April 12, 2004 12:00 PM


by James Traub

If Las Vegas is the city in the middle of a desert, New York City’s Times Square—which has just celebrated its centennial—has become a desert in the middle of a city. Today the blocks surrounding the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue host an antiseptic conglomeration of multinational corporations, megastores and McRestaurants. And yet at night you can almost glimpse its ghosts. The first half of Traub’s history of the area—which begins with a rogues’ gallery of early 20th century ad men, con men and hustlers, and ends amid the squalor of the ’70s—relies too heavily on familiar sources; it smells of the library. But a shift from research to reportage rescues the rest: Interviewing the architects, developers and officials behind Times Square’s rebirth, Traub maps a sad shift from prewar popular culture—a “localized, handcrafted thing”—to the mass Culture which explodes like an angel cake from “mighty corporate ovens.” The work pays off, and the questions Traub raises—what to change? what to preserve?—are as universal as Times Square itself would like to be.

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