Delany, Samuel R. “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue”, NYU Press, 2001.
Remembering 42nd Street
42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in New York City is one of the most famous streets in the world. It was once known for its sleezy peep shoes, corner hustlers and tacky movie houses. Today it is unrecognizable with its Disney store, children’s theater and restaurants. Today it is a family tourist attraction. Author Samuel R. Delaney looks at not just the disappearance of the old Times Square but also the disappearance of the complex social relationships that developed there: the points of contact between people of different classes and races in a public space. “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” looks at the question of why public restrooms, peepshows, and tree-filled parks are necessary to a city’s physical and psychological landscape. Delaney argues that starting in 1985, New York City criminalized peep shows and sex movie houses to clear the way for the rebuilding of Times Square and his critique reveals how Times Square is being “renovated” behind the scrim of public safety while the stage is occupied by gentrification. This is a look at a society taking down the “institutions that promote communication between classes, and disguising its fears of cross-class contact as ‘family values’.” This will be replayed in cities across America.
Samuel Delany is regarded as one of America’s keenest observers. He was also a longtime habitué of many of the sex theaters in New York City’s Times Square, spending, by his own estimate, “thousands and thousands of hours” at the Capri, Variety Photoplays, the Eros, and the Venus. He reminds us that in the 1990s all of these theaters were shut down through new restrictive zoning laws that was part of a combined effort by the Walt Disney Corporation and the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani to gentrify the area and replace the
memorable institutions with antiseptic, innocuous architectural and cultural creations in the name of health safety. However, Delany tells us that the decision to clean up Times Square had little to do with public health, and everything to do with corporate greed.
The book is comprised of two essays in which Delany grieves for the loss of this strip of sexual release. He is careful not to romanticize or sentimentalize the peep shows and porn theaters but he does illuminate the way in which these venues crossed class, racial, and sexual orientation lines, providing a delightfully subversive utopia–and a microcosm of New York life. In the first essay, “Times Square Blue,” Delany writes of his erotic and conversational encounters with working-class and homeless men in the theaters (which primarily showed straight porn films) and the genuine friendships that resulted. These provide a social history of late-20th-century Times Square. Drawing on historical and theoretical resources in the second essay, “Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red,” Delany builds a passionate argument against the gentrification of the area and the classist, characterless direction in which he sees New York heading. The two essays taken together are heartfelt homage to a beloved city and lament for a quirky vitality that was phased out by encroaching capitalism.
This is Delaney’s personal history and it is complete with Delany’s sociological and anthropological observations of the men who live, work and socialize in the area. He further lauds the virtues of a society that not only tolerates but values a public sexual culture. Delany says that because urban areas like Times Square promote relationships across class boundaries, they are not a blight but foster an environment of safety, empathy and social coherence. His most dramatic argument is not about public morality, safety or health but he states that this simply serves corporate and private economic interests.