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14 July 2011

Book Review The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square

The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times SquareThe Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What is it with folks who write for the New Yorker publishing books that claim to be stand-alone works but are, in actuality, simply a collection of the articles they've written for the New Yorker, expanded and stitched together with rough yarn?

All of that said, I enjoyed the read immensely, regardless of the patchwork feel of the thing.  Traub does a nice job of presenting the history of Times Square (if a little spotty on some of the details of certain, "uninteresting" eras)

One feels nostalgic for the bygone era before television killed the urban gathering place.  A gathering like the two million who congregated in Times Square on August 14, 1945 would now likely take place on Fox News, CNN and Facebook.  And one feels the loss of that sense of community.

One also realizes that "Broadway" is a relatively modern invention.  And that it has never been about quality;  profit.  Always profit.  Traub writes, "It seems a strange irony that the quality of theatrical writing improved markedly as the cultural power of theater declined;  but perhaps it's no irony at all.  As Broadway lost its status as the proving ground for national culture, where plays were hatched to be distributed to the hustings, theater became an increasingly local medium, needing to please only a local, and of course, a sophisticated audience.  Movies took on the burden of suiting the lowest common denominator."

I disagreed with Traub's placement of the early musicals (ie Oklahoma) as literary schlock designed to peddle songs;  there is very little similarity to the kind of musicals that started with Oklahoma and the musical revues of decades prior, a mistake that shows Traub is thinking more as an urban historian than a music historian.

And Traub is of a mind that Times Square is now inauthentic because crime and vice are under control;  somehow, to Traub, a place is not real unless there are drug deals, arrests and porn.  "...vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated, or accepted as the price of "authentic" urban life, if the streets were to be made welcoming to "respectable" folk ... [but] how could you eradicate whatever was pathological about 42nd Street and its environs without, at the same time, eliminating everything that made it worth caring about in the first place?"

I'm not a New Yorker, so I can't claim that I understand exactly where Traub is coming from and, intellectually, I see his point, but the idea that making a place safe kills its soul seems incongruous.  Perhaps cleaning it up creates a different soul.  But clean, safe and entertaining does not necessarily make a place soulless.  Except when it does.  Hmmm.

I also found highly amusing the genesis of the idea that Times Square meant lots of lights and signs;  there was a time when urban planning and zoning decried the signs as pure trash but now you cannot build in Times Square without including signs;  the rules are very strict.  The Great White Way must remain; though it is less white now, in many ways.

The main point of the second half of the book seems to be the development of our idea of populism and how it has changed over the years.  Sadly, populism is now corporate culture.  "Our idea of populism was whatever it is people would choose for entertainment in their spare time;  it required that we be non-judgemental," said Rebecca Robertson, a public official tasked with revitalizing Times Square in the 198os.  Traub goes on to comment, with obvious distaste, "Once you choose to be nonjudgmental in matters of taste, you will eventually find common ground with the equally nonjudgemental purveyors of mass culture."

So redevelopment planners are at a disadvantage;  "The 42nd Street Development Project was designed to make the block attractive to private developers, who would lease most of the space on the street.  Public officials would establish design guidelines, but the marketplace would decide who would occupy the space.  And the marketplace was going to supply the lowest common denominator."  So we get Applebee's and Toys R Us instead of "authentic" businesses.   Architect Kevin Kennon says, "The big problem that architects have faced is how to energize a public space.  So much of what used to be public activity has now been superceded by television, the Internet, videoconferencing.  You're trying to say that a life exists in the public realm that's not virtual;  but because that virtual part of us is so ingrained in us, we have to work with it in order to reengage the real world."  Traub goes on to elaborate; "So the task, in other words, was to revitalize that old sense of Times Square as an agora, a happy urban welter, even as entities like Morgan Stanley were turning Times Square into the central switchboard of the global information network - to harness the abstract, bit-stream world in the service of the face-to-face world that it seemed bent on eradicating."

People call this kind of development process "Disney-fying" a place but there's great irony in that Disney's true involvement in Times Square redevelopment is one of the most "authentic;"  Disney re-created the "archaic splendors of the New Amsterdam Theatre and has used it to present The Lion King, an exercise in avant-garde puppetry that has confounded the company's critics with its insistent modernity and its unmistakable stamp of individual authorship."  Yet Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, says, "Personally, as a guy who supports the arts, works in the arts, spent my life doing it, for me personally to produce a play is very interesting, but when I think of what I need to do for the company, it makes sense to do things with a great return."  Disney and Clear Channel (responsible for most of the Broadway tours) "face issues of scale that necessarily change their calculations;  investments are not worth making if they can yield only a modest profit.  And the imperative of mass appeal sharply limits one's options, in theater as in every other art form ... neither Clear Channel nor Disney is likely to nudge theatergoers every far from their comfort zone, because there's simply not enough money in discomfort."

So art and profit will never meet.  And the entertainment that will survive will be the one that stuffs the most money into people's pockets.  And places like Times Square will always reflect that relationship between art, entertainment and profit.  For better.  Or for worse.

And one can't help but wonder how our current ideas of populism will fare;  perhaps someday, when populism is so virtual that there is no sense of carbon-based community,  we'll feel nostalgia for the big touring musicals and Applebees because at least, back in the day, people got out of their houses and saw each other in the flesh once in a while.  And then some urban planner will be tasked with recreating the suburban shopping mall as the great gathering place.  And it will be decried as inauthentic because you just can't bring back Claire's and Target without making them a parody of themselves.


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