Lynne Sagalyn

Mediating Change: Symbolic Politics and the Transformation of Times Square

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The transformation of Times Square is a story of complexity and consequence ripe for the telling on several levels. As a physical transformation, the twenty-year saga begins in the early 1980s with the city's dual-sided policy initiatives to dramatically rezone midtown Manhattan and aggressively redevelop West 42nd Street through a public coalition of city and state public entities. As a social transformation, the public-development project promised to clear away the depraved social pathology of the place—the "bad" uses—and put in place "good" uses: new commercial activity at either end of the block and renovated historic theaters for Broadway fare in the midblock. As a cultural transformation, commercial activities attractive to the middle class would replace the sex-and-drug bazaar that had earned the street a worldwide reputation for decades. From its very beginning, the redevelopment intentions for West 42nd Street and Times Square grabbed center stage as a high-profile initiative of central importance to elected officials, reflective in both real and symbolic terms of the city's agenda to rebuild itself, economically as well as physically, after a crushing fiscal crisis. By the end of the decade, the effort was at a stalemate, bogged down by litigation and entrapped in a real estate downturn. By the mid-1990s, economic and social forces had recast the long-running pessimistic prognosis for the project. As activity on the street shifted from drug dealing, prostitution, and pornography to legitimate theater, family entertainment, tourism, and office employment, ironies of change defined the transformation. As seen from afar, the transformation signaled not merely a new 42nd Street, but redemption of New York's image as a "big, bad city."

Source: Paper
Exact Citation:
Sagalyn, Lynne. "Mediating Change: Symbolic Politics and the Transformation of Times Square." Paper, Gotham Center for New York City History, Conference on New York City History, October 7, 2001.
Place: Conference on New York City History
Date: 7 10 2001