On the Corner

On the Corner

Times Square may be the most dynamic urban space of the twentieth century, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Marshall Berman’s On the Town.


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.

One senses the problem early on, when Berman first writes about Times Square’s famous signs. (I say “first” because he returns repeatedly to the topic, sometimes to say almost precisely what he has said before. The book reads like a series of lectures given on different days, which he–and presumably his editor–have made little effort to stitch together.) He extols the work of Douglas Leigh, the man who designed two of Times Square’s most iconic “fire signs”–the neon waterfall of Bond Clothes and the advertisement for Camel cigarettes (the one that blew out gigantic smoke rings)–which dominated the scene in the 1940s. When he calls Leigh “one of Times Square’s unsung heroes,” one savors what he is about to sing. But he does nothing of the sort. Instead, he moves on.

The same is true for the history of the place generally: He’s too busy strutting his intellectual stuff to offer any of it very systematically. “The energy I hoped to expend in a general chapter on Times Square in the 1920s got channeled instead into a chapter-long essay on Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer,” he concedes at one point. This becomes the pattern: a distraction per decade. Berman’s book (is it not the height of chutzpah, not to say confusing, to give it the same title as one of the classic depictions of Times Square, one he writes about at great length?) is ongepotchket, thrown together, and it’s not enough to argue, as he does, that because disarray is one of the things that makes Times Square great, it’s good enough for a book about it, too.

Berman does make some crucial points about Times Square, again and again. In these instances, at least, the repetition works; thanks to his intelligence, sense of romance and way with words, he crystallizes things beautifully, thrillingly and always in a slightly different but penetrating way. Uniquely dense, dynamic and democratic, Times Square to him is the quintessential urban experience–“a kind of human greenhouse where everyone can grow.” For more than a century, “being attuned to Times Square’s overfullness has been one of the basic ways of being at home in New York.” Times Square is a place that “makes people want to dance, but also makes ordinary walking feel like dancing and ordinary people feel like dancers,” a place “where you feel the city is hugging you,” a place “that wakes people up and makes them feel alive, more alive than they are supposed to be.” What makes Times Square work for him is not just its radiance but its wickedness; it is not some antiseptic Santa Monica mall of a city but “a chupah for the marriage between heaven and hell.”

For Berman, what captures the spirit of Times Square–its promise, its optimism, its sexuality–better than anything is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic photograph, taken on V-J Day, of a sailor exuberantly kissing–really, almost knocking her off her feet–a nurse in the middle of the street. In the years to come, Berman points out, demagogic red-state politicians would drive a wedge between New York and the rest of the country; but on that day, in that picture, Times Square represented all of America. It is, he says, “one of our archetypal images of fulfillment.” But here, too, he quickly derails himself, launching into a mildly interesting but largely irrelevant discussion of the enduring sex appeal of sailors and their tendency to foment revolutions.

Berman returns repeatedly, and interestingly, to the history of women in Times Square: how the place liberated them early from traditionally sexist American mores by providing a safe place to earn livings as shopgirls and secretaries and chorines; how it became a forbidding place for them during the Depression and beyond; and how, in recent years, women have not just returned but taken over, holding key positions in its makeover. Indeed, to Berman the feminization has gone entirely too far; he depicts some of these officials as Comstocks who’ve robbed Times Square of its signature raciness.

There are occasional descriptions of what Times Square looked like. In the 1940s, Berman writes, it “had an amazing array of hangouts: bars, dance halls, cheap cafeterias (automats were in their prime), gyms, vaudeville and movie houses, burlesque shows, every class of nightspots, brothels.” But he stops there. He drops teasing references to such local landmarks as Lindy’s, Toffinetti’s, the Astor Bar, Horn & Hardart, the Playland Arcade and Hubert’s Museum (where, he neglects to mention, Jack Johnson appeared in his final sad days) but, predictably, doesn’t elaborate. New York’s Municipal Archives has photographs taken between 1939 and 1941 of every single block in Manhattan, Times Square included. Could Berman not have hopped on the 2/3 train? And given his knowledge and love for the place, would they not have conjured up an extraordinary number of memories and observations?

Berman also offers brief references to how the Square has changed over time–how it became not just more impoverished but also more democratized and politicized and sophisticated in the Popular Front years of the 1930s, then waxed fat in the affluence following World War II, then went into precipitous decline. By the 1960s, it housed a thriving heroin market; emerging from the library or the theater, he recalls, one sometimes heard gunshots. Berman describes how, for a time, he had to walk the women in his classes to the subway and the Port Authority, steering clear of 42nd Street altogether. Once, he witnessed a man smash another man’s skull with a club.

