Broadway's Longest Running Flop

It was high noon--or just about--in Columbus Circle. I watched as some 35 squatters awaited the deadline to leave their recent residences in front of the New York Coliseum. Complaints about the homeless people who were overrunning the sidewalk had led to an eviction order.

Police cordoned off the area, and, muttering curses, the squatters carted their belongings away. After the cops and reporters left, the circle settled down again. It probably hadn't seen so much press since Mafia boss Joe Columbo was wounded there in 1971 at an Italian-American Unity Day rally. I was only a year old then, but I remember grown-ups for years rehashing the shooting and the prompt killing of the would-be hit man, who had lived near us.

Not much goes on here, yet everything goes on here. Intended to echo the grand hubs of European capitals, Columbus Circle is really a triangle, and a somewhat dysfunctional one at that. Its flow is interrupted by traffic lights, weirdly angled intersections, and a parking lot at its very heart. Buses pass through on their way uptown and downtown and from midtown to upstate. Three major subway lines roar below. Horse-drawn carriages line up to take tourists through nearby Central Park, while New Yorkers bustle through on their way to somewhere else.

DREAMS DEFERRED. I wondered about these crossroads and thought, surely Columbus Circle must have been meant for something else, something greater. And, true enough, I learned that the circle has always been a promising but neglected stepchild, looking on while the city grew up around it. Time after time, as the city's economy boomed, grand plans were laid for the circle. But they all had a way of turning into hard-luck stories--nagging reminders that New York isn't always the city of unlimited opportunity.

Perched some 70 feet above the traffic and watching all the deferred dreams pass is the granite statue of Christopher Columbus, a gift from Italian immigrants in 1892 to mark the quadricentennial of Columbus' landing in the New World. Ninth Avenue became Columbus Avenue as part of an effort to bring prestige and value to the blocks surrounding the new circle.

It was William Randolph Hearst's twin obsessions, money and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, that drew him to the area. In 1912, the tycoon publisher began upgrading the district by furnishing the Maine Memorial at the entrance to Central Park. The sculpture commemorates the sinking of the U. S. battleship Maine, an event that triggered the Spanish-American War, which Hearst's jingoistic tabloids had promoted. Later, he bought and renovated the Cosmopolitan Theater on 58th Street as a showplace for Davies, who, alas, never quite became the star Hearst had in mind.

In the 1920s, hearing talk of plans for a Hudson River bridge at 59th Street, Hearst bought more property around Columbus Circle. But the span to New Jersey, the George Washington Bridge, was built 120 blocks north in 1931.

In a final attempt to make Columbus Circle a magnet to rival Madison Square and Times Square, Hearst planned for his International Magazine Building to tower over 57th Street. But the Depression helped create one of New York's true architectural oddities instead: a six-story building with huge sandstone columns on each corner that had been scaled to decorate a massive skyscraper.

Development around the circle was dormant until the 1950s, when West Side Story was on everyone's mind and urban renewal was the order of the day. Along with the tenement razings that cleared the site for Lincoln Center to the north, planning czar Robert Moses commissioned the New York Coliseum. In its heyday, the Coliseum's four exhibition floors hosted everything from a Soviet cultural exposition to a political rally for John F. Kennedy and drew 24 million visitors in 10 years.

Even so, the facility was deemed too small for conventions that were growing ever larger. So, in 1986, the city opened the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center between 34th and 37th streets, and these days, the Coliseum's floors seldom hold anything but dust and plywood. Occasionally, portions are rented for such events as tryouts for TV's semibarbaric American Gladiators and registration for the New York City Marathon.

To the skeleton crew that stays on at the Coliseum, the Javits Center is unspeakable--when it has to be mentioned, it's "that place over there." Arthur Zernis, who began at the Coliseum 35 years ago as an air-conditioning repairman, tells me that "I hear it's sinking, even."

That won't save the Coliseum. Publisher/developer Mortimer Zuckerman agreed to buy the Coliseum in 1985. In its place, he planned two 68-story office towers that, critics calculated, would cast a shadow over much of Central Park. Jacqueline Onassis, Bill Moyers, and other prominent New Yorkers waged an epic battle to scale back the project. On his third try, Zuckerman came up with a 59-story plan that was accepted by all parties involved.

Plans remain in limbo, though. Zuckerman must prove that the Clean Air Act won't be violated, since the Coliseum is lined with asbestos that is harmless as long as it is contained. Even if Zuckerman gets demolition approval, however, Manhattan has a glut of unused offices and probably will for some time.

WHITE ELEPHANT. A quarter-turn to the southeast on the circle lies another monument to broken dreams--in this case, those of Huntington Hartford, heir to the A&P fortune. In 1957, he commissioned Edward Durell Stone to design the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art. The result, a toy-like marble building that reflects Stone's interpretation of Middle Eastern motifs, opened in 1964 with exhibitions of the works of Salvador Dali and Jose Clemente Orozco. But Hartford never came close to his dream of upstaging the Museum of Modern Art and closed the gallery in 1969. Nearly windowless, the building was unrentable as office space. Finally, Gulf & Western Inc. (now Paramount Communications Inc.), another circle resident, bought it and donated it to the city for use as a visitors' bureau.

Returning to the circle a month after the expulsion of the homeless, I see that while some things have changed, much is really still the same. The vast sidewalk in front of the Coliseum now features fast-food stands and lunching hard hats, who are tearing up the nearby pavement. Many of the displaced squatters have merely moved across the circle to the fringes of Central Park, where they hang out in relative peace, barring the odd thunderstorm or turf squabble.

I can't help but feel that the circle--stepchild that it is to nearby Carnegie Hall, Broadway, and any number of Manhattan landmarks--will be forever struggling to find an identity of its own under the never-faltering gaze of Christopher Columbus, that confused but hopeful navigator.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.