Take the topic of Marshall Berman’s new book, add the tempting subtitle and throw in a dazzling introduction, and you’re pretty quickly seduced. Decade by decade, block by block, storefront by storefront, happening by happening, Berman seems poised to dissect–vivisect–what he calls “the most dynamic and intense urban space of the twentieth century.” He will take us to the magic spot where Broadway, 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue converge and escort us through the birth of the electric light bulb, the Jazz Age, the Depression, World War II, urban renewal and Disneyfication.
But alas, instead of guiding us through the storied, tawdry, tumultuous heart of New York, Berman leads us on a series of long and disappointing detours. In his Times Square, the ball doesn’t fall; it’s muffed. And it’s heartbreaking, given the irresistibility of the subject and the seemingly sure hands into which it has been entrusted.
When Berman, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at City College and the CUNY Graduate Center, writes that he really started thinking about Times Square in the 1990s, he sells himself short. Beginning with his childhood pilgrimages there from the Bronx, Times Square was a magic kingdom for him long before Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse showed up. His father worked half a block away, and what better way to come to love a place than to frequent it with a beloved parent who dies young? Afterward, Berman took in Sunday brunches with his mother, for whom walking on its streets was, as she put it, like taking “a bath of light.” He patronized its secondhand bookstores and magazine shops for decades, even after–he is refreshingly honest–they began peddling porn. And he spent thirty years teaching in the neighborhood, watching it decline from the world of On the Town–the musical, not this book–to that of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. When plans arose to clean all that up, Berman was in the middle of it all, kibitzing. He knows Times Square’s every corner.
But it’s the damndest thing: For much of this book, he can’t seem to get away from the place fast enough. He gets away substantively, largely ignoring its rich, textured, demimondish history and launching into long pontifications about works of art–Sister Carrie, Fancy Free, Guys and Dolls, Sex and the City, The Simpsons–which, while connected to Times Square to varying degrees, are necessarily one step removed. His book reminded me of the moment when the giant Kodak photograph that once befouled the noble interior of Grand Central Terminal featured an image of–the noble interior of Grand Central Terminal. Why discuss some simulacrum when you can talk about the sights and sounds and smells of the real thing? And he gets away physically: Times Square quickly extends beyond “the deuce” (42nd Street) and the “bowtie” (the area just north of where Broadway and Seventh Avenue cross) to include the entire theater district and, in some instances, all of New York City.
Berman thereby pulls off a sleight of hand worthy of the Times Square con men, whom, like so many aspects of the neighborhood, he almost entirely ignores: For large stretches of his book, he makes Times Square itself disappear. Readers hungry for information about its history and folkways and evolution are sent on a scavenger hunt, unearthing a sentence here and a paragraph there before being led off on another digression. Many of the choicest tidbits about the place–usually discovered by others who have done their homework–are relegated to footnotes.