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Make Cities Great Again

Times Square, New York by Arthur Clifton Goodwin. Late 1800s.

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, Times Square, New York, late 1800s

1,384 words

James Traub’s history of Times Square in New York, The Devil’s Playground (Random House, 2007) provides – perhaps unintentionally – an excellent case study illustrative of when and how American cities went wrong.

In March of 1960, the New York Times ran a long front-page story under the headline ‘Life on 42nd St. A Study in Decay.’ The reporter, Milton Bracken, noted that ‘it is frequently asserted’ that 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues ‘is the “worst” in town.’ As evidence, Bracken adduced the ten ‘grinder’ theaters on the block showing racy or violent films from eight A.M. to four A.M., and the ‘male perverts’ who ‘misbehave’ during the shows; the homosexuals and transvestites who gathered on the sidewalks; the arcades in the subway stations at either end of the subway stations at either end of the block, whose pinball games and shooting galleries attracted drifters and runaways; the con artists bilking soldiers and unwary tourists, and the bookstores peddling ‘second-hand magazines featuring pictures of women stripped to the waist.’

In the light of retrospection, of course, the dreadful depths of 42nd Street circa 1960 sound fairly innocuous. And in fact, Bracken was at pains to distinguish between the street’s increasingly noxious reputation and its daily reality. The youthful ‘deviates,’ he writes, may have been material for the psychiatrist, but not for the policeman. The drifters in the arcades could be counted on to comply when the officer on the beat shooed them away. The knives on display in the stores were for show rather than for battle. The jukebox in the IRT arcade was wholly devoted to opera. The police made relatively few arrests on an average night. Forty-second Street was an ‘enigma’ in an otherwise healthy city . . . (This and all subsequent Traub quotations are from Chapter 9: “The Pokerino Freak Show.”)

Of course, for one who knows what to look for, and especially in hindsight, the warning signs were already there. But there is still the question of how a relatively harmless and contained zone, not even a proper red light district of the sort that Guillaume Faye writes about and argues for in Sex and Deviance, became the monstrosity that featured so prominently in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver a mere fifteen years later.

Traub notes, “This moment in the early 1960s marks a middle point in the downward spiral of 42nd Street.” Later in the decade, some important events would happen that would push Times Square, and New York City, and other American cities, over the edge into full-scale urban decay. Their coincidence with the counter-cultural revolution taking place at exactly the same time should be noted.

The first stag films were introduced into Times Square by Martin Hodas, a Jew from Brooklyn, in 1966, and quickly became popular. For many years, pornography was illegal, but that changed in the 1960s.

Police enforcement might have eliminated, or at least suppressed, this new level of erotica, but starting in 1966, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions extending the First Amendment protections to explicit sexual materials. Real estate in Times Square had always adapted to the most high-profit uses; now, with remarkable speed, pornography became the boom industry of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Martin Hodas was soon a major producer and distributor of hard-core material, allegedly in collaboration with the Mafia . . .

This led to many properties being bought and converted from their old uses – “camera shops, gadget stores, delis, cafeterias, and pinball arcades” – into more porn stores.

Soon there were stores specializing in gay porn, kiddie porn, and S & M. Stores with forbiddingly blacked-out windows and kinky posters out front lined the street. Hubert’s Museum, the last relic of the old honky-tonk 42nd Street, closed in 1975. . . . The Supreme Court rulings also cleared the way for ‘massage parlors,’ which were . . . in effect, street-level brothels. By 1967, Eighth Avenue was lined with massage parlors. . . . By the mid-seventies, many of the 42nd Street movie theaters had switched to pornography, a change that further degraded the life of the street. Prostitutes often worked the aisles of the theaters . . . while thieves preyed on the derelicts who often camped out in the theaters, slashing open their pockets while they slept.

