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James Lileks

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October 4, 2011 - 12:17 am
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Noir isn’t really a New York thing anyway. It’s L.A. It’s the corruption under the sun and the palms, the private detective in the downtown office building (Marlowe was LA; Spade was in Frisco, as you could call it then.) Noir is all about moral choices in an amoral world, fate and finality, the cruel cosmic wheel turning in a place that was supposed to have reinvented the old ways. It’s cars, not subways. Rude new money, not ancient fortunes. Perhaps the quintessential New York detective was Nero Wolfe, who never left the house and sent a servant out to do the grunt work. Not to say you can’t make noir out of Times Square — Stanley Kubrick’s early film, Killer’s Kiss, uses Times Square to great effect, but there’s simply too much light and life in the place to give the place a Noir mood.

Perhaps the attempted noirification is is just their way of admitting they cleaned it up too much:

Times Square, 2011. Photo by Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com.

Could have been worse: Philip Johnson’s horrid 1983 redesign of Times Square would have cleaned up the area, alright, but its gimcracky post-modern geegaws just swapped ho’s for faux’s, and would have deadened the area for decades. If there’s a balance between soulless overdevelopment and a high grit content, it’s yet to be discovered. Best to ignore Daniel Burnham’s advice when it comes to city planning: dream no big dreams. They may not stir men’s souls, but you won’t get a chain restaurant, either.

The most romantic visions of Times Square are black and white, but that doesn’t mean they’re noir. They’re real: the interplay between a million lights and a teeming street and the countless small storefronts, the dozens of buildings put up with no thought to a Grand Plan, only commerce, their variegated facades a reflection of the times that produced them and the teams that created them. In a way, it’s sad: the old Times Square motto was Look Up! Isn’t it glorious?

We’re different now. Look down. We hope it reminds you of yesterday.

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James Lileks has been blogging at the Daily Bleat even before there were blogs. Stop by early and often.
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