Marshall Berman is a difficult writer to pigeonhole: a Marxist working in a post-ideological world, a living remnant of the old and splintered New York left, a passionate lover of all good art—high and low—and an incurable urban romantic. A glance at the titles of his previous books—The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society; Adventures in Marxism; and his seminal work, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity—might lead the uninitiated to the wrong conclusions. Though Berman is a professor of political science at City College of New York, his prose is anything but academic. And despite his Marxist credentials, his latest release, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, is a compulsively readable tribute to the hurly-burly of popular art and commerce. Recently, Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to Berman about the history of Times Square, its revitalization, and why he continues to be drawn to it.
On the Town looks at the history of Times Square largely through the art created about it. Did you have a set of works you wanted to explore when you started, or did you just devour everything related to Times Square?
It was a combination. Times Square has generated so many interesting works in different genres: 42nd Street, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Guys and Dolls, Eisenstaedt’s iconic V-J Day photo, and a lot of paintings. There’s a phrase by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York about the city being a “culture of congestion”—a culture of too much in the middle of too many in the middle of too much. That book had a lot about Times Square in it, and in some ways it’s one of my landmarks. Another is the artist Red Grooms’s Manhattan-scapes. He did Ruckus World in the 1970s, this wonderful life-size subway train full of twisted characters.
Why is Times Square important?
My one-liner is “It’s the sublime that you can reach on the subway.” Light is also a very important theme for me. The invention of the lightbulb in 1879 helped create Times Square. In Europe it was adapted very quickly for industry, especially in Germany, but in the United States the main people who used electricity were theater and circus owners: it was used for spectacle. In the 1880s the theater district was located between Union Square and Chelsea, and then the Metropolitan Opera opened at 39th and Broadway. When the Casino Theatre opened right opposite it, it became the first big theater to generate electronic spectacle. Twenty theaters opened up within a few years. People who owned the old theaters realized that they could do so much better with new electric theaters.
How long did it take before Times Square became a mecca for spectacle?
It happened very fast. It was happening simultaneously at Piccadilly Square in London, but London is much more intensely zoned. And Times Square could also grow to the north, whereas in London they were much more limited by existing structures. What these signs did was create a new scale: by World War I, they were already beginning to build bigger buildings as well as even bigger signs.
It’s almost as if it was the signs that created the scale for future buildings.
Yes, I think that’s true. And so in the 1920s there was a tremendous riot of building and real estate speculation. The cinemas arrive and begin to occupy prime space. You get competition between cinemas and theaters; the theaters are then pushed onto the side streets, and the movie houses, which are super-electrified, get the best spaces on Broadway.
One of the interesting themes in the book is the role women played in shaping Times Square. Tell us about how their roles changed over time.
Historically in the West (as well as in China and Japan) the theater was a gathering place for women. In the nineteenth century there were much more rigid sexual bounds than there are now and not that many places where women could go on their own in public. Times Square immediately became one of the places where they could go. Many of the buildings were boardinghouses for young women who came here—whether from the end of the world or the wilds of Queens or Brooklyn—hoping to make it in the Big City. There was probably a larger concentration of women there than anyplace else in New York.
Eventually Times Square became a hostile place to women. What happened?
During the 1930s, three of the big theatres became burlesque houses and the street became masculinized. By the end of the decade 42nd Street in particular, the Deuce—the block between Broadway and Eighth Avenue—became a place where women were scared to go. It wasn’t only hostile to women but also hostile to a particular kind of homosexual, called “fairies,” and the form of homosexuality that took over the Deuce was rough trade, which pushed the fairies out.
Times Square becomes even more hostile to women in the 60s and 70s. What prompts that?
After the war all the theatres become cheap cinemas, showing westerns, combat films, basically all male cinema. So it’s cheap movies, which is good news, but the bad news is they’re not places where boys and girls would go on a date together. They’re places where somebody would take the subway with the guys and watch a triple-feature of World War II movies, plus war newsreels. And it’s fascinating and depressing how this place that was very open to women becomes very exclusive and pushes them away. In the ’70s this becomes particularly gross, as the movies become pornographic and scary.
The revival of Times Square was in a sense about reintroducing women into the area and creating a place where they could feel safe again.
The irony of the metamorphosis of the square is that women are the most heated and angry opponents of the place and want to blow it away. I argue that women play a particularly important role: first, as a pressure group conducting these marches—very articulate women saying we have to tear all this down—and then later as smart and effective bureaucrats, all of them women, playing leading roles in pulling all the plans together and getting the new stuff built.
You’re kinder in the book to the current Times Square than I expected you to be. Why?
The good things about Times Square now are what were always good about it. Because of computer technology the light is now more exciting than it was when I was young. The signs are better. If you stand with somebody and see what happens to their face at night, they become all the colors of the rainbow. That’s exciting. What’s most upsetting to me is that rents are so high and that extremely limits the type of retail that’s going to be there. Ironically people complain about the “Disneyfication of Times Square,” but the rents are so high now that even Disney couldn’t stay in business. The company used to occupy a whole corner of 42nd and Broadway, but now it has just a small space next to the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Don’t you think that the scale of the newer buildings is a bit insane?
Yes. But the horrible buildings of the 1990s are much less horrible than the horrible buildings of the 1960s and the ’70s. Think of 1 Astor Plaza, which knocked out the Astor Hotel, or the Marriott Marquis, which erased the Helen Hayes Theater. Those buildings are really blots on the square. Compared with those monstrosities, the newer buildings—which are just blah—aren’t so bad. Buildings don’t have to be great architecture to be good urbanism.
Do you think the current Times Square is an example of good urbanism?
It’s better than I would have thought. It doesn’t repel people as much as I feared. They keep coming, and not only do they keep coming, but they’re much more diverse than ever. In the 1970s, when Americans hated New York more actively than they do now, foreigners were always delighted to visit Times Square. Now some people say that the square in Tokyo is like Times Square only better, and I hope to check it out sometime. But one thing that’s not better in Tokyo is the crowds, which from all the pictures I’ve seen are 99 percent Japanese. One of Times Square’s great features has always been the human mix.
You’re a real optimist about the square. Why?
Because you go there and the light is spectacular and the people are fascinating to look at. We also need to realize that one of the special things about America is that it can make commerce sublime. That doesn’t mean that we should give these corporate creeps everything they want, but it does mean we should appreciate commercial culture as one of our main contributions to the world. And some of the things people say about Times Square to diss it are so silly. They say, “It’s so commercial.” I mean, wasn’t it always? How else could it be? What country do they live in? What world?