The Street: Sex, Drugs and Cats

Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World , by Marc Eliot. Warner Books, 352 pages, $27.95.

The new iron law of publishing: Any institution that has counted both Celeste Holm and John Gotti as major stakeholders merits its own book. Marc Eliot’s Down 42nd Street reaches back to a time filled with goat-herding and shantytown turf wars, but it’s primarily a modern-day history of America’s most notorious tenderloin. There’s a lot to squeeze in here: a theater district ravaged in turn by the talkies, organized crime and Mammon; remorseless demolition and the birth of landmarks preservation; and, of course, gobs of late-20th-century smut.

Together with the mob, Lenny Bruce and the Beats ushered in a new era for the boulevard’s west end-the mob created the slum, and the Beats (along with the downtown folk singers) the new ethic of slumming. By the late 70′s, nostalgie de la boue was raging out of control: The stray celebrity or trust-funder made the trip to 42nd Street for a hot dog from Nedick’s, a kung fu doubleheader, then maybe a virgin sampling of tar heroin or, later, crack. Meanwhile, the strip west of Times Square had gone from a Tom Waits ballad to something out of Bosch: sex everywhere on point-of-sale display; an endless parade of drug pilgrims and johns; pushers muttering “joints, coke, acid” like a Zen prayer. The street didn’t need a face lift so much as a rinsing in equal parts Lysol, penicillin and hellfire. Frederick Papert, a prominent board member of New York’s Municipal Arts Society, remembers venturing into Times Square with Jackie Onassis in 1978: “We both stood there staring in disbelief, and I kept thinking to myself, over and over, my God, how did this all happen?”

In a way, of course, nothing had changed. In each of its modern incarnations-from Ziegfeld’s Follies to XXX Show World to Disney-the street has always devoted itself to the same enterprise: staving off intimacy while separating you from your entertainment dollar. The difference, according to Mr. Eliot, is that the mob took hold along 42nd Street, then 42nd Street got heavily into drugs. Though profitable in itself and more visible, sex was really the lure for a round-the-clock narcotics bazaar. Ripeness is all-and by the late 80′s, everything in Times Square was very ripe.

Which raises the question: How can a book about a street that in its time housed the Gray Lady, innumerable porn bodegas and the Helen Hayes also contain arid stretches? Several chapters of Down 42nd Street read like bland mini-histories of successive New York Mayors; other chapters are clogged with undigested oral history from developers and preservationists, filled with a lot of ho-hum about tax abatements and “upzoning.”

When Mr. Eliot lets them, the strangest, most beautiful ghosts flit through the book’s pages: Joe Franklin crooning about Tony Curtis , “whose name then was still Bernie Schwartz” ; Andrew Sarris sharing a small office with the struggling Martin Scorsese; a theater maven who points out that when the peep shows were swept out to make room for the new corporate alley, so were the “script services, wigmakers, makeup companies, violin bow makers, scenery people, prop people”-an elaborate honeycomb of mom-and-pop businesses run by Max Bialystocks.

We lost a lot of urban wilderness in the 90′s, and gained in return no playwright of the stature of O’Neill or Williams or Miller, no musical diversions as fresh as Rodgers and Hammerstein. What could be more depressing than acknowledging the multiplier effect of Cats (according to The New York Times , it has pumped $6 billion into the city’s economy)? By 1999, Broadway was outgrossing, in ticket sales, the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Giants and Jets combined. Reading about the resurgence of the new Broadway and the new Times Square (with its ESPN Zone and the giant Nasdaq Pringles can) is like meeting a hustler you once saved from a life of squalor and crime. He pumps your hand, looks you in the eye and tries to sell you life insurance. It makes you want to cry.

Stephen Metcalf has written for The New Republic , Preservation and The L.A. Times Book Review .