Read an Excerpt
How'm I doin'?"
It was one of those gorgeous January afternoons when the sidewalks of 42nd Street sparkle in the sunlight as if embedded with the dust of guaranteed genuine would-I-kid-you? diamonds. Edward Irving Koch had just embarked on a river-to-river victory walk, along the way asking passersby his signature campaign slogan, made to appear as if it were a real question by the high tone of his voice, the concerned shake of his head, the sheriff's squint in his eyes. Koch had become an expert at using exaggerated facial gestures to convey his concern for the public's welfare. That previous November he had been elected mayor of the city of New York.
He'd survived a long and difficult Democratic primary to beat no-nonsense (and no future) incumbent mayor Abe Beame and another Democrat he'd correctly perceived as his real threat, the fiery and popular favorite, Mario Cuomo. Things got more complicated when the mayoral election then unexpectedly turned into an old-fashioned four-man dog fight with Koch also finding himself up against relative unknown Republican Roy Goodman, who didn't stand a chance in the overwhelmingly Democratic city; Conservative Party talk show host Barry Farber-no way there either; and a still-unbowed Cuomo, who had somehow managed to wrest the Liberal Party nomination from both Koch and Beame to mount a ferocious, if losing, campaign in the general election.
Neither Koch, the self-proclaimed "reform Democrat" (for capital punishment, against municipal labor unions), nor Cuomo, the traditionalist (against capital punishment and for municipal labor unions), would soon forget this bitterly fought contest. Inevitably the politics of personality reduced the campaign to a single subjective-point-of-view issue: whether New Yorkers wanted to live in Koch's anything-goes, disco jam-till-dawn Joytown or Cuomo's joyless modern-day Jamestown. Koch won by convincing the voters they were better off trusting their future to his crinkled grin than Cuomo's furrowed brow. He reveled in victory, his Old World Yiddish-tinged hands held high, while his opponent smoldered with the Catholic-guilt humiliation of defeat.
A year later, Cuomo double-jumped Koch by snagging the governor's seat in Albany, a victory that resurrected his political career. The mayor appeared ready to publicly forgive if not privately forget any lingering bitterness toward the governor-elect, while Cuomo may have been willing to publicly forget, but those close to him knew he could never privately forgive the newly magnanimous mayor.
Before either left office, the simmering animosity between them would come to a boil over the single issue that most clearly represented the difference in their governing philosophies, the longstanding and problematic redemption of the west side of 42nd Street. By 1980, the city's fabled Manhattan crossroads had become ground zero for the manufacture, exhibition, and distribution of pornography, drug dealing, pedophilia, prostitution, and violent street crime. Like every major city and state politician before them, both Koch and Cuomo saw more than just urban blight on West 42nd Street. Each saw political opportunity in the ragged morality of the notorious boulevard. Each sensed the chance to create a higher national profile for himself as the moral savior of "the Deuce." And each wanted to be the star quarterback for this championship game of political football, scoring the winning touchdown while knocking the other guy's team onto the permanent sidelines.
THE PERSONAL FROST that coated the political relationship between Cuomo and Koch was not an unusual happenstance for either of these two politicians. Each had a tendency to overpersonalize his professional battles. Their styles more closely resembled two tough neighborhood boys duking it out in the school yard rather than a couple of budding suburban intellects debating in the classroom. From the earliest days of his career in public office, Koch especially had displayed a special knack for making long-term personal enemies out of political foes, broadly depicting them as bad guys and placing himself in the role of the public's defender as a way of endearing himself to the electorate. Koch's sheriff-versus-gunfighter scenario paid off in 1973 when as a party-line reformer he first came up against Mayor John Vliet Lindsay, the Republican who'd captured City Hall in 1966, a time of particularly hard racial and fiscal unrest in New York City. Lindsay had won by running on the Liberal ticket (after being soundly defeated in his own party's primaries by conservative John Marchi). Koch was still largely unknown when, after Lindsay's successful run for mayor, he won the right to temporarily represent Lindsay's so-called Silk Stocking District (which, because of the peculiar zoning of the city, included part of the elite Upper East Side of the city and much of Greenwich Village). Although Koch had supported Lindsay for mayor, Lindsay still supported the Republican nominee for permanent election to the congressional seat.
