NEW YORK -- The ghosts of showman Florenz Ziegfeld and pornography star Linda Lovelace haunt the boarded-up theaters along 42nd Street. But the magic of a billionaire mouse offers this tawdry strip the best chance of recapturing its glorious past.
"New York Welcomes Disney" reads the marquee on the empty New Amsterdam Theater, the former home of the spangled Ziegfeld girls and the grand dame of the Art Nouveau-style theater palaces along 42nd Street.
For 20 years, the city and state have fought to reclaim the heart of Times Square from the purveyors of pornography. At least $190 million in private development dollars has been spent to acquire these pleasure pens and reinvent 42nd Street.
New York has also persuaded the The Walt Disney Co. to bring its magic kingdom to 42nd Street. With its inaugural musical production of "Beauty and the Beast" playing to full houses just around the corner, Disney has agreed to renovate the New Amsterdam for its new shows. Disney is also looking to establish a foothold at another famous Manhattan locale -- Rockefeller Center -- by seeking a stake in that landmark property through an investment group.
Even Mohammed Abdullah, 28, who came to the United States from Lebanon more than four years ago, recognizes the importance of a revitalized Times Square. Mr. Abdullah's days at The Golden Tobacco Shop on West 42nd Street are short-lived. His employer, like the few others remaining on the block, have been told to vacate by Oct. 15.
"This is the face of America," Mr. Abdullah said, referring to the redevelopment area. "This is the face of New York. The first I come to America, when I get out of bus terminal, Port Authority, I saw people selling drugs, taking drugs, pornography movies. I get disappointed. I say this is America. But Times Square is not America."
To clinch the Disney deal, city and state officials had to lure two other big-time tenants to the strip now dominated by desolate storefronts. They got them -- AMC Entertainment and Madame Tussaud -- as anchors to a new $150 million retail-entertainment complex.
"What we have now is the green light for the street," said Charles A. Gargano, chairman of the New York State Urban Development Corporation who helped negotiate the final deal with Disney. "We've created a value to the street. That's what the private sector wants to see."
Greater police presence, state-city financial incentives, a persistent push from neighborhood leaders, the business community's clean-up efforts -- all contributed to the steady change on the block known as The Crossroads of World.
"We saw and we conquered," said Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Schubert Organization and a key proponent of revitalization efforts over the past two decades. "Disney sets a tone of family tourism in an area of the city that hardly was noted for that. They also are reclaiming a theater [the New Amsterdam] on a block that was notorious."
Fall from grace
Notorious early on. Downright nasty in its later years. In the beginning of the century, 42nd Street was a hub of New York theater. Ziegfeld produced lavish musical revues in the 1920s and helped launch the careers of Fanny Brice and W. C. Fields. After a short run of legitimate theater, the Minsky brothers brought burlesque to the corridor between Seventh and Eighth avenues during the Depression.
Gypsy Rose Lee sang "Let Me Entertain You" and comics like Abbott and Costello told jokes during costume changes -- until 1937. That's when Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia took the sin out of Sin City. The theaters settled into a long relationship with the movies.
Fast forward to the 1970s and 1980s, when 25-cent peep shows, pornography bookstores and massage parlors dominated the block. The marquees of once-grand theaters hawked shows like "Best Porn XXX In Town."
The pornography kings got rich and Times Square became a haven for drugs, prostitution and crime.
"On Eighth Avenue, the police had to barricade the streets to separate the legitimate public from the hookers and their pimps," said William H. Daly, director of the Mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement, a city agency founded in 1976 to attack the Times Square problems. "There were about 25 massage parlors in a 12-block strip. People were afraid to come to see a Broadway show."
Through aggressive policing and enforcement of a city nuisance law, New York significantly reduced the number of sex-related businesses in Times Square, from 120 in 1975 to 32 in 1989. By 1994, however, that number rose to 51, fueled by the proliferation of adult video stores.
The increase prompted the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to support zoning legislation to control adult entertainment businesses. The proposed law would effectively banish the sex-related businesses to manufacturing or industrial areas and certain commercial districts. Of the 40 businesses remaining in the Times Square area, only 10 would be allowed to remain there under the new zoning, Mr. Daly said.
The others would have to close, but their owners would be compensated. The city planning agency is expected to act on the law in the next month, Mr. Daly said.
It may take more than a law -- or a sprinkling of pixie dust -- to rid Times Square of its less than desirable neighbors.
"There is a major legal battle looming on this issue because it implicates the First Amendment," said Herald Price Fahringer, a law yer representing Show World, one of the oldest adult entertainment businesses in the area. "You're talking about the crossroads of the world where you have legitimate plays, Broadway musicals, Kung Fu movies and adult movies. It's hard to imagine a geographical area that should be more open, where every form of entertainment should be able to compete in the marketplace."
Times Square is a crazy-quilt of street life, from the urbane to the profane. Models pose among begonias on Broadway while the music man sells songs from a pushcart. A sidewalk preacher proclaims "Jesus Saves," while a young man pushes the latest strip joint.
Kung Fu video stores coexist with Movieplex 42, which features "First Run Family Movies" with a warning, "Metal Detectors in Use. No Weapons." Streetsweepers in red jumpsuits clean up cigarette butts under a banner that reads, "Don't be A Beast. Keep Times Square Beauty-Full."
Along 42nd Street, construction crews are reinventing the face of America. A grand double-tiered staircase is being restored on the exterior of the Victory Theater, a 1900 playhouse that will feature children's programs when it opens in December.
For Mickey Mouse, it's a homecoming of sorts -- Uncle Walt's famous mouse spoke his very first words in the 1928 premiere of "Steamboat Willie" at the Colony Theater a few blocks up Broadway. Besides the renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater, other Disney venues include a nearby retail store at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue and a planned hotel and time share complex at the Eighth Avenue end of 42nd Street.
The larger plans for redeveloping Times Square -- a 13-acre project that hails from 41st to 43rd streets, Broadway to Eighth Avenue -- would light up Flo Ziegfeld's eyes.
A star-studded cast of architects and designers have contributed to the vision of a New 42nd Street, including the firm of architect Robert A. M. Stern.
The heady glare of neon, a prism-like hotel tower cut by a meteoric tail of light, bold bands of color, mammoth billboards and eye-popping video screens -- the new 42nd Street would be the 21st Century's Piccadilly Circus. Add to the scene big name retailers and restaurateurs, an MTV studio (possibly), Warner Music (perhaps) and you have, "The New Times Square."
The plans sound too good to be true.
Legal challenges may keep them in the realm of fairy tales. And there is much yet to do. Other landmarks to renovate. Tenants to sign. The city and state know the importance of pushing ahead.
"It is the crossroads of the world," said John F. R. Melia, a spokesman for the state urban development agency. "It is the heart of New York. All those cliches are true."