lopate points out while strolling in Hudson River Park, a reclaimed stretch of Manhattan’s shoreline adjoining SoHo and Greenwich Village, city dwellers increasingly are indistinguishable from their country counterparts.

“While everyone was worrying about the entry of the chain stores into Manhattan, fearing that the city would lose its local retail flavor to suburban shopping malls, the conformist forces of globalization sneaked in the back way through leisure,” he writes, struck by the number of Lycra-clad rollerbladers and bicyclists whizzing past the rare walker like himself.

“It is not consumerism per se that disturbs me — New York was always a mecca of shopping and fashion — but seeing the local populace come to rest and pirouette on skates in anonymous skivvies.”

Mr. Lopate wants to dismiss these earnest recreators as exceptions to the rule, interlopers with no sense of the rhythms of urban life, but in fact much of Manhattan’s accessible waterfront is geared to active lifestylers with disposable income (Chelsea Piers at 23rd Street), to tourists in search of that elusive Gap outlet (South Street Seaport) or to well-heeled or lucky middle-income residents (Sutton Place, Battery Park City).

With the exception of a few esplanades and parks, the city’s shoreline is taken up by hospitals, highways and housing projects that offer inhabitants limited opportunities to enjoy the rivers.

“There really isn’t a continuous path for walkers along the riverfront,” sighs Mr. Lopate, defeated in his attempt to make his way up the Hudson along Highway 9A (better known as the West Side Highway), past obstructions such as the gargantuan Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. “The promise is in the air, but the reality is decades away. So I’m trying to make a coherent experience out of something that isn’t one yet.”

Mr. Lopate puts his observations in context with amusing vignettes about the pirate William Kidd, who lived in a respectable townhouse on Pearl Street, and Typhoid Mary, forcibly isolated on North Brother Island in the East River near the Bronx. But his decision to highlight certain landmarks, while ignoring others, will strike many as arbitrary.

He devotes an entire chapter to Tudor City, for example, a pleasant housing complex near the United Nations that, in the scheme of things, barely qualifies as riparian (one of his favorite words). Yet he bypasses the 79th Street Boat Basin, home to an eccentric mix of nautical enthusiasts, Sunday sailors and true drifters.

His whole emphasis on Manhattan is questionable: Some of the most exciting waterfront developments are occurring on the New Jersey shore. He doesn’t even mention the biggest project underway in the harbor, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, the billion-dollar bonanza (or boondoggle) that represents all that’s right (or wrong) with New York’s attitude toward its waterfront.

The project, more or less approved but awaiting funds, could have changed the city. With the exception of certain sections of Central Park (The Mall, for example, or the Ramble), New York has nothing equal to the great green spaces in London and Paris, which provide residents of those cities much needed opportunities for solitude — walks and benches rather than rollerblading rinks.

The Brooklyn Bridge Park, which would turn unused piers and wharves into hotel and recreation centers, with a music amphitheater, swimming pool, cafes, restaurants and stores, simply repeats what exists at Chelsea Piers, South Street Seaport, Battery Park City and similar venues.

Park planners, despite 15 years of lead time, have proposed a singularly unimaginative use of one of New York’s great vistas. By ignoring this story, Mr. Lopate misses an opportunity to have his say on the future of New York’s harborside.

Rex Roberts is a writer and designer living in New York City.

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