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by
James Lileks

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October 4, 2011 - 12:17 am

OK, maybe not this noir.

The cycle of urban renewal is always the same. Always. Set your watch by it, count off the paces. A run-down block looks ominous and debauched; developers pitch a new vision with shiny glass walls and lots of chic retail and people walking around having a Pedestrian Experience — that’s a good thing, not a dull thing; means the streets are friendly to low-carbon-impact activities. Eminent domain is applied if the owners balk; money gushes; the ball swings; a new complex arises, and the old ugly block, with its piecemeal storefronts and variegated buildings and venerable architectural styles, is replaced by a big Thing. It’s packed with Chili’s and Applebee’s and a book store and a place that serves premium ice cream. Look ahead five years, and it’s dead. Perhaps the local magazine has a Bygone Days section that runs old photos, and when they show the picture of the block everyone was anxious to raze, well, it looks . . . interesting. It looks cool, in a seedy sort of way. Lick of paint, sandblast the buildings, get a flatfoot to patrol and move along the pervs and bums, and you’d have the very sort of urban environment the new plans promise we’ll get, but never get around to providing.

42nd Street in 1993. Photo by author.

New York isn’t completely regretting the massive clean-up of Times Square, but they’ve finally conceded one of the lingering, stinging critiques: it’s too clean. C’mon, this is New Yawk. Times Square is supposed to be gritty. (“Gritty” usually means hookers.) If you never saw it at its worst, you probably think the visions in Taxi Driver look almost . . . well, romantic. All those marquees, jutting into the stream of pedestrians like the prows of once-great ocean liners. The vibrant community of hustlers, pornhounds, streetwalkers, square-johns down for a walk on the wild side. Animated neon signs that drew pictures in the night, instead of great blaring walls of color that make you feel trapped in a Blade Runner remake.

But no. Those were the bad old days. That was Beame-time, Kojak-land, an age of sagging civic fortunes and needle-park panic and grindhouse theaters showing chop-’em-up horror films for mouthbreathers who would have to wait years for Quentin Tarantino to tell them how this movie was actually art, man, art. No wants to go back to that. Any other historical references we can slather on the place, then?

Why yes. The New York Post reports:

 A new $27 million plan to redesign Times Square’s famed “bow tie” calls for an atmospheric “film noir” look for the five-block area . . .

Of course. The Forties! Times Square in its full glory. Men in hats, women in hats, men in suits, women in . . . okay, suits, but also dresses, and lots of black cars gliding under the marquees, the lights reflected in their shiny hoods. Except that you can’t drive in the area as much as you used to, and no one wears hats that aren’t backwards, but otherwise, great. So how are they going to do it? Dress code? Ban color? Put in some dime-a-dance parlors and some all-night hash-houses and hire guys to walk around dressed as sailors? Require cabbies to be cynical and call the passenger “Mac” and step on it when asked to do so?

If only. The area will feature…

…permanent pedestrian plazas with a smooth, dark pavement studded with reflective metal disks designed to recapture the gritty feel of the city’s past.

“It’s not taking its cues from some pretty little things in Europe or something,” said Craig Dykers, an architect with Snohetta Design, the firm that also designed the 9/11 Museum downtown.

“Our design has a film noir feel to it; it’s more muscular. Paris or London can have these little benches, but New York has a toughness to it,” he said during a presentation to Community Board 5’s Transportation Committee Monday night.

What does that mean, bench-wise? Spikes? Hard to see how reflective metal disks in the pavement stand for the city’s grit-related past, and in fact it’s the opposite of the way things were. Pavement was light, and there were dark blotches everywhere, probably formed by gum spat out by antisocial idiots who couldn’t troubled to dispose of it in a civilized way. If you’re reducing “noir” down to an element of set design, pass the mandatory Venetian Blinds act and you’re done.

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.

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