Theme Cities

For a generation, the block of 42d street just of Times Square has been one of New York's great civic embarrassments, a sinkhole of iniquity that couldn't even trap any tourists worth fleecing. While other vice-oriented vacation spots like Las Vegas were encouraging visitors to bring their families, 42d Street remained a collection of tawdry bookstores and peep-shows, so backward that souvenir T shirts were being sold out of cardboard boxes on the sidewalk at three for $10, while Hard Rock Cafe customers 15 blocks away were paying $14 each. "Tourists come to Times Square filled with the desire to spend money and there's no place to do it," says New York architect Robert A.M. Stern. "They actually spend less than they brought." A place that lets tourists go home with money in their pockets clearly doesn't deserve to have any. Say what you will about Babylon, ancient Rome and Wait Disney World, that's never been their problem.

Which makes the Disney corporation the ideal choice for one of the most ambitious feats of gentrification since Sarah Ferguson became the Duchess of York: to create on this notorious block what chairman Michael Eisner calls "the cleaner, more friendly environment that customers expect because of Disney." Disney, which transcended its origins as a studio with its purchase of Capital Cities/ABC and has plans to invest in Rockefeller Center, agreed in July to renovate one of the street's most romantic and decrepit theaters into a 1,900-seat showcase for live Broadway productions. The $34 million project, heavily subsidized with low-interest state and city government loans, will anchor a whole new entertainment district, housing two more theaters, a 25-screen multiplex cinema, themed restaurants -- including an ESPN sports spa -- and a branch of Madame Tussaud's wax museum. Planned for one key corner is a flamboyant 10-story hotel designed by the Miami firm Arquitectonica in which Sega will create an entertainment complex and Disney has the option to set up a vacation club. On the other end of the block, next to Times Square, Disney is planning an 18,000-square-foot memorabilia store. This is bigger than some supermarkets in New York City. "Disney," says Stern, who is also a member of its board of directors, "has taught Americans a lot about what they're missing in their urban life."

Of course, until recently most Americans probably assumed that what was missing in their urban life was "jobs." Just a decade ago, in fact, New York was committed to stamping out the existing entertainment district on 42d Street under the soles of 10,000 Yuppie lawyers and bankers, who were to be summoned into existence by the construction of four huge office towers. When it turned out that the city already had millions of square feet of office space unrented, that plan was put on indefinite hold. In its place, the state's Urban Development Corporation promulgated guidelines intended to recapture the glamour Times Square once had, in the era when an electric sign was a media experience and a blinking one was . . . well, a multimedia experience.

But the very same principle has been applied to the workaday downtowns of practically every city that aspires to see its name on a souvenir mug. For all the abandoned piers, factories, warehouses, department stores and office buildings littering the post-industrial landscape, planners across the country are offering the same prescription: a "themed entertainment" district with restaurants, theaters and shopping. "The urban entertainment destination is a concept we believed in for years, but it took time for technology and people's attitudes to catch up," says planning consultant Patrick McBride, of Coconut Grove, Fla. Elitch Gardens, a Colorado amusement park, relocated this year from the outskirts of Denver to 70 acres near downtown, a move its press kit claims is unprecedented in the entire history of the roller coaster. Chicago has renovated its historic Navy Pier into a cultural and entertainment center with every imaginable attraction short of a live volcano. Broadway musicals have returned to downtown Minneapolis, from which they had fled decades ago for the comfort of suburban dinner theaters. Cities, says Richard Bradley, executive director of the International Downtown Association, increasingly define themselves by what goes on in their streets 12 hours a day rather than in office buildings for eight.

Developers have fallen in love with "synergy," the integration of ticket sales with east albums, baseball caps, posters, dolls and hamburgers, formerly and less pretentiously known as tie-ins. Synergy has propelled the fantastic growth of themed restaurant chains such as the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, which peddle souvenirs along with their exciting menus of 1983-era specialties like fajitas, in cities whose only connection to the glamorous world of the movies was that people there watched them. Synergy explains the proliferation of multiplex movie theaters housing restaurants, arcades and souvenir stores. Sony Theaters opened a 12-screen megaplex in Manhattan last year and is planning one with 20 screens in Southfield, Mich., designed by David Rockwell, an architect best known for designing elaborate themed restaurants, including most of the Planet Hollywoods (there are 25 of them worldwide). Berrie Loeks, co-CEO of Sony Theaters, says this trend is actually changing the way Americans go to the movies, liberating them from the need to choose a specific picture, location and time. Patrons drop in any time and wait for something good to start, synergistically grazing and browsing at the themed restaurants and shops.

