In 1980, there were 50 principle media firms; by 2000, there were six. Evidence of the new media order was everywhere in Times Square. By that time, after several civic campaigns, a development-preservationist debate-histrionic even by New York standards-and numerous rounds of building incentives, Times Square had emerged from its brazen transformation. The porn shops and sideshows were shuttered, the corner delis pushed out, the seedy theaters rolled into a few shiny multiplexes. The towers got taller to accommodate the ranks of Disney, News Corp., Reuters, Bertelsmann, Condé Nast and Clear Channel, and the street got compressed further and further below.
The street itself became a kind of corporate big top where the ecstasies engineered in the buildings above cartwheeled and spun. The Times Square of the social fringe, of pimps and hustlers, of Diane Arbus’ transvestites and dwarves, became a place of mainstream cultural convergence. In the new Times Square, safer, cleaner and less weird, electric words charged through you; ads spilled into news tickers; and the actors in sitcom promotions fixed you intently in their sights. Corporate executives could look down from their tinted towers and observe their board presentations in action, giddily refracted in the kaleidoscope of consumer desire.
But something else was happening, too. The crowds outside 1515 Broadway, crowds that had once been known to stop traffic, that bespoke a generational standstill for a handful of formula-sprung pop stars, suddenly and abruptly departed. People stopped waiting for Carson Daly or one of his equally awkward stand-ins to count down to their video; now they watched online. But instead of just watching, they were making things as well. Consumers were becoming producers, and the consuming and producing were becoming difficult to distinguish, remixing and mutating and deconstructing. Things were happening in the margins. It was weird and messy and shocking and banal and voyeuristic and tacky. It was often derivative, occasionally brilliant, and all of it human. It was a little like Times Square.
New York is a vertical city that leaves little room for the people on the street below. Only occasionally—say, when clamoring teenagers stop traffic for a glimpse of Beyoncé in the tower above—do the two spheres collide. But the new street is a virtual one, and the Sumner Redstones and Rupert Murdochs are already staking out their real estate. It’s always been the invisible few that shape mass culture. Celebrities may be royalty, now as in the days of the Astor bar, but it’s the figurehead sort, distracting us with its pomp and jewels while the driving forces mostly stay out of glass boxes. (Which is what makes it such an odd and fantastic spectacle when the invisible few come out to fire the figureheads.) Just as the Astors left their influence and family feuds imprinted across the city (the Waldorf and the Astoria, for instance, were originally two hotels, split between family factions), Mr. Redstone’s feuds and whims are stamped across our mediascape.
Of course, no one really knows to what extent the endless weird conversation of the Internet can be commodified. If Times Square has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t buy weird; you can only supplant it.
Maybe that’s why we’re so nostalgic for Times Square, even Times Squares we’ve never known, why we argue and wring our hands over each metamorphosis: With its bizarre mutations and unending reinventions, Times Square has always been our way of talking about ourselves.
Even New York, a city that tears itself down and reconstructs itself at near lightning speeds, is made out of concrete and brick and glass. It’s comprised of buildings that are hard and unyielding and leave little room for improvisation. A building can’t contradict itself. A building can’t be a conversation. Which leaves us with Times Square and its blaze of screaming signs. Never quite the square anyone wanted, always the runner-up and always truer just one incarnation ago, it will always, we can be certain, transform into something else. And when it does, we will wonder what it says about our city and what we’ve become.