Times Square's slice of life in the Big City

On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square
Marshall Berman, Random House, 2006, ISBN 1400063310, RRP $52.95,
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On The TownA century ago, New York’s Longacre Square made the transformation from urban neighbourhood to Times Square and came to define the urban experience with its panorama of lights, signs and people. In his new book, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Times Square, Marshall Berman takes in the history of Times Square’s music and spectacle in an overflowing and diverse narrative well suited to its subject.

Berman is a professor of political science at the City College of New York and, having lived and worked all his life in New York, his work reflects the accumulation of personal experience intertwined with wider culture and society. As with his previous book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Berman traces how modern life energises and enables our development through the modern world while sometimes threatening to overwhelm us.

In tone and perspective, Berman writes from the democratic and libertarian stream of the 1960s New Left. This is seen initially in the way he invests popular culture with the seriousness of high art and universal value. An early chapter celebrates Al Jolsen’s The Jazz Singer for defining the look and sound of America’s 'vulgar modernism'. He describes The Jazz Singer as 'the great American Bildungsroman', depicting the struggle of Jewish Americans to simultaneously connect with and transcend their immigrant families and 'make it.'

While he professes to be wary of nostalgia there are moments in this book when he can’t seem to help himself. The 'great noon' comes with the famous Life magazine photo of a sailor and nurse embracing on Times Square on the day victory was declared in the World War II. The sailor is representative of a new community looking to the future: brave, democratic, modern. This couple evoke the justice and purpose of the war against fascism. America and New York would never seem so energised and united.

Berman’s characteristic optimism sees popular culture morph, too easily perhaps, into the culture of the popular front. The figure of the sailor carries this into Broadway musicals like On the Town and Fancy Free. Berman shows us a Times Square that made people not only want to embrace but also to dance and sing. Astonishingly, in 1945, at the height of a brutal war with Japan, the Japanese American, Sono Osato, played the lead in On the Town. For Berman, Times Square was an environment that invited people to cross ethnic, class and sexual lines in defiance of more isolationist impulses.

Times SquareWomen are central to Berman’s story. They came to work in the offices or garment factories nearby or to participate in the emerging forms of popular entertainment. As a place to be public, to become sexual subjects as well as objects, many women found Times Square liberating. It also involved a kind of heroic risk in defiance of moralists who railed against the corruptions to be found there. Berman identifies 'the Times Girl' on postcards and billboards, in the theatre, in musicals and movies such as Annie Get Your Gun, even in Betty Boop cartoons. The Times Girl combines sexuality and innocence, vulnerability and resourcefulness, looking to get ahead but also to connect with what was authentic within herself.

Things turn decidedly sour in the 1960s and '70s when guns, drugs, the sex show and child prostitution come to Times Square. Berman notes correctly the continuing dialectic of creativity: this was the era of Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver and Lou Reed’s Dirty Boulevard. The reality, nevertheless, was a more aggressive and nastier edge that alienated many women. He writes that this was 'not only material impoverishment but spiritual collapse.'

Not that Berman is all that positive about the feminist response. He detects a claim for exclusive possession in a campaign by Women Against Pornography to 'take back the night.' There is an extended critique of Laura Mulvey’s work from the 1970s for positing an all-controlling male gaze. He also notes the extremely problematic 'Dworkin-MacKinnon' laws, which tried to exclude pornography from free speech protection by redefining it as a form of rape. Berman sees attempts to empower women as important but he also argues that some moves contained a more ominous policing of culture and framing of women as victims.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and developers and politicians were joining together to campaign against sex on the street. Women entering the top ranks of private and public administration were prominent in this campaign. An 'interim plan' was developed for Times Square that promised 'a street for everyone.' The reality was that the city acted as virtual agents for the developers with secretive deals and the bending of planning rules in areas such as public amenity.

In the end, Berman’s optimism is undiminished. Today there is a contradictory mix of skyscrapers and a street for everyone. He argues that despite overwhelming corporate visions, the 'exploding lights and multicultural crowds' bode well for how people will find a way to claim their right to be part of the city spectacle. This vibrant and generous book makes you want to believe even if it is sometimes difficult to go along with Berman’s unbridled enlightenment faith. At least he acknowledges that nothing is assured – evidently that is part of the exciting risk you take in the big city.

 

 

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