In redeveloping the abandoned waterfront of Camden, N.J., the Cooper's Ferry Development Association sought synergy using the abandoned Victrola factory nearby. Although no phonographs or RCA Victor recordings have been made here since 1949, the agency managed to convince Sony, Blockbuster and Pace Entertainment that the historical association with music warranted a 25,000-seat amphitheater for live concerts. There was already an aquarium, representing a tie-in to Camden's historic role as a place where fish swim by. Restaurants, theaters and shops are planned. Synergy, says McBride, requires assembling a "sufficient critical mass of different opportunities in one location," so no single member of any family can utter the dreaded phrase, "What am I supposed to do while you and Mom are listening to James Taylor?"

The sublimest synergy, though, comes from people themselves, when they shed their individual identities as "customers" and become a "crowd." The innate desire for human company and society is hardier than we realize: it's likely to survive even in the presence of 500-channel interactive cable systems. In Los Angeles, the world capital of anomie, thousands of pedestrians throng the two-block-long Universal CityWalk, a themed entertainment strip with--surprise!--restaurants, theaters and shops. The combination of crowds, music, fountains and hip, garish postmodern architecture has a hypnotic effect on visitors, enabling merchants to empty their wallets virtually by telepathy. How else to explain T shirts that cost as much as $60? "There's just about anything to do here." said Sarah Coleman, 20, a college student, waiting for a table at KWGB. a restaurant with a radio-station theme. "You don't even have to spend money. You could just walk around and look at everything." Several other people made similar observations, but curiously enough, most of them, like Coleman, were actually standing in line to buy something at the time.

The thing about CityWalk, though, is that it was custom-built for its purpose, and has a built-in market attracted by the adjacent Universal Studios Hollywood theme park and the world's busiest cinemaplex. (All of the "pedestrians," needless to say, got there in a car.) Can the same atmosphere be sustained amid the vivid. teeming and occasionally squalid life of Times Square? And if so, will "theming" destroy the very qualities that once made 42d Street worth visiting in the first place? In designing guidelines for the project, says Stern, "we said, loud, flashy, bright, vulgar, sensational [and] wacko'-this is what is natural on this street." He meant the architecture, of course, not the people. Disney's singular contribution to American civic life has been precisely to make it less loud, vulgar and wacko, as Eisner himself boasts: "If you go to any public building in the U.S.--baseball stadiums, basketball arenas, fairs--because of Disney, the customer expects a cleaner, safer, more friendly environment." In its own parks, Disney achieves this by charging an admission fee high enough to screen out virtually everyone but middle-class families. This won't be possible on 42d Street, obviously--although at one point, according to Stern, Eisner actually suggested that Disney should just "gate the whole street and take it over."

Well, that's the essence of theming--the planning of every experience and impression, generally so that someone can make a buck off it. The Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, intended as a recreation of the first such contraption at Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exposition, has exuberant McDonald's golden arches on each gondola, lest the customer forget even for the length of a ride that he's there to spend money. Theming is blind to context. Along West 57th Street in Manhattan a substantial tourist neighborhood has grown up, centered on themed restaurants such as the inescapable Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, a Harley-Davidson Care and a themed Motown restaurant. There's nothing wrong with this, except that the neighborhood, best known for upscale department stores and art galleries, hasn't even the remotest connection to rock music, cinema or motorcycles.

Talking to the tourists who line up in the sun for hours for the chance to spend $8 or $9 on a hamburger, it turns out that many of them come from places that actually have their own Hard Rock Cafes. And many of them seem never to leave this rather bland part of midtown, to which they're steered by travel agents and guidebooks. Asked the other day why she didn't explore the more interesting venues downtown, Karen Franklin, a young Brazilian tourist waiting on line at Planet Hollywood, opened her map and pointed to the maze of streets in Greenwich Village. "Muito dificil," she said. McBride says that when he visited New York with his kids, the things they enjoyed the most were the quotidian experiences of walking the streets of SoHo, riding subways and "sitting on the steps of museums. watching the people." Those are the kinds of pleasures cities have always offered, and the best thing about them also explains why they so often remain undiscovered: they don't cost anything.