A vengeful Koch waited for the right opportunity and then made the most of it when he came out against Lindsay in the last year of his second term. He vilified the mayor over the Forest Hills Project, a low-income ("scatter site") housing development, which would have moved mostly poor black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers into a solidly middle-class, white section of Queens. Lindsay's controversial plan managed to pull back the rock from the hitherto-hidden racist anthill that existed in the upper-middle-class outer boroughs of New York in the seventies. Supporters of the plan called their opponents racists, while those who fought against it claimed it would seriously depress property values. When the long-term, mostly Jewish residents of Forest Hills formally organized in angry protest against what they labeled "slum housing," Koch stepped in as their unofficial spokesman and used the subsequent media flurry to raise his own profile among the city's prominent Jewish population (and lower the patrician Lindsay's) by accusing the mayor of pandering to the black liberal vote in the upcoming elections. By doing so, Koch created a campaign issue to position himself for his first, unsuccessful, run for City Hall. For his part, Lindsay chose a mediator to try to settle the Forest Hills situation, a little-known Queens-born-and-bred community lawyer by the name of Mario Cuomo. Cuomo was able to get everyone to agree to a modified plan that would turn one half of the projects into public housing and the other half into luxury cooperative apartments. And, although Koch's campaign lasted a total of forty-five days before he was forced to drop out for lack of funds, he still felt a measure of victory when Lindsay, due at least in part to his clumsy handling of the Queens housing controversy, lost his bid for a third term to old-line Democrat Abe Beame.
In 1974 a defeated but vindicated Koch returned to his duties as a congressman. Two years later he found his next front-page cause, the campaign to save 42nd Street's Grand Central Terminal from being torn down by real estate developers who wanted to replace it with a skyscraper. His participation in that battle, during which he was often photographed with one of the city's most revered and unassailable citizens, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, returned his name to the newspaper headlines and the lead story of the local news telecasts, making his peculiar facial expression-the one that made him look as if he were smiling and frowning at the same time-instantly recognizable to every New Yorker. This time he used his exposure to buy a first-class ticket on the express train to City Hall.
KOCH HAD THE SPRINGY STEP of success in his feet, the rhythmic stride of a winner, as he briskly walked river-to-river across the two and a half miles of 42nd Street. He began his one-man march in front of the United Nations Secretariat Building, jogged the steps up to the oddly aloof residential outpost of Tudor City, then continued west past the Chrysler, Chanin, Lincoln, and Daily News Buildings, to the majestic facade of the great Grand Central Terminal. Here on the East Side of 42nd Street, it was business as usual. The sidewalks were filled with executives wearing open overcoats, carrying attach? cases and going somewhere too fast; salesgirls wearing boots, chewing gum, and window-shopping on their lunch hour; vendors, in need of a shave and a clean shirt, hawking hot dogs with ingredients of suspicious origin; green corner kiosks selling newspapers, magazines, and panty hose; and a honking herd of cabs, cars, buses, and bikes moving slower than the pedestrians. Jammed nine to five, every night and all weekend long, like a special-effects shot from some end-of-mankind movie, this nonresidential stretch of city street would become eerily deserted.
Immediately to the west of the venerable Times Square everything changed. Whereas on the East Side, big business seemed sexy on 42nd Street, to the west, seamy sex was big business. This was where the air stank, a turgid waft of human sweat and canned Lysol that hung tough around the nostrils. Civilians' eyes on West 42nd bugged out like those on the heads of deep-fried fish, the "bookstores" sold "dirty" movies and magazines, and the peeps offered "stars" having live sex with each other "eight times a day!" Young boys, young girls, grown men dressed as women, old men dressed as young boys-all openly hustled themselves out on street corners, while drug dealers sold nickel bags and instant skin-pops in doorways without any apparent fear of a police force nowhere to be seen.
West of Seventh, Koch passed under an isosceles marquee whose flashing daytime lights and alternating horizontal tubes of blue, red, and yellow neon offered "TODAY ONLY" a triple-feature XXX movie marathon and a "NAKED AND HOT" live show. A thick blue wood arrow pointed "Right This Way" to a staircase next to the tiny glass-enclosed box office. Across the street a hooker in wedding-gown drag with a bright yellow wig and bloodred lips smiled, waved, and called out in a pleasant southern accent, "How y'all doin' there, Mr. Mayah?" Koch tucked his upper lip into his thrust jaw and looked the other way. He was nothing if not media savvy, and he slow-burned until he was sure the cameraman who'd been filming him had caught his full facial reaction. Koch knew his moral consternation transferred well to the small screen. It was his money shot, a look he could produce on cue.
