Mickey & the Peep Show
Every Friday, the Times Square BID sponsors a free walking tour of the neighborhood. On one that I attended, close to fifty people gathered inside the Times Square Visitor Center--located in a renovated Broadway theater and offering free brochures, discounted subway farecards and the cleanest public toilets in Manhattan. The guide, an actor named Lawrence, began by telling the crowd about the "amazing renaissance and restoration" of the area. The maps and visitors' guides he handed out didn't mention adult businesses, except in a single sentence noting their demolition as part of the revitalization of the neighborhood.
As Lawrence led the group down the New 42nd Street past rehabilitated Broadway theaters owned by Disney and Ford, he pointed out that while the city had demolished several other old theaters on the block, three had been saved--to become part of the lobby of a new multiplex cinema house. One woman stopped him to ask why, if those theaters had been saved, they hadn't been saved as theaters. "That's a political question," said Lawrence, actor by training but BID promoter by trade. "I can't answer that. Anything that has to do with zoning or politics, I can't answer that."
There's not much point in talking sex or politics in 1999, from the BID's perspective. The BID won the battle for Times Square on the ground, and the victors get to write--or erase--history.
But once upon a time, sex and politics were the focal point of Times Square tours. Twenty years ago, the antiporn feminist group Women Against Pornography--which led 4,000 people in a 1979 march against sex shops in Times Square--was leading free tours of the neighborhood every week, taking groups of women into the sex establishments to show them the misogyny of porn films and the degradation of objectified women in the peep shows.
In his book, Delany too takes readers inside places like Variety Photoplays and the Capri, walking them through everything from the simple logistics (how much it cost, what hours it was open, how the theater was laid out) to the sexual activity taking place on the screen and in the seats. He even takes a woman friend into an all-male theater, just as WAP did years before. Unlike WAP, however, Delany finds camaraderie rather than degradation, connection rather than shame, possibility rather than danger. "Were the porn theaters romantic?" he asks. "Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge."
Twenty years ago, Show World was one of the main stops on the WAP tour. With several levels of peep shows, buddy booths and video shelves, it was the largest adult venue in Manhattan, and city officials called it "the flagship of the sex industry in New York."
This May, the city shuttered Show World, clearing one of the area's most desirable locations--42nd Street at 8th Avenue--for development. The building will now reportedly be converted into an amusement park for children, offering virtual-reality rides.
"The New Times Square is not the old one that lives in memory, and never will be," wrote the New York Times.
On New Year's Eve, a half-million revelers in Times Square will usher in the year 2000 as more than 300 million people around the world watch on television. As has been the tradition since 1907, a ball will drop during the countdown to midnight.
The BID is organizing the Times Square 2000 celebration, and, like everything else in Times Square, even the ball will be new, improved and absolutely clean. An aluminum sphere six feet in diameter, weighing 500 pounds and studded with more than 12,000 rhinestones will glitter and sparkle as it descends the pole atop One Times Square.
"Times Square will continue to grow into a shining example of urban renewal," promises Mayor Giuliani. "Come New Year's Eve 2000, this will be where the world will come to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium."
Wearing mouse ears.