Times Square: From Filth To Fantasia

Sy the Shoe Shine Guy has been buffing the wing tips of the rich and famous at his stand in Times Square's spiffy Marriott Marquis since the hotel opened 10 years ago. But it's the old, long-gone Times Square that really gets Sy going. "I took my wife out on our first date here," he recounts. "Roth's Delicatessen for corned-beef sandwiches. There was also the Copacabana. That's where you'd go if you wanted to take a girl out someplace really spectacular. If you wanted to impress the gal. The Metropole had dancing. Live girls dancing on the bar."

He catches himself, realizing the image of "live girls" in Times Square these days isn't quite so wholesome. "Oh, no! Not like the nude dancing they have at some of these places today." Sy points mut the window to some of the hot spots. I'm sure that in his mind's eye, he saw his old haunts as clearly this afternoon as he did years ago when they existed. All I see is a giant Michael Jackson billboard cutout erected against the building across the street.

Sy, in his 60s, is old enough to have seen two Times Squares: the tail end of the raffish, stylish era of Damon Runyon, when Broadway sizzled and New York's guys and dolls flocked to the Deuce, and then the period of theatrical decline, with more and more theaters catering to sleaze and cheap thrills. The decay seemed to take hold more forcefully as each decade passed. Happily, however, Sy is still fit enough to be around for the third Times Square incarnation that, by all accounts, will arrive with the new century.

This one is going to be big, corporate, glamorous, and wholesome--or so everyone swears. Like the earlier versions, it's also going to be flashy. The law, in fact, demands it. Times Square is the only place in the city where "super signs"--by definition mammoth and unique--are zoning requirements.

DRAMATIC ENCORE. The first stage of the new Times Square is already under way: Walt Disney Co.'s $34 million deal to renovate the 92-year old New Amsterdam Theater on 41st Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, former home of the Ziegfeld Follies. Livent Inc., the theater division of Canadian entertainment mogul Garth H. Drabinsky, has announced an $18 million plan to revamp the Lyric and Academy Theaters on the same block. One of their neighbors will be a Madame Tussaud's wax museum. Virgin Records is opening the world's largest record store on Broadway at 45th Street, while Sony Corp. will open one of its high-tech Imax cinemas. Even Morgan Stanley & Co., the staid old Wall Street firm, is getting in the act: The finishing touches are being put on its jazzy renovation of 1585 Broadway. The 41-story building has an 18-foot high LED screen covering its entire east side, and 24 digital clocks will display the time in more than 30 cities around the world. On the drawing board are plans to renovate the grubby, massive Times Square subway station and run a trolley along 42nd Street.

The forces for goodness and all things decent are already establishing their beachheads. Everywhere tourists might stray, they see red and purple jumpsuits of the sanitation crews from the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) and the even more reassuring sight of the group's uniformed security officers. BID was formed three years ago to increase the area's appeal to tourists and businesses. Companies in the district voluntarily pay higher taxes to cover its expenses.

COUNTERFEIT WATCHES. With its sister organization, the 42nd Street Development Project, BID works closely with shelters to get homeless people off their streets, even offering some of them jobs with its crews. Lending a hand to the gentrification process is Times Square's own judicial forum, the 24-hour Midtown Community Court, set up to handle misdemeanor crimes such as small-time swindles or prostitution. On a typical day, BID Security Officer X.A. Bosami might haul someone in for selling fake Rolex watches outside a hotel or swindling tourists in three-card monte. Most sentences are community service projects or minor fines.

All is not sweetness and light, of course. Forces for the nasty old Times Square are hanging tough in redoubts like Peep Land, a girlie show at 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, admission $6. A 22-year-old performer I spoke with would not give her name. Wearing a white fringed bra and nothing else, she talked to me at a doorway that led to a glass partition separating the nude and near-nude women from the clientele. Her colleagues spent their time chatting with one another or tapping the glass pane to grab the attention of prospective viewers.

We had established that the stripper was saving about $400 a week from tips and salary to attend photography school in the fall, and she had started giving a little of her personal history--runaway at age 11--when a client beckoned, and I was shooed away by the manager/den mother, a tough woman who looked like an old hand at Times Square's less reputable businesses. "You can't talk to these girls while they're working," she snapped. "I know it may not look like it to you, but we are working."

Maybe not for much longer, though. It seems that the reverse of Gresham's Law is at work in Times Square: The corporate presence is driving out the bad. About half of the porn-related businesses in the area have been bought out or shut down over the past 11 years, according to the 42nd Street Development Project. In fact, BID and the Development Project hope to have 50% of the remaining porn businesses gone by the first quarter of 1996.

Which raises a question: Will Times Square still be Times Square if Mickey Mouse triumphs over Jailbait Jill? Most patrons of the Triple-X places seem to be natives, with only the odd group of anxious sailors or the occasional tourist able to conquer his nervousness. Still, even some New Yorkers who wouldn't be caught dead in a porno place take an odd pride in Times Square's seediness--its outrageous marquees and world-class hustlers. In fact, the contrarian Village Voice was one of the first to express concern that Times Square might be losing a chunk of its wild side. Even in the Runyon era, part of the draw were the gangsters, showgirls, and speakeasies.

But tourists told me they want safety, clean streets, and a good look at the world-famous signs and parade of humanity. Not to mention the souvenirs and bargain-priced electronic gadgets flowing out of many of the stores, mostly owned by immigrants. Lately, more foreign tourists have been visiting as the dollar has weakened. To cater to them, even the smallest electronics store seems to have a sign indicating the languages its employees speak.

For these storekeepers, a rejuvenated Times Square means more tourists and more business. Granted, if George M. Cohan, father of the Broadway musical, came to life from his statue at 47th and Seventh to give his regards, he might not recognize some of the old blocks. But who knows, maybe he would toast the new, livelier facades and the sense of energy that has long been missing.

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