NOTE: This article was written for the now-deceased Playground magazine, a guide to adult entertainment in the NYC area,in late 2004. At the time, we were preparing to be invaded by the Republican National Convention, opportunistically brought to New York in an effort to capitalize on the tragedy of 9/11. This was written with an eye on the coming convention and how Times Square represents the ambitions and philosophy of the GOP.
If you have the chance before the Republicans swoop down on New York City, or if you can manage to thread your way through the snarled throngs of cops, protesters and tourists that will come with them, walk down Broadway into Times Square. Try to stand for a few moments on the corner of 42nd and Broadway, right in the heart of the thing, and just look for a minute. Nowhere else in New York City, maybe in the entire United States, will you ever get to look at such a perfect physical embodiment of the Republican vision.
If nothing else, the place is truly a marvel. Here, the density of electrical signs rivals that of Las Vegas. The entire thing is built upon spectacle; the walls of the buildings themselves crawl with colorful, ever-changing images of corporate logos, supermodels, sports heroes, automobiles, stock figures, rock stars, and news headlines. The NASDAQ MarketSite tower is perhaps the most spectacular of all; the entire thing is a 7-story cylindrical television screen, flashing stock quotes and advertisements at over 1.5 million pedestrians a day. As I watched it one day, part of its image rotation included a massive American flag against a blue sky, for a few seconds turning one of the centers of capitalism into the oversized red-white-and-blue cock that George W. Bush and his administration dream about.
Times Square hasn't always been like this, but then again, it has. Every image you see blazing on the electronic billboards surrounding Broadway and 42nd is about desire and fantasy, and Times Square has never been about anything else. Whose desires it represents, though, changes radically from one generation to the next.
The creation of Times Square came from the desire for ego gratification of Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times. Shortly after moving his operations to a building on 42nd Street (now known as 1 Times Square), Ochs convinced Mayor George B. McClellan to rename Longacre Square after his newspaper. On April 8, 1904, McClellan officially declared the area Times Square.
From the name, you would expect a wide plaza, an area distinct from the flow of city traffic. No such luck. The name Times Square is a strictly arbitrary designation for the neighborhood framed by 52nd and 39th Streets on the north and south, and 6th and 9th Avenues on the east and west. Except for the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street, the area doesn't separate itself from the rest of the city. That's appropriate, because it's inseparable from the city socially, too. For decade after decade, Times Square has been New York's most iconic space; for the rest of America, whatever Times Square is at any given moment in time defines the whole city.
Times Square – and America – was a very different place in 1973, when Annie Sprinkle followed porn director Gerard Damiano to New York after meeting him at an obscenity trial in Phoenix. Like the script to a Busby Berkeley musical loaded with kinky sex, the redeye flight that Sprinkle took across the country was her first step towards becoming a star of stage and screen as a porn star and performance artist. She went to the Hotel Edison, where Damiano and many of the other key players in the New York porn scene kept their offices, and within a few days, she says, “I fell madly in love with Times Square.” Despite its seediness, combined with a definite air of danger, Sprinkle's descriptions of the old Times Square are laced with adjectives like “beautiful,” “pretty,” and even “glamorous.”
Very few people in the seventies would have been either willing or able to see Times Square as beautiful. It was more likely to be seen as the living, breathing darkness at the heart of America. The psychopathic Travis Bickle summed up the popular vision of Times Square as urban hell in Scorcese's Taxi Driver: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal,” he rants. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”
Many people craved that rain, from social reformers to real-estate magnates, and there were many efforts to bring it pouring down on the sidewalks. In 1971, Mayor Lindsay created the Times Square Development Council to “clean up” the area. The Council's credibility tanked about a year later, when New York magazine printed two articles showing that the buildings most often cited as nuisances, rather than being run by seedy gangsters, were in fact owned by some of the most wealthy, powerful citizens of New York, including several members of the Development Council. In 1972, Lindsay founded two police precincts which spent a lot of time raiding bookstores and busting prostitutes with their so-called “Pussy Posse,” until 1976, when the Office of Midtown Enforcement and the 42nd Street Development Corporation were created for a one-two punch of legal and economic forces. The Office of Midtown Enforcement put pressure on adult businesses by enforcing zoning and health laws, while the Development Corporation tried to bring new, more acceptable business into the area.
