Libido: Reviews: Down 42nd Street
Down 42nd Street:
Sex, Money, Culture and Politics at the Crossroads of the World

By Jay Gertzman

Marc Eliot’s engaging social history shows why 42nd Street was so essential to New Yorkers and the city’s visitors throughout the 20th century. He ends by showing why, for the foreseeable future, it will be a street of ersatz, family-friendly, corporate glamor, which tourists will find themselves drawn -- or taken – to, but that natives will avoid, unless they work in one of the gigantic office towers.

Despite the PR bullshit, post-industrial office space is the real reason the infamous honky-tonk "Deuce" became Disney, NASDAQ, ESPN, ABC and Reuter’s New 42nd Street.

Eliot’s many stories, from the revolutionary war period to the present, include Jackie Onassis&Mac226; clinching the deal to save Grand Central; the 19th century Roosters gang and how they metamorphosed, thanks to the movies, into Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys; Mayor Koch’s dislike of John Lindsay and its part in preventing a 1980s elimination of the west side porn stores; and the ugly fight between William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Ochs, editor of The New York Times.

Ochs outraged Hearst by arranging with August Belmont, builder of the IRT subway, and a secret shareholder in the Times, to have a subway station built on the site of the new offices of the paper, and to get the city to rename the area Times Square.

Libido readers may be most interested in the sex in Eliot’s subtitle. He explains that from Vanderbilt’s time, the West Side of midtown was earmarked for an entertainment district. Why? Because the Commodore wanted Park and Madison set aside for business, commerce, and affluent residences since his railroad ran the length of Manhattan down East Side, especially in the vicinity of the beautiful Grand Central Terminal.

So, before the Times opened on the Square it arranged to be named after, there was a Tenderloin (so called because the brothels and gambling dens gave the police prime graft) and a Rialto (of theaters, "soubrettes," restaurants and casinos). With the subway came further development, especially by the Astor family.

Eliot is good on the sexual explicitness of the early theater. The Broadway Theatrical Syndicate was formed to defend producers after the police closed down a show that consisted of a nude lady sitting in a chair. The founders knew the bust was no more than a police shakedown.

Oscar and William Hammerstein and other early producers were criticized by the self-policing Syndicate for risqué dancers, and it was therefore the Syndicate, not the Broadway producers or the brothel owners, which was disciplined by Mayor Van Wyck, who knew the importance of the commericalization of sex to the city’s economy. In the '20s, Morton Minsky competed with the movies by having after-hour shows in the basement of his theater. There, the sex was hotter and livelier than even pre-code film could offer.

The picture of the changes of 42nd Street from general entertainment to a vice zone is clearly drawn: live sex shows, pedophilia, the peep show wars, and the horrors of crack. The '70s and '80s saw some porn chic, and a well reputed art show, precursors of the mainstreaming of sex, which now have homogenized hard core into fashion, sitcoms, and music videos.

The Deuce was more than porn, and anyone interested needs to read Marshall Berman and Samuel Delany.

Eliot is especially good on the importance of the movies in showing independent, code-defying, noire crime and western classics. But his discussion of organized crime’s involvement is sketchy, as can be expected since interviews with gangsters are rare. He has one "Mr. X," whom he quotes for four pages. It is helpful, but the problem is the details. The mob did not create the Adult Book Store or its display layouts. Mr. X’s notion of book store clientele is incomplete. Bookshop owners had contact with shakedown artists, gamblers, and smugglers before the late '60s, and the money in distribution of soft- and hard-core books, magazines, and films is a subject Mr. X’s bosses no doubt know infinitely more about than he. But to be fair, the book is rich in accurate detail about 42nd Street from the Revolutionary War to the present.

Eliot’s documentation could be more thorough. But he has interviewed many -- maybe all -- of the best people available and for this he cannot be applauded too highly. His history is about sex, money, culture, and politics, but not only these facets of American culture. Behind them all lies the power of those who control New York real estate.

It is the connection between real estate and money, culture, and politics that Eliot’s interviews most strongly elucidate. Some interesting heroes emerge: Fred Papert, for his work with Grand Central and the theaters; Gerald Schoenfeld, of the Midtown Committee, for yeoman work in planning the rezoning and helping keep the theater district viable; and Rebecca Robinson, for diplomatic and administrative skills, even in regard to collecting rents from the porn businesses, which the city had temporarily taken over before they closed. We learn about Mayor Lindsay’s first efforts to redevelop the area. We see Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to take credit for bringing Disney, and thus the new respectability, to the street, despite the obvious debt he owed to former mayors Dinkins and Koch, and Governor Cuomo.

Ed Koch’s problems with the state-run proposals are especially eye-opening. There was great difficulty in tracking down the property owners themselves, since they hid under "layers and layers of leases, subleases, subcontracts, and assignments." The theater personnel did not think their medium would be compatible with tall office buildings, the elimination of the garish billboards, and high-tech but museum-like showcases of Manhattan’s cultural landmarks. The past connections of the project promoters to the ultra-liberal Lindsay, and the elitist sponsors from the Ford Foundation, made the mayor uneasy. He withdrew his support in 1980, with a statement of scintillating irony. "Too much orange juice and not enough seltzer. They want to build Disneyland between Seventh and Eighth Avenues!"

Down 42nd Street’s latter chapters are a good introduction to the power of the real estate moguls who owned property on the Deuce. As Gail Sheehy revealed in the early '70s, they were happy to rent to the bookstore owners, and then to the mob-run sex emporia, throughout the period when all we heard from the pols, the goo-goos, the clergy, and the queasy Times editorials was that it was "degenerates" and "greedy smut sellers" who were responsible for the black eye in the heart of Broadway. But the real estate owners resisted all efforts of the city and state to adopt Beame and Koch’s redevelopment plans, because they were not about to take the loss that they would incur if they had to sell their property under eminent domain. Once Disney got other corporations interested in space on 42nd, the moguls were part of a feeding frenzy either to sell, or acquire more land.

No New York street, unless it be the Bowery, to which the inimitable Luc Sante sang praises in his "Low Life," was so vitally Gotham as 42nd. Both streets embodied the venal mysteries of the sunlight and shadows the writers and tourist guides investigated over a century ago. It seems there are to be no more shadows, unless the architects of the gorgeous lights and post-modern architecture are more ironic than most people think. And not much sunlight either, with the global-friendly skyscrapers at the four corners, or "elephant legs," of what used to be part of the grid. A family-friendly, corporate faith-based Edge City has risen on the ruins of what was at least a very human stain: the ungodly, prurient carnival that once was the Deuce. Soon to be a walking mall. Disney, as Carl Hiassen (Team Rodent) has recently shown, hates sleaze or stains, and loves Quality of Life regulations. Michael Eisner will take a pass on that seltzer, Mayor Koch.

Jay A. Gertzman is author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). Paperback version due in early 2002.

Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture and Politics at the
Crossroads of the World
by Mark Eliot (Warner Books, 2001. ISBN: 0446525715. 352 pages hardcover.

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