Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


42nd Street

Forty years ago, New York reacted to the loss of old Pennsylvania Station by passing a law to protect city landmarks. This series, in partnership with Open House New York, looks at the physical city since the birth of the preservation movement.

Famed Broadway director Hal Prince was horrified when he visited the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street in 1986, 83 years after it really was new: "I will not lie to you," he wrote to the owner. "That can be the best legit theater in New York City and of course it would have been ideal for Phantom of the Opera. But there is no way I would go near 42nd Street or ask anyone else to."

Why wouldn't he?

"While we were waiting in front of the theater," he explained, "on one side of us a drug sale took place, and on the other..." something salacious.

Two decades later, Matthew Postal was also horrified when he visited the newly New Amsterdam Theater, which for the last seven years has been home to Disney's The Lion King, but horrified for a completely different reason.

"What they did at the New Amsterdam Theater is astonishing, preserving the building and bringing it back to life," said Postal, an architectural historian who gives a midnight tour of Times Square called "Peeling Back the Neon." "But as you walk further west, it's horrific. I don't have any reason to go there."

Why wouldn't he?

"It's completely for tourists," he explained.

And there it is - the new 42nd Street versus the old 42nd Street.

On the old 42nd Street, the marquee on the Victory Theater promised "Best Porn XXX in Town." On the new 42nd Street, the theater, renamed the New Victory Theater, doesn't even have a marquee anymore; it was restored to its original turn-of-the-century, pre-porn look, and is now a children's theater.

On the other hand, the old 42nd Street had theaters with names like Lyric and Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. On the new 42nd Street, those two theaters have been merged and renamed not after Greek gods but a succession of corporate ones -- first a car manufacturer (Ford), then a hotel chain (Hilton). It is currrently operated by Clear Channel, one of the largest media conglomerates on the planet.

On the old 42nd Street -- way back in the 1920s -- visitors to the city attended the Liberty Theater to see Fred Astaire or Jeanette MacDonald. On the new 42nd Street, they go to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum to see a replica of Fred Astaire.

And on 41st Street and Eighth Avenue, where there used to be a student dormitory, the state used its power of eminent domain for the "public purpose" of building a new headquarters for the New York Times. The 52-story building will even bar tenants with actual public purposes, such as a social service office, a court-related facility, a medical clinic, or even a school.

Ten years after the old 42nd Street -- sleazy and scary -- started being transformed into "The New 42nd Street" -- cleaned-up, crime-free, and corporate -- all the critical questions of urban planning facing the city seem to be playing out on that one famous street.

Each Friday, Judy Richheimer gives a free tour of Times Square on behalf of the Times Square Alliance, and each week she begins by asking, "What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say Times Square?"

"Red light district," said one man on a recent tour.
"High crime," said another.

Richheimer nodded. Although neither of these things are still the case, she said, they are still the answers she gets most frequently. Indeed, the tour group is still accompanied by a safety officer "in case someone thinks a three-card monte player is going to grab them or something."

Times Square is still living down a reputation, earned in the 1970s, of world headquarters for sleaze.

The two police precincts in the area had the highest crime rates in the city, with a murder occurring almost every day. The New York Times described its own neighborhood as a "boulevard of filth" and a "sordid and dangerous place."

After years of trying to address crime by hiring more police or cracking down on prostitution or drugs, city officials tried a different approach: they set out to remake the physical landscape of a 13-acre area of 42nd Street from Broadway to Eighth Avenue.

In 1979, the first grand scheme for the area was entitled "The City at Forty-second Street." It called for a gigantic indoor mall with "educational, entertainment, and exhibits" and 2.1 million square feet of retail shopping connected by aerial walkways and a monorail. The notion was to create a controlled environment where business people and shoppers would feel safe, separated from the street below.

Mayor Ed Koch dismissed the proposal as "Disneyland at 42nd Street" and argued that people wouldn't come to Times Square to ride a ferris wheel. The plan was scrapped.