If this sounds like an old story, it is. The dance between respectable society and commercial sex in Times Square has been going on since long before Ochs got the area named after his paper, with only a few changes in the melody and refrain. The variations include the campaigns of the infamous Anthony Comstock, who warred equally against street whores, abortionists, and George Bernard Shaw; the reform efforts of the Reverend Charles Parkhurst, who did admirable work against police corruption even as he struggled to bring out New Yorkers' inner puritans; and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's city-wide crusades against slot machines, burlesque, and smutty magazines. The changes made by Rudolph Giuliani and the Times Square Business Improvement District are perhaps the most sweeping ever made, but they're only the latest in a long chain of similar efforts. The one thing that all the previous campaigns had in common was that whatever effect they had was temporary and limited. Part of this is because whatever else Times Square is or is not, it has always been an entertainment district, and the line between the “legitimate” stage and the sex trade has always narrower than most patrons of the arts want to admit. In the 1920's and 30's, the Society for the Suppression of Vice attacked Broadway's theater with the same enthusiasm that they did streetwalkers, condemning everything from social dramas about syphilis to lighthearted farce. In 1928, Mae West's play The Pleasure Man was closed down after three performances, the third ending with the entire cast of 60 being arrested in full costume and hauled off to the hoosegow. But entertainment is nothing without sex, something that even the modern reformers of Times Square have to admit, even as they sell the place as family-friendly and a safe haven for
tourists. Reform efforts in Times Square have never eliminated commercial sex from the area, only made it change in some way or another; prostitution has moved from the streets to more discrete brothels, or actresses who come to an “understanding” with a wealthy patron, and then changed back again. The sexual culture of Times Square has become more or less overt according to the tenor of the times, but to remove it entirely would kill the area.
I was four years old when Annie Sprinkle took her flight to New York; three when her lover, Gerard Damiano, made Deep Throat, the porn movie that forever changed America's relationship with porn movies. I came to New York less than two years ago to live with my girlfriend. I admit that I have no real way of knowing whether the old Times Square was more the adult playground that Sprinkle describes or the hellish cesspool of Scorcese's vision. I suspect that both existed side-by-side, intermingling. The one thing that I am certain of is that if it needed to be changed, it could have been changed into something better than what's there. The one thing that impresses me most about the legacy of the Times Square Business Improvement District – and this becomes more true the closer you get to 42nd and Broadway – is how little of New York remains. It's not something that sprang organically from the sidewalks and the streets of the city; it wasn't a product of people living and striving. It's something that was just decreed by the powers that be and plunked down in the middle of the city. In a city known for its restaurants, the storefronts of Times Square are populated by Applebee's, McDonald's, TGI Friday's, Chili's, Chevy's, the Olive Garden, Planet Hollywood, and the ubiquitous Starbuck's. Three of the current Broadway hits are Walt Disney productions, and the impresarios of Broadway are increasingly middle-management types for Clear Channel, which not only owns the billboards hawking everything from sneakers to movies, but many of the theaters that make Broadway's name. There's really no reason to be in New York for any of this crap.
Tracy Quan, a former sex worker and author of the novel Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, is unambiguous in her loathing for the new Times Square: “I think what they have now is repulsive,” she says. “It's sort of dead.” Quan has described herself as having some nostalgia for the old Times Square, and thinks that a real, old-fashioned red-light district is more of an asset for a city than a liability. “They're natural aspects of city living,” she says. What kind of city is not going to have red light activity?… That's the soul of the city, the commercial sex. That's why everyone comes to the city.”
