Contested Space

by Sara Gran
Times Square, New York City / 20091121.7D.0041...

Image by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML via Flickr

A substantial part of the book I’m writing now–the second in the Claire DeWitt series–takes place in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties.  As many of you know, I grew up in Brooklyn, and Claire’s life is loosely based on mine (but infinitely more interesting). So I’ve been watching a lot of movies, fiction and non-, set in that time period to jog my memory. One thing that comes up over and over again when researching this period is the arguments over public space in New York. I watched a short doc shot by a man who lived in Times Square in the late eighties and early nineties. In a special feature after the film, the filmmaker said he was happy with the changes made to Times Square. He said he lived there with his wife and baby girl and didn’t want his kid growing up among the crime and prostitution. He wasn’t sorry at all to see the undesirables go and Disney come in.

This fascinates me on a number of levels. The obvious fascination, of course, is with what kind of a stupid fuck moves to Times Square to raise a baby in middle-class respectability when they have other choices (the people in the famous welfare hotels of Times Square didn’t have that choice, obviously).  There is a type–usually, but not always, white, middle-class and from the suburbs–who thinks that if they move to a neighborhood, that neighborhood should conform with their social norms. Why their standards are superior to anyone else’s is never examined; it just goes without saying.  I think those people should stay in  the suburbs, and not to move to cities, but I lost that argument long ago.

One reason why I didn’t want to live in cities anymore–I now live in a tiny hippie town in North California–was because of these battles: wars over what I call contested territory; those little pocket of urban areas that different groups each think they can call their own. In the case of Times Square, by the eighties, the Square had been “taken over” (funny how that phrase always comes up in these arguments) by hookers, pimps, pickpockets and the homeless. I don’t think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think handing the Square over to Disney was a good thing either.

I don’t buy that anyone, anywhere, has a right to any urban neighborhood. The nature of cities is change and immigration–if they’re lucky, ’cause otherwise they die (see: Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, although each of those is now enjoying (or about to enjoy) a revival). I would never argue that New York in the eighties was how things ought to be.  But I feel strongly that those of us who enjoy a way of life that others perceive as “not family friendly”–what is sometimes called the sporting life or just the Life–have as much right to public space as anyone else, just not to the exclusion of others. Likewise, moms with strollers worth more than my car have a right to public space as well–but again, not at the exclusion of others (attention Park Slope: I was born there and I’m not going to stop visiting just because you think I’m going to contaminate your baby if I smile at it). I think the key the cities without frustration is to realize that you never really do have a neighborhood. No group can ever claim ownership of a city without killing it.

Here’s what Times Square could have been: a meeting point for the different cultures, classes, races, and choices of New York City. A place where tourists can come and eat real New York food–Nathan’s, Katz’s and Sylvia’s in my book, although I’m sure everyone would have their own picks–and hear real New York music–hip hop and punk to me, but name your poison. There could be nightclubs for the grown-ups to do grown up things at night and a kids’ theater (one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of our  amazing local theaters) for the stroller crowd during the day. A place that was safe for tourists but not only for tourists, where they could learn about us and we could learn about them, those corn-fed others who walk so slowly.

Instead, I actually get dizzy on the rare occasions when I go to Times Square. I like spectacle and phantasmagoria as much as the next lady, but something about the overwhelming presence of cameras–from tourists, from people with cell-phone-cams, from the “security” videocameras–combined with the proliferation of monitors running adds for coke or whatever makes me deeply uncomfortable in a way I can’t put my finger on. In fact, I feel that way about New York in general now but how NYC turned into a less-interesting version of Blade Runner–well that, friends, is a post for another day.

2 Comments to “Contested Space”

  1. Ah yes. As a fellow New Yorker (tho I did live in DC from ’81-87 tho so I could get in on the crack wars there which rivaled any city in the world for violence) I find this an endlessly fascinating topic.

    The war in Times Square is over. If it ever happened at all. It’s no longer contested space. It’s like the Vatican, a small military state with a completely independent economy, in the middle of a chaotic city. If you live in Rome, do you chill at the Vatican?

    Whoever this jackass was you speak of here who chose to raise a family in the middle of a miserable black hole, this person was clearly not of this city. I can’t imagine what would have led him to think this was a good plan, setting up shop there. I reckon this was a very short doc because what can you possibly say about this guy beyond he’s a dumb-ass.

