Mickey & the Peep Show

Mickey & the Peep Show

In 1980, amid debates about “cleaning up” Times Square, New York City Mayor Ed Koch warned, “New York cannot and should not become Disneyland.


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Prostitutes have been replaced by Beauty and the Beast ticket scalpers, drug dealers have been replaced by shops selling $4 cups of coffee, and Peep Land and the Eros Theater have been replaced by Condé Nast and Morgan Stanley skyscrapers.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.

Samuel Delany fills this void with his highly personal and incisive book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. A professor of English at the University of Buffalo, Delany is best known as the award-winning author of science fiction titles like Dhalgren and the Nevèrÿon series, but he is no stranger to sexual issues. In his remarkable 1988 memoir The Motion of Light in Water, he opened up his own sex life for examination, including long-term relationships with men and women, extensive forays into public sex and a variety of other nontraditional emotional and physical relationships. He expounded on these themes in subsequent essays and speeches.

In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany brings his sexual politics together with his class-based analysis of Times Square’s recent past. The first half of the book is a somewhat fractured narrative written in October 1996, recounting his experiences in Times Square–particularly his sexual encounters in the adult theaters–over the past quarter-century. (He also talks to street hustlers, bartenders, a shoeshine man, a taxi dispatcher and a shish-kebab salesman about the changes they’ve seen in the neighborhood.) The second half, a mosaic of brief observations and metaphors, critiques the recent changes, particularly for threatening the interclass contact that the old Times Square long provided.

It all adds up to a powerful story about people (especially gay men) who don’t see the changes as revitalization–people who are no longer welcome in Toon Town.

The ultimate mission of the New Times Square, Delany asserts, is not supporting theater, fighting crime or even improving the city’s economic situation. It is primarily about developers–who stand to reap huge windfalls even if their buildings sit empty, as he explains in detail–“doing as much demolition and renovation as possible in the neighborhood, and as much construction work as they possibly can.”

Rather than an honest moral or health crusade, the crackdown on sex is simply the means the city needs to clear land for development. But the process of creating the New Times Square, Delany explains, has destroyed more than buildings:

Because it has involved the major restructuring of the legal code relating to sex, and because it has been a first step not just toward the moving, but toward the obliteration of certain businesses and social practices, it has functioned as a massive and destructive intervention in the social fabric of a noncriminal group in the city–an intervention I for one deeply resent.

Delany started frequenting the theaters in Times Square in 1975, a time when the neighborhood’s sex scene was already under attack. “Each new burst of interest in the area’s renovation would be accompanied by a new wave of do-gooder rhetoric, and a theater or two would go,” he remembers.

Indeed, adult businesses were being driven out long before Giuliani came to town. Although exact numbers and precise neighborhood boundaries differ from source to source, everyone agrees that Times Square’s adult industry was in free fall for two decades. According to the New York Times, by the time Koch took office in 1978, the number of businesseshad already plunged to 115 from a high of 147 in 1975. Numbers continued to decline through the eighties. There were forty-seven in 1993–Giuliani took office in 1994–and by the end of 1996, before his zoning law even went into effect–the number had dropped to thirteen.

Part of this decline was the result of social conditions. Delany recalls “the ‘Great Winnowing'” in the mid-eighties due to AIDS and crack. Delany’s fellow travelers were increasingly addicted and homeless, and crime ran amok; many other customers stayed away out of fear. Most notably, he remembers, people were dying in droves. “One would have to be a moral imbecile to be in any way nostalgic for this situation,” he writes.

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.”

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.

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