And therein lies another reason that attempts to repress sexuality in Times Square have only been sporadically and temporarily successful: despite the rhetoric of making the place safe for “normal people,” it's the “normal people” who came to Times Square and kept the prostitutes, strip joints and porno parlors alive. The customers weren't the social dropouts and amoral misfits that the reformers liked to portray. They were the same respectable people that kept the city running. The whores and porno films were a real tourist attraction, especially in a city the size of New York; the sheer hugeness of the place gives a blessing of anonymity to sexual exploration that's not available in a small town of 1,200 people.
And that's something that's likely to come up again when the Republicans hit town. Quan is definitely concerned about what's going to happen to the street hookers, who don't have the luxury of doing their work privately. Traditionally, when conventions come to town, it's a signal to city government to start asserting a clean, moral stance and come down hard on whores, junkies, homeless, and anyone else that might tarnish the city's image. Considering that Tom Ridge has started promising us that The Terrorists are planning to hit again before the November elections, and that Ridge is reviewing plans to “postpone” the elections if such a thing were to happen, one would hope the Mayor's office would have more important security concerns than hookers. Even before the recent announcements, the Republican Party thought that security arrangements should include shutting down Penn Station during their visit.
For less public and more legal sex workers, though, the effect of the visiting delegates might be a watershed. The New York Daily News ran an article at the end of June quoting one owner of a New York escort agency who claimed that she had girls who would be flying into town from as far as London to work the city during that one week. Even Larry Flynt, the sworn enemy of every Republican administration and politician to come within striking distance, has gone on record as being delighted at the prospect of all those conventioneers coming to his swanky Hustler Club in the West Side.
I don't mind the idea of Republicans coming to New York and hiring prostitutes and strippers. On the contrary, I'm for it. If nothing else, they owe us; ever since the World Trade Center went down, they've been trying to starve the city by holding back every single penny that they could find some excuse to either keep in Washington or toss to some crazed fundamentalist pro-virginity education program that tells teenagers condoms will make their peckers fall off and that Jesus cries when you masturbate. It's our turn, now. Maybe by putting some dollars in the hands (etc.) of the local call girls, they can finally stimulate that economic recovery Bush has been promising us. And second, it's a definite improvement in the company they usually keep. Every hour that a politician spends dressing up in pink panties and being spanked by Mistress Selina as she tells him that he's been bad, very bad, is another hour that he's not associating with lobbyists, policy flacks, Saudi oil magnates, fundamentalist weirdoes, and corporate shills. We may never know how much this country owed to Monica Lewinsky's cocksucking skills during the Clinton years.
But it does piss me off that they won't share. When Mistress Selina's hour is up, they'll go right back to their same old fag-bashing, sex-hating selves, and campaign their asses off to make sure that the rest of the country doesn't get to play the same ways they do. And it pisses me off that the city would be willing to hassle street hookers in order to preserve such a thin sham of respectability.
Sex is not gone from Times Square; as I said before, that would kill it, and even the most enthusiastic moralists in city government have to know that. But sex has changed; it has become less accessible. There are sex shops, but thanks to zoning laws that prohibit operating one within 500 feet of a church, residential area, or school, there's little chance of a full community of peep shows and bookstores building up. What remains is very isolated, almost drowned out by the shops selling pseudo-bronze replicas of the Statue of Liberty and I [heart] NY trucker's caps. There does remain a cluster of shops and strip clubs along 8th Avenue near 42nd, centered around Show World. Show World is a true New York City landmark, and it's appropriate that it survives, albeit a shadow of its former self. When Annie Sprinkle wrote up her first will, she wanted her ashes scattered here. Now, it combines sex videos downstairs with a space for improv comedy upstairs, in order to comply with the city law that demands that no store devote more than 40% of its floor space to adult merchandise.