"Forty-second Street and the Statue of Liberty are what tourists want to see when they come to New York City," he said as he stared with watery eyes directly into the TV camera. One reporter asked what his immigrant parents would have thought about his campaign promise to save the street, and Koch's face wrinkled into a silent billboard of distressed melancholia. His micro-veined cheeks became rounded and pale, his face a rough approximation of a plate of matzo balls as he recalled his dear mother's words. "'Sonny,'" he murmured, deliberately wistful, or wistfully deliberate, as he gazed through the camera's portable spot lamps in the direction of the past to an imagined apartment up in the Bronx where he'd lived some fifty years ago, "'that was very smart of you to save 42nd Street!'" Smothered in and dripping with tasty if greasy self-aggrandizement, this last line was not unlike a city street-corner Sabrett's with relish, mustard, and onions. It was full of fat, filler, and flavor, if notably lacking in actual food for thought. In other words, for the mayor it was the way it had always been in city politics for the last hundred years. Business as usual.
IN 1898, for those living in the five boroughs, no single act more clearly defined the end of one century and the start of the next than the Charter of Incorporation and Consolidation that united them as the Greater New York, more commonly known as New York City, one of the largest, richest, and most powerful ports in the world.
Despite the glorious economic promise of incorporation, the move was not particularly welcomed by the clique of wealthy farmers and successful industrialists. These were the privileged Manhattanites, the island's social elite who went into a collective morning-after malaise from the decades-old soirÈe they had thrown for and among themselves since the end of the Civil War. The rest of the world would remember the final years before incorporation as the Gay Nineties. To Manhattanites grown wealthy from various real estate and shipping enterprises, it was a bittersweet ending to a long, private, and prosperous affair.
The ending had not come peacefully. Organized, hostile anticonsolidation protests had turned into riots on both sides, beginning a decade before Tammany Hall finally restored peace and united the boroughs. Conceived as a private club in the years immediately following the American Revolution by the officers of George Washington's army to look after the widows of fallen patriots, by the dawn of the nineteenth century the original Lodge of Tammany, so named in honor of a friendly Delaware Indian chief who'd sacrificed his life for the new nation, was commonly referred to as Tammany Hall. By 1850 the Hall's goals had shifted from paternal benevolence to political power. Tammany became the political link between the growing elitist power base of the industrialists and a powerful electoral body of mostly Irish immigrant workers. It also became the city's collective voice of liberalism, the first organized voice of the working class, an increasingly influential power base for those disenfranchised New Yorkers without land, money, or political representation.
Into the second half of the nineteenth century, Tammany Hall was led by William Magear "Boss" Tweed. Tweed, a former chairman of the Democratic Central Committee of New York County, was the undisputed leader of the so-called Tweed Ring, which controlled all aspects of New York City's financial lifelines. More powerful than any of the eighteen Democratic mayors he helped elect, Tweed prided himself on "getting things done" by keeping an iron grip on virtually every aspect of the municipality and amply rewarding himself for it. Eventually convicted on a number of charges having to do with the theft of city funds, bribery, and other extracurricular activities, Tweed was sent to jail in 1873, and except for a brief escape to Spain, where he was captured and deported back to New York City, he never regained either freedom or power. Five years later, in 1878, he died penniless in prison.
However, the machine he left behind remained the most influential Democratic organization in the city. Although Tweed was Protestant, he had led a mostly Irish Catholic working-class constituency, which emerged for the first time during the 1880s as a dominant force in New York politics. This demographic tilt complicated the increasingly tense relations between the city's Old World Catholics and staid New World Puritans.
In 1887 Tammany produced a peace and unity candidate, Abram S. Hewitt, who won the mayoral election, thus preserving the Democratic Party's ironclad grip on the city, unbroken since before the Civil War. It was, however, a decision the party would quickly come to regret. Once in power, the wealthy Hewitt revealed himself to be more divisive than anyone suspected when he became an outspoken supporter of the city's old-line Protestant aristocracy. He detested the ever-increasing influx of Irish immigrants, and in open defiance of the Catholic contingent of his party and Tammany Hall, two months after his inauguration in a move that would eventually destroy his political career, he banned the flying of the Irish flag over City Hall on St. Patrick's Day. This so outraged the Hall that they pulled all further machine support from the new mayor. Unbowed, Hewitt supported the continuation of low wages for workers and high profits for landlords and manufacturers, and imposed heavy restrictions on those he referred to as "ethnics"-i.e., the Irish-who wanted to go into business, receive an education, or acquire property.
He also began a police crackdown against what he considered their sinful pleasures: the numerous saloons, dance halls, brothels, movie nickelodeons, gambling dens, sport halls, street-corner dice, or "craps," and two-dollar whorehouses located in the city's so-called Tenderloin district, which ran from 23rd to 39th Streets and from Fifth to Ninth Avenues, what was then the northwestern fringe of developed Manhattan.
To the mind and spirit of the city's capitalist Puritans who enthusiastically supported Hewitt, the working class's collective love for all things loose and leisurely was not only wasteful, tasteless, and ungodly, but, they quickly learned, unstoppable. To get rid