Mickey & the Peep Show
But if drugs and disease cut into the adult venues' business, other factors were more deliberately orchestrated. Occasional campaigns to condemn a particular block to clear out the porn theaters had been going on at least since the Koch administration, as had closures under the state's 1985 health code, which forbids all anal, oral and vaginal sex in public venues, with the purported aim of reducing HIV transmission--even though sex with condoms is outlawed as well. By the time Giuliani's zoning law passed the City Council in 1995 and cops began closing businesses in 1997, most of the theaters in Times Square were already gone. The Mayor claimed the new law would ultimately leave no more than five adult stores operating in Times Square, adding, "In my opinion, one is too many."
A few media outlets have allowed for some bittersweet contemplation. The Village Voice devoted an entire issue to reflections on the old Times Square after the zoning law passed and has been one of the lone voices to decry the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax abatements the city has offered to corporations like Disney and Reuters to lure them to the area. Even in the pro-development New York Times--whose offices are located in Times Square--columnist Frank Rich admitted "a twinge of loss and apprehension" over what had been eliminated. The mix of adult and family businesses, Rich wrote, is what made 42nd Street "the crossroads of the world, for all kinds of people of every class." But for the most part, New York's media have hopped on the bandwagon lauding Times Square's new middle-class, middlebrow image.
But Delany isn't cheering, and here lies the greatest value of his work. More than his sometimes overstated critical observations, it is Delany's straightforward memories that make his book essential. He speaks from a specific perspective--as a black, gay intellectual and as someone with a personal investment in reaching across barriers to make personal and sexual connections. But the scenes he describes open a world of possibility to readers--a world that is being torn down.
Delany extols the heterogeneity of the audiences in the adult theaters: the age range, the variety in sexual preferences, the ethnic and racial mix of the clientele. And the men he remembers meeting cover every imaginable occupation, from opera singers and garbage collectors to stockbrokers and telephone repairmen. Among the wordless tricks, longtime acquaintances and occasional friends, Delany also met two long-term lovers, blasting a hole in the stereotype of adult-theater patrons.
"A glib wisdom holds that people like this just don't want relationships," Delany writes. "They have 'problems with intimacy.' But the salient fact is: These were relationships." These relationships were sometimes single encounters, other times they stretched over a decade. They were interwoven, simultaneous, intermittent. They were not love relationships or business relationships for the most part, he writes: "They were encounters whose most important aspect was that mutual pleasure was exchanged.... What greater field and force than pleasure can human beings share?"
Delany spends a great deal of time extolling the virtues of "contact"--the often-random, usually public, frequently cross-class interactions that urbanites experience every day in subway trains, bodegas and post offices. He draws a distinction--not quite an opposition, but close--between this "contact" and "networking," which he defines as the more deliberate, motive-driven, generally intraclass interactions that occur in places like professional conferences, parties, classes and social groups. Networking is designed to provide benefits to the people involved, from an inside tip about a new job to a romantic setup with a friend of a friend. Networking, Delany claims, is typically less productive than it seems at first, while contact is more "useful" than most people acknowledge.
The forced evolution of Times Square into a theme park and shopping mall for middle-class tourists and businesses, he argues, results in a loss of the contact (sexual and otherwise) that made Times Square such a valuable neighborhood for people of all classes. "What has happened to Times Square has already made my life, personally, somewhat more lonely and isolated," Delany writes. "I have talked with a dozen men whose sexual outlets, like many of mine, were centered on that neighborhood. It is the same for them."