Larry Flynt told the New York Observer that “New York is friendly to adult businesses that a
re not sleazy.” The effort to take sleaze out of stripping has followed somewhat the same path as the rest of Times Square. Just as the restaurants and theaters have become corporate chains, so have the strip joints. Flashdancers, on Broadway near 52nd, is typical: it has a $20 cover ($10 in the afternoon), and is glitzy but clean, fashioned to attract the midtown business clientele. The afternoon I was there, I blew $9 on a Sprite. After that, $20 for a lap dance seemed almost like charity. The point of clubs like this is to appeal to corporate culture, to legitimize it as a place where businessmen can go without feeling too sleazy. More and more, the clubs try to sell themselves as bars or restaurants that just happen to have naked women as an additional feature. Flashdancers' sister club, Private Eyes, which sits just off 8th on 45th, puts at least as much effort into promoting themselves as a sports bar as a nudie palace. You only need to pay a cover if you're going into the back where the dancers are, giving patrons a plausible excuse to be there for some reason other than indulging in one of the Seven Deadlies. It's a little like telling your parents that your stack of Playboy magazines is there strictly because of your interest in their incisive social reporting.
From the practical point of view, keeping in mind that sex work is first and foremost, work, Tracy Quan has a little sympathy for the new corporate approach: “I think it's easier to entertain the idea of a place like Billy's Topless if you're not out to make real money…. If you're just expressing yourself and being a kind of 'sexual socialist' you can afford to dance at a scruffy bar. Nothing wrong with that. But if you're actually one of the blue collar chicks trying to make a living and save some money, can you really afford to work at a place like Billy's?”
Other than the fact that they're not really my cup of tea, I'm not completely sure how to feel about the corporate clubs. On the one hand, it's easy to see how they're a form of bringing sex and sex work out of the closet. When the intelligentsia started lining up in Times Square to see Deep Throat, it broke a real barrier, the barrier between the “them” who watched that sort of thing, and the “us” who didn't. The sophistication of the corporate clubs, and their attempts to blend into the Midtown business community may just be bringing strip bars further out of the closet as something that the respectable “we” like.
But then, what's wrong with a little sleaze, anyway? I really don't believe that sex is bad or dirty, but sometimes it's fun to pretend it is. When I lived in San Francisco, I used to enjoy hitting a sex shop named Frenchy's on the edge of the Tenderloin, just a block away from the O'Farrell Theater, with a fistful of quarters and sit in a video booth for a while, stroking myself off to dirty pictures on a small screen. I could have rented any of the videos in the booth and taken them home, but the place itself gave an extra kick that I couldn't have gotten at home. It was the cramped booth, the crappy video, the thin plywood that let sound bleed through, the too-sweet stink of the deodorant they used to clean the place, the seediness that pervaded it. It was clearly sleazy and raunchy, without any pretension to anything else. Sex may not be dirty, at least not in the sense that the priests and politicians want us to believe, but it's certainly not clean. There's an inherent chaos to both the act itself and the desires that drive it that is not served well by marketing studies and quarterly profit statements.
For those who are in the mood for an old-fashioned strip bar in the Times Square area, one possibility that remains is Bare Elegance, a small bar on the second floor above a sex store on West 50th near Broadway. “Bare” applies as well to the decor of the bar itself as to the dancers. More so, even, because the women are in g-strings, and one had a tattoo across her breasts that decorated her far more elegantly than anything else in the room. There isn't even a stage; a few tables are arranged around a pole in a space about the size of a small studio apartment. It is extremely intimate. I got the feeling, though, that there was something to what Tracy Quan said about the corporate clubs. The girls at Bare Elegance seemed much hungrier and more aggressive about getting customers into the VIP room than in Flashdancers, as well as being much more explicit about what might happen there.
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If the old Times Square was all about freedom and hedonism, the vision of the twenty-first century is one that uses desire as a form of control. It's full of fantasy, just like the old one, but the key to getting your fantasies fulfilled now is to be a good boy or girl. Maybe the past four years of Bush have made me paranoid, but the whole place sends out a message of control. I don't think that it will stay like that, though. New Yorkers as a whole are not a well-behaved bunch. Being the crossroads of the city, Times Square will always choose its own path.