These Supreme Court decisions that paved the way for porn and prostitution were the products of the liberal Warren Court. “Important decisions during the Warren Court years included decisions holding segregation policies in public schools (Brown v. Board of Education) and anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional (Loving v. Virginia); . . . that states are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court and cannot ignore them (Cooper v. Aaron); that public schools cannot have official prayer (Engel v. Vitale) or mandatory Bible readings (Abington School District v. Schempp)”

All of this was bad enough. But there was one more ingredient which, when coupled with the ethic of permissiveness described above, proved a disaster. Traub continues the tale of New York’s – and urban America’s – downward spiral:

In 1960, the decay of 42nd Street had seemed anomalous; but by the end of the decade, the downtown of virtually every old northeastern and mid-western city had begun to totter, or collapse. Suburbanization had robbed the department stores and the restaurants and the movie theaters of their customers; and as companies followed people, the cities’ employment base had begun to dwindle as well. And just as middle-class whites were decamping, large numbers of blacks, most of them poorly educated and unskilled, were migrating up from the South – 2.75 million between 1940 and 1960 alone. They were arriving just as the low-level manufacturing jobs they might have taken were leaving. It was a recipe for catastrophe. Crime rates, which had been remarkably low during the urban efflorescence in the middle decades of the twentieth century, began to surge. New York City had 390 murders in 1961; by 1964, the number had reached 637. In 1972, almost 1,700 New Yorkers were killed – a more than fourfold increase from barely a decade before. The number of reported robberies almost tripled from 1966 to the early seventies. Not only the volume but the nature of crime changed; knives and blackjacks gave way to the Saturday Night Special. Heroin hit the streets around 1964. The combination of guns, drugs, and enormous amounts of cash produced a lethal dynamic.

Of course, to an earlier generation of right-wing thinkers like H. P. Lovecraft, the fate of New York City had been sealed long before. In a letter to Robert E. Howard in March of 1933, Lovecraft wrote:

Civilisation is a place where human intelligence has tried to minimise the wasteful element of mere blind individual survival-struggle in order to let individuals at least partly attain and enjoy the objects of struggle. Incidentally, though, don’t take New York as a typical specimen of civilisation. That especial place has moved past the zone of civilisation into that of definite decadence – being rotten, as it were, before it is ripe.

While Times Square has since been cleaned up by massive commercial development in conjunction with Mayor Giuliani’s crime policies of the 1990s, the situation facing many American cities today is not that different from what happened to Times Square between 1960 and 1980. The loss of manufacturing jobs, further facilitated by globalist trade agreements like NAFTA; widespread availability and use of drugs, which grow ever more dangerous as new synthetic compounds made in Mexico, China, and elsewhere flood American streets; sexual perversion and immorality that is now not confined to a red light district or even an urban area, but is ubiquitous in media and entirely mainstream; and finally, the unprecedented demographic changes which have filled American cities with ever-growing numbers of low IQ, high crime populations.

And yet, in the first half of the twentieth century, before these changes, Americans dreamed of the city of the future, filled with technological wonders and things of beauty and quality. But that dream became – to use a phrase from the black poet Langston Hughes – a dream deferred. America’s cities were victimized by profiteers, experimented on by social engineers, and then abandoned and ignored, like a mugging victim in old Times Square.

President Trump has vowed to “rebuild” America’s cities. He has dared us to once again Dream Big. In taking up that mantle and dreaming again the old dreams, we would do well to also remember the mistakes of the past, and the nightmares that they created.






  1. Posted November 18, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Most of mid-town Manhattan of the late 50s and early 60s was by and large a wonderful and very safe place. Times Square was an off-limits locale for the youngster I was then, as were Morningside Park, known as a trysting spot for poofs, along with pretty much anyplace north of 110th street except for certain selected sites: the Cloisters, the Polo Grounds, parts of Riverside Park. The lower east side was off limits and Hell’s Kitchen, well, the name said it all. Greenwich Village was a mixed bag: I remember well walking across the street from and beneath the old Women’s House of Detention on my way to my Saturday fencing class above a pharmacy on Sixth Ave cornering 9th street, where the disco Trude Heller’s was. The catcalls from the gals up there in the slammer were a revelation at that innocent time. But is was all destined to decay and decay it did.

    I’m 70 now, left my native NY, left the USA and now live in a tiny rural village in Argentina and will never spend more than brief time in a city again, and that only when necessary. As for the “city of the future”, I was in charge of planning it for our fifth grade mural; it did not turn out as I’d predicted, but then again, neither did I.

  2. Dov
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Cities are necessary for the building of great societies, of course, and they serve functions that require concentrated populations to enjoy success – industry, the arts, and so on. That said, speaking as someone who has spent all of his life within one-hour radii of Chicago and NYC but has the heart of a Wyoming rancher, I have a strong distaste for the effects city living has on one’s character. As soon as one disembarks from one’s train in Penn Station (or crosses one of the bridges and tunnels), one is assaulted by myriad sights, smells, and sounds – appealing to the simple mind, to be sure, but harshly grating to the contemplative soul, and (in my opinion) ultimately handicapping to one’s ability to live in a grounded fashion. Observant visitors with societal and historical consciousness will also likely find the walking masses highly depressing. One sees the many young men and women hustling here and there, and knows that they’re likely either paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for “education” that could have been procured for a fraction of the price at State U, or working at service economy jobs whose salaries are almost entirely being wasted on outrageous rent payments. One also sees that many people walking their dogs, and has a sneaking suspicion that for almost all of these people, their pets have been actively chosen as replacements for children.

