AT 7:30 ONE EVENING in early spring, Times Square is a bourgeois carnival. Colorful neckties flutter in the breeze and an excited babble rises as voices in a dozen languages try to figure out if there's time for an ice-cream cone before the curtain of "Cats." The great electric signs flash wholesomeness at the universe, lighting up the night with allurements for Coca-Cola and 8 O'Clock Coffee, while the multitiered stock ticker on the new Morgan Stanley building lets theatergoers check their portfolios on the way in to the show. On a wide spot on the sidewalk, a couple of break-dancers are going through their routines, which have been playing on this corner even longer than "Cats." The break-dancers are no longer rubber-limbed boys with the gum of the projects still stuck to their sneakers, but muscular young men in matching T shirts and khakis. Even the tourists from countries where dancing on the sidewalk can get you six months to life seem unimpressed. As curtain time draws near, the dancers silence their boombox and amble off in the general direction of Brooklyn.
"Tough crowd," someone murmurs sympathetically.
"Nah, it ain't that, man," one responds. "I got another gig to get to."
It is time--past time, actually--to say goodbye to the Times Square of legend, the village green of the dispossessed. Last month, just as "Rent" was about to bring its cast of doomed junkies, transvestites and sex-club dancers to a stage on West 41st Street, the city was concluding the 30-year process of extirpating precisely those elements a block away on West 42d. With most of the block now owned by the state, the sleazy sex shops have been banished. Many remain just around the corner on Eighth Avenue, but soon a new zoning law will force them to find some less high-minded neighborhood to corrupt. In their stead are rising legitimate theaters, gigaplex cinemas, souvenir stores, theme restaurants and attractions like the New York branch of Madame Tussaud's that will have nothing in common with the former denizens of the block except the goal of emptying tourists' wallets as efficiently as possible.
Neighborhood boosters note that crime is down more than 40 percent in the last four years. Broadway ticket sales last year were the highest in a decade. "There used to be a siege mentality here," says Rocco Landesman, whose Jujamcyn group owns five Broadway theaters. "Everyone tried to spend as little time as possible getting from dinner into his seat. Now people are wandering around, browsing the theaters. There's a sense of being in a welcoming community."
Actually, the transformation of Times Square began more than a decade ago, when the city--recognizing the impossibility of fitting a single additional pedestrian onto Park Avenue--began encouraging office construction on the West Side. The completion of the new buildings in the late 1980s coincided with a move by many financial companies out of the older office buildings around Wall Street to new, computer-ready offices in midtown. Hoping to preserve at least some flavor of Times Square's raffish past, the city required the new offices to hide their sober faades behind exuberant flashing electric signs--a requirement Morgan Stanley chose to fulfill with its giant stock ticker.
Meanwhile, the slow process of condemnation has been working its way along 42d Street. One renovated theater, the New Victory, is already open. Defying predictions that the world is running out of gimmicks to be exploited by theme restaurants, architect David Rockwell, who is behind most of the planet's Planet Hollywoods, is designing a Marvel Comics theme diner for 42d Street. But the key was Disney's commitment to restore the New Amsterdam Theater, which for decades after its opening in 1903 was one of the premier musical houses in the world before descending into movie-house squalor and abandonment. At a cost of $34 million, heavily subsidized by loans from the state and city, Disney will restore the plaster angels, peacocks and rosettes that once covered every surface of the great house. The company intends to be a major player on Broadway. "We have a lot of [theatrical productions] in development, some original, some based on other works," says Disney chairman Michael Eisner. "We plan to do as many as we can do well."
It goes without saying that Disney would not have been interested in Times Square at almost any time in the past--certainly not in 1969, say, when director John Schlesinger filmed the famously noir "Midnight Cowboy" there. "There was always something worse happening off camera than on," says Schlesinger. He returned to the area last week and was amazed to see the porn shops shuttered. "I don't know how I feel about its being gentrified," he admitted. "The colorful nature of the people that once were on 42d Street will be lost, but I suppose they'll find somewhere else to be."
Maybe they can move to Wall Street.