One wishes he offered more such reflections. Instead, he never saw a tangent, or sine or cosine, he could resist. “If this were a different book,” he writes at one point, “I would argue that the first up-from-the-bottom modern star was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” But it’s not, and he doesn’t. Sometimes, he even admits it. “I may even be cutting corners,” he writes while discussing the film The Last Detail, whose characters, he concedes, “never reach Times Square.” (Incidentally, how is it possible to write about “one hundred years of spectacle in Times Square” and fail to mention–even once–the most famous Times Square spectacle of all, the one that happens every New Year’s Eve? Like most New Yorkers, I wouldn’t be caught dead at it, but I’d be curious to know how the tradition originated and how it has evolved.)

Berman writes as if he’s so burdened with knowledge–according to the press materials accompanying the book, he “has a cult following that has nicknamed him ‘Mr. New York'”–that he doesn’t know where to begin. So, all too often, he doesn’t. And when he does return to the topic ostensibly at hand, it’s sometimes a reach. I don’t remember that the mythical city in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise resembled New York at all, let alone Times Square. Similarly, just how is that famous Oscar Levant wisecrack–that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin–“one of the all-time classic Times Square jokes?” Berman suggests it’s because Levant said it to Jack Paar; but according to Levant’s biographer, Sam Kashner, Levant’s bons mots on Paar’s program were usually recycled from years earlier; this one, Kashner speculates, probably originated 3,000 miles away, at Chasen’s or some other Hollywood hangout. There’s no evidence that Levant made the comment to Paar, by the way, and even if he did, Paar filmed his show at Rockefeller Center. Is that now part of Times Square, too?

Berman has several annoying tics. He uses certain words–bildung, canonical, dyad–too often. He can’t stop attacking the same easy targets, often in nearly identical language: the Interstate Highway System (for killing American cities); Jerome Robbins and Abe Burrows (for ratting to the House Un-American Activities Committee); Gerald Ford (for telling New York to drop dead); Rudy Giuliani (for being Rudy Giuliani). He makes flip comments of dubious validity–e.g., that there are probably fewer virgins walking around Times Square today than ever before. He’s a serial showoff–somehow, you just know Walter Benjamin will eventually make an appearance here, and he doesn’t disappoint–and he drops names, sometimes quite literally. Maybe George Bernard Shaw’s friends called him “Bernard” but must Berman, too–repeatedly? (He also can’t resist extraneous parenthetical information–for instance, that Isaiah Berlin was his supervisor at Oxford.)

And for all of his obvious energy, he can be lazy. How hard could it have been to check whether Artie Shaw did indeed play in Times Square on V-J Day, as he surmises, or whether it was Frank Sinatra or Gene Kelly who asks, “Where’s the fire?” as the cops chase them through Times Square in On the Town? And Google could have revealed whether Starbucks is named after the character in Moby-Dick. When, in his recently published memoir, Bob Dylan moves Jack Dempsey’s famous theater district restaurant nine blocks north of where it actually was, Berman fumes: “Is there nobody old at Simon and Schuster who remembers, or nobody young who has read, all about the years when Jack Dempsey was king of Times Square?” But he misspells Starbucks and refers to its head honcho, Howard Schulz, as “David”; what should we infer about Berman–or Random House–from that?

Near the end of his book, Berman walks the streets of the twenty-first-century version of Times Square. It’s what he should have been doing, metaphorically at least, all along, and it is bracing, provocative and surprising: He actually likes what he sees. Its big new buildings aren’t as bad as he feared; and while the signs are dull–Clear Channel Communications, which owns many of them, is in thrall to the Christian right, he says–the crowds are vital and diverse. “I find today’s Square’s exploding lights and multicultural crowds as hot and sexy as any I’ve ever known, if people would only stretch themselves to look and feel,” he writes. But here, too, he disappoints. Does Times Square remain an integral part of contemporary New York, or is it merely a pit stop for teenagers and tourists? How many New Yorkers hang out there now, as Murray and Betty Berman did so many decades ago, strolling, gazing, dining, dreaming? Is Berman’s young son amassing memories of the sort that still animate his father? These seem like important questions, but Berman doesn’t even ask them, let alone provide any answers.

Marshall Berman is amusing and erudite and public-spirited and passionate. His intellectual range, from Montesquieu to the Beastie Boys, is astonishing. His interests and enthusiasms belie and defy his age. He loves New York, bleeds over its wounds, loathes the yahoos and philistines who run it down. But he’s way too much in love with the sound of his own voice. It’s a strange thing to say about so cocksure a guide, but by failing to exert a bit of discipline and stick to his subject, he shortchanges himself. Worse, he shortchanges Times Square.

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