In 1983, another plan emerged. Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee proposed building four massive office towers in Times Square that would house law firms and other corporate clients.

The plan had the support of the city and state, but it met strong opposition from those with vested interests in the area.

Powerful real estate families like the Bradts and the Dursts, who owned many of the properties in the area, filed dozens of lawsuits to block the new buildings. The Municipal Art Society, concerned that Broadway may come to resemble the office towers of Sixth Avenue, worked to create a law that mandates a minimum amount of lit billboards on each block. And the arts community rallied to save the area's historic theaters.

The legal battles lasted for ten years and the developers eventually won their case. But by that time, many of the original investors no longer wanted to be part of the project.

But out of the process city offices gained powerful tools: zoning regulations to drive out porn and sex shops, the approval for taller buildings, and the power to condemn private property for its own use.

In 1990, ten years after the first failed plan, the city launched a new effort called The New 42nd Street, a non-profit group charged with reviving seven old theaters and luring new businesses to the area.

The Victory Theater 1987


Cora Cahan, who had a background in the arts and fundraising, was chosen to head up the project. The first challenge was restoring the Victory Theater, the oldest theater in Manhattan.

The theater, originally called the Republic, was built by Oscar Hammerstein in 1900, and was successful until the Great Depression. In the 1930s, it was a burlesque theater and in the 1950s it featured first run films. By the 1970s, it became the first porn theater on 42nd Street.

In her office, Cahan still keeps a giant picture of the theater taken in 1987, when it screened titles like "French Orgy" and "Scent of Sex."

The New Victory Theater today

In an act of defiance, the board of directors of New 42nd Street voted to turn the sleezey Victory into a quaint children's theater. The 16-month renovations cost $11.4 million and when it opened in 1995, the theater was restored largely to its original state, with a domed ceiling and marble staircase.

"This little theater heralded a change on a famous - and often infamous - block," said Cahan. Now, instead of "Scent of Sex," the theater offers shows like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Fish" and "Dear Fizzy."

With the New Victory Theater's redevelopment underway, the city and state began negotiations with a powerful new tenant. Disney CEO Michael Eisner was looking for a place to showcase a Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast, and the city brought him to look at the New Amsterdam Theater.

Restored New Amsterdam Theater

The New Amsterdam, which opened in 1903 and was later home to the Ziegfeld Follies, had been abandoned. The previous owner, who had wanted to knock the theater down and put in parking garage, walked away after the Landmarks Commission declared it a historic landmark.

When Eisner toured the theater, there was a giant hole in the roof, ice waterfalls had formed on the box seats, and a tree was growing out of the orchestra pit.

After two years and $38 million in renovations, the New Amsterdam opened in 1997. In 1998, the Lion King opened, earning six Tony Awards, including "Best Musical."

Tapping into corporations who wanted to be associated with the street's revival - and wanted to sell their products to the tourists now flocking to the area - proved to be a successful model. And it was replicated all along the street.

Developer Forest City Ratner moved the entire 3,700-ton Empire Theater 168 feet down 42nd Street, then merged it with the Liberty and the Harris theaters to create a five-story entertainment complex, which includes a 25-screen AMC movie theater and Madame Tussuad's Wax Museum.

Livent, a Toronto-based theater company, agreed to merge two theaters, the Lyric and Apollo, into a new 1800-seat Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The building is currently operated by the media company Clear Channel and was recently renamed Hilton Theater.

The Roundabout Theater Company agreed to restore the Selwyn Theater, which was renamed the American Airlines Theater.

In 2000, New 42nd Street launched a new project, a ten-story building of rehearsal spaces and offices called the New 42nd Street Studios, and a 199-seat theater called Duke on 42nd Street.

"We claimed a place for the city's performing artists in the middle of 42nd Street," said Cahan. "It's a building where people can create work in the best of circumstances."