    As a teenager I LOVED the squalor of mid-late 80s Times Square. Course I would only run sorties there, in and out. I never felt in any kind of danger (ie was drunk), I loved the porno, I loved the Kung-Fu movies. I got a really really terrible tattoo there. I bought drugs there until I figured out where to get them downtown. The first bar I got underage blotto in was on 8th Ave between 42nd and 43rd, sort of a half-assed strip bar next to the old Peep/ Showworld and I will never forget the old lady who ran the place, and her hair, up in this complex gray sort of Bavarian pretzel.

    Like all pre-hipster hipster wanna be kids (well males, boys….can we talk about that later? How what I’m describing is, I think, a guy thing?) I was reading my Bukowski and William T. Vollmann and all that jazz. I wanted to access similar experiences and landscapes, confirm they were real, get a little scared and then run away. This neighborhood was where I could indulge that impulse. Not in the East Village, where I lived a different kind of life.

    Setting aside value judgments on porno and rites of passage etc, I still romanticize the TS of old. And I really loved it when they started to fuse downtown art with that space, ie the Jenny Holtzer billboards and marquees (which I guess started a touch before my time, in like ’82??)

    Then it all changed of course, and it’s exactly as if Gulliani brought in Disney to do what was being done to the rest of the country, only faster and much more intensively. I guess the verb is “mall-ify” but that doesn’t really communicate how profoundly brutal the actions taken in Times Square were. It was like they implanted a foreign organ into the body of this town.

    If the City were a biological thing, if the City were a person, I would put the gouging of Times Square on par with 9/11 in terms of psychic / physical trauma. It’d be like having your stomach removed and replace with a hot water bottle full of sugar water.

    But what did they do to CBGBs? A holy place to so many, including me, and rightfully so? They carefully skinned it and RECONSTRUCTED THE WHOLE THING in Las Vegas. So we have to adapt. And that we can’t blame on Rudy, that was the owner Hilly Krystal. Don’t know if you’ve been there lately but it’s fucking John Varvatos store and I can’t figure out what they sell there, but it’s expensive.

    To say nothing of the razing of the old Hell’s Kitchen to create what is now Lincoln Center, that would truly be contested space, because they attacked what was a working class residential hood.

    As you well know, these days if you happened to mention you were in Times Square, you had better be prepared to explain exactly why you were there, what sad errand had brought you moaning and groaning to that part of town.

    Last time I was there on foot: there’s a historic building called the Brill Building, it was where all of the great songwriters for pop and broadway sat from the Tin Pan Alley era thru Carole King’s ’70s tenure there, and it remains a place where art is made, kind of, this is where we mix most of the films that come out of NYC and some LA based productions as well. Anyways just before the new year I was mixing several movies there and happened to be headed up Broadway (the building is on Broadway btw 50th and 49th) and I was brought to a halt by something called the M + Ms STORE. There was a fucking LINE around the block, frothing kids and their folks, waiting to get into this store which doesn’t even have as context a cartoon on which it’s based, or a movie, or some other kind of narrative thing that might justify it, it’s based on the COMMERCIALS FOR THE VERY CANDY they sell in this place, in different forms, and the vast sea of M + Ms merch etc etc. There was no special event to explain this line. This mass of people were simply waiting for it to open, and they were extremely excited about it. This was a destination.

    Now this was a new phenom for me. I can understand a Disney store. I can dig LITTLE MERMAID swag. I could even wrap my brain around (though I would have to choke back the vomit) a CIRQUE DU SOLEIL store.

    But the M + Ms Shoppe?

    So in contrast to your solution, Sara, ( and is there a more beautiful part of this country than Northern California? ) my family and I moved to Harlem. It was either Harlem or DEEPER into Brooklyn. Strictly for practical purposes: you could still buy a brownstone for pretty fuckin cheap and we’d reached that time in life where we had to make that move. Harlem is still real. It’s still dirty and slightly scary. It’s alive and it dares you to try and kill it. Mom and pop shops, weirdo storefront churches, landmark bars, that’s all still here. Mixed in with the encroaching Popeyes and the McDonalds to be sure. But unlike other parts of town it doesn’t feel changeable in the way that say, the Bowery has become totally unrecognizable. Like Sam Cooke says a change is gonna come, it’s inevitable, but it’s still a ways off up here.

    apologies for length!!!

  2. Ditto for East (Spanish) Harlem–it’s still vivid and strange and vital. I think in many ways space in cities is always shifting, and energy too. I grew up near Detroit and I will not get into any of that Detroit ruin porn that drives me bonkers ( ….but we are so much exciting weirdness in Detroit–farms! funky new business and art!
    Maybe one of the gifts of all spaces, even today’s Times Square, are the people that fill those spaces and then those spaces fill them. You two are the Times Square of the 70s-80s–you write, share–and we all get to live there because of you .

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