In 1980, amid debates about “cleaning up” Times Square, New York City Mayor Ed Koch warned, “New York cannot and should not become Disneyland.
Seventeen years later, in June 1997, Disney organized a thirty-float electrical parade through the heart of Times Square to promote its animated film Hercules. The parade ran down 42nd Street past the new Disney Store, just months after the block’s last porn shops were closed by the city as part of Disney’s conditions for moving in. The New York Times reported on the “Disneyfication” of the area in an editorial announcing “42nd Street Becomes Main Street USA.”
How did the X-rated setting of City of Night and Midnight Cowboy turn into a PG-rated theme park?
Through calculated campaigns by developers, moral crusades by politicians and resounding compliance from an electorate battered by epidemics of AIDS, drugs and crime, Times Square has been “revitalized” and sanitized for your protection. In addition to protracted campaignsagainst public “vice” that have largely taken sex and drugs off the sidewalks, the city has declared war on privately owned businesses frequented by consenting adults. Under the current Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, New York has instituted a new zoning law that forbids adult businesses from operating within 500 feet of schools, churches, residences or other adult businesses. These campaigns are designed to destroy the sexual nature of neighborhoods like Times Square, eliminating virtually all adult businesses from the area, and the changes are already evident.
Prostitutes have been replaced by Beauty and the Beast ticket scalpers, drug dealers have been replaced by shops selling $4 cups of coffee, and Peep Land and the Eros Theater have been replaced by Condé Nast and Morgan Stanley skyscrapers. Tourists push strollers down sidewalks once crowded with con artists pushing three-card monte and fake Seiko watches. Construction sites abound, with signs promoting future businesses like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a twenty-five-screen movie multiplex that will restore the shells of three dilapidated Broadway theaters for use as a lobby. The greatest symbol of the New Times Square anchors the eastern end of the New 42nd Street: the Disney Store and the adjacent New Amsterdam Theater, refurbished by Disney as a Broadway showcase for The Lion King.
It’s a small world, after all.
But unlike a Disney movie, the tale of Times Square’s so-called revitalization doesn’t have a simple beginning and a pat ending. There is no single villain and no obvious hero. And there’s certainly no agreement on whether everyone will live happily ever after.
Most scripts–those preferred by Giuliani, the New York Times and the corporate-financed neighborhood cheerleaders in the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID)–focus on what New York allegedly stands to gain from the New Times Square: refurbished Broadway stages, increased tourism, improved safety and other vague, illusory and unquantifiable benefits that have come to be known collectively as “quality of life.” But few people have managed to articulate what New York has lost in the bargain.