But the studio and performance space for artists is only possible because companies like Clear Channel, Reuters, and Ecko Unlimited help pay rent to New 42nd Street. And in order to lure these kinds of companies, the city offered significant tax breaks and subsidies.

One of the final aspects of the area's revival is 41st Street and Eighth Avenue, where the New York Times is currently building its new headquarters.

New York Times Headquarters

Developer Forest City Ratner believes that the 52-story building, designed by architect Renzo Piano, will not only be a significant addition to the area, but will stand out as one of the city's enduring sky-scrapers. (They have even hired photographer Annie Leibovitz to document the construction, as Lewis Hines did with the Empire State Building and Margaret Bourke-White did for the Chrysler Building.)

The building features translucent glass that the architect says will reflect the "transparent" nature of the namesake tenant. It also includes a 350-seat auditorium for civic and community events and an open-air garden.

Developers also believe the building will help lead to a similar revitalization of the area west and south of 42nd Street.

"It is a stepping-stone to all of the rezoning on the West Side, the Javits Center, and projects up and down Eighth Avenue," said James Stuckey, a vice president for Forest City Ratner. "In many ways, it has allowed the plan unveiled in the Koch years to come into its full glory."

But critics question how the state can justify the use of eminent domain to build a building that bans many public uses like classrooms, employment agencies, or medical offices.

They also say the public is paying too much of the cost.

Developers of the New York Times building will get $26 million in tax breaks and subsidies, and they are reportedly seeking $170 million more.

"Thanks to a deal with the Pataki and Giuliani administrations, The New York Times Company is in line to get a choice midtown property at tens of millions of dollars below market value - and city taxpayers will foot the difference," Paul Moses wrote in the Village Voice.

The transformation of 42nd Street in the last ten years is, by any measure, astounding.

The area is remarkably safe (although crime across the city is also at record lows and many still argue over exactly what has lead to the decline.) Nearly 60,000 people a day walk down the street, up 45 percent from five years ago. There are 5,000 theater seats on 42nd Street, which had not been the case since the 1930s. The street boasts two hotels and two huge movie cineplexes, including the AMC Empire 25, which its owners claim is the single most lucrative movie theater in the nation. Not to be outdone, the McDonalds on the block bills itself as the world's largest.

That, critics say, is part of the problem. The new 42nd Street resembles exactly what New Yorkers didn't want it to be, what public officials rejected in the 1980s.

It is indeed the tourist theme park that Koch derided as "Disneyland on 42nd Street"; not only is Disney itself programming much of the entertainment on the street, there is even literally a ferris wheel, around the corner at the Times Square Toys R Us (which -- no surprise -- bills itself as the world's largest toy store).

"Las Vegas and Times Square had very little in common 40 years ago; now they bear a strong family resemblance," wrote James Traub, author of The Devil's Playground, a book on the history of Times Square.

And the giant office towers that so many fought against for a decade now dominate the area. "The tall buildings that line Broadway look a lot like the tall buildings that line Third Avenue and have much the same tenants," said Traub.

The revival has also come at a steep price for taxpayers.

The renovations of the Times Square subway station cost an estimated $180 million. The 42nd Street Economic Development Corporation says it spent $140 million to acquire and knock down old buildings. And many companies in city-owned buildings - like Disney in the New Amsterdam - are charged below market rate rents.

But Times Square is not just any neighborhood. Battles among artists, corporations, real estate developers, and politicians have been playing out there for over a hundred years - and they will continue in the future.

"Ultimately, it is in the spirit of what it has been for 100 years," says Matthew Postal. "It was a relatively user friendly, over the top, commercial place in 1920. And that is what it is now."

Times Square Alliance
New 42nd Street Project
New Amsterdam Theater
Victory Theater
The Duke on 42nd Street
New New York Times Building
Interactive Timeline of Times Square

Times Square Roulette by Lynne B. Sagalyn
The Devil's Playground by James Traub




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