    I could go on, but I’ve made my general point. Take a look at the cover of Greg Johnson’s “Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country.” That kind of Norman Rockwell-esque ideal simply does not exist in urban hubs, and the longer I live in the NYC area, the more I’m convinced that it *cannot* exist in large cities, by dint of the frenetic lifestyles they engender in their inhabitants.

  3. The Leveller
    Posted November 18, 2016 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    I still wander around the old relics of this city(NYC), particularly looking at what was built at the dawn of the 20th century. I feel a profound sadness for what has been lost and what could have been before the Brother Wars and the Rising Tide of Color…Cities have always had a valve for decadence but it was not meant to overwhelm it and become a part of its essence. My earliest childhood memories of this place in the early 80s were already formed in the height of its degeneracy.

    You really get the sense that the Fin De Siecle/Teddy Roosevelt era was the time to really make The United States what it could have been (similar to the 1920 alt-America envisioned in Robert W Chamber’s King In Yellow stories). I see it in other cities such as Philly and the hellhole known as Baltimore, these amazing cities of the ‘future’ now rotting and overrun with artificial savages, lacking even the honor and honesty of older barbarians. The so called urban elves do not impress me, their gentrification and efforts will fall before the Tide; they are like Eloi lacking the strength to maintain this over the long run.

    Can these cities be reclaimed? Imagine repopulating these places with Nationalists! Men and women of both culture and the fist. We shall see.

  4. Miha M
    Posted November 19, 2016 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    It is my opinion that current level of urbanization iz unsustainable (for ecological reasons) and also undesired. Its breeding ground of liberalism and degeneracy.

    Cities can not be saved same as economy can not be saved. Trump cant fix this, not even Jesus can fix this. I would rather call it predicament than a problem, because calling it a problem implies it can be solved.

    • Walter
      Posted November 20, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      I read years ago the booklet “Urbanization” by Hans F.K.Günther. (It was in German, “Die Verstädterung”). He paints a depressing picture of cities as a Moloch devouring whole generations and lineages after two to three generations. People enter, exist, and apparently disappear from the chain of human history as individuals not passing on their lineage.
      Mega-Cities are a companion of at least the current civilization. It might not be a consequence of every civilization to outgrow in its cities the equilibrium between manageable and unmanageable size. The lack of creativity in them and providing at most only productivity as with the revolutions of a uselessly spinning wheel make them mark a dead end of life. It’s a self-perpetuating but useless way of being, leading in the main to the proliferation of vices and concentration of power, in its architecture to gigantism and increasingly silly gellifications as buildings an emptiness of purpose.
      Yet urbanization is perhaps the only way to manage the billions of individuals around the globe. Ancient Rome was with 200000 inhabitants probably just as big as New York with its 10 millions. I think, however, that with a city government that doesn’t conceive of a city as yet another business to be merely managed according to the latest growth and profit principles, some direction could be given. It all depends on a larger goal of what people actually mean to the leadership of the political system as a whole.

  5. Proofreader
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    This is somewhat off-topic, but I can’t help noting that James Traub’s The Devil’s Playground includes this significant passage:

    “The habit of mistaking predatory for assertively individualistic behavior — of romanticizing the gutter — is a trope of modern Times Square literature. One scholar, Laurence Senelick, has argued that the difference between the gaudy, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street of days of glory and the supposedly perverse one of our own day has been wildly overdrawn; in fact, the forces of bourgeois propriety have warred throughout the last century against those who wished to test the boundaries of the acceptable. ‘It is easy to foment outrage about juvenile prostitution,’ Senelick wrote in 1990. ‘Having sex with one’s own children has been a feature of family life since Lot and his daughters, and the mass selling of juveniles for sexual purposes was common in the Eastern Hemisphere from ancient times until very recently.’ It was the moral crusade that outraged him, not the sexual exploitation.”

    Senelick’s ho-hum attitude to incest and child prostitution practically scream out that he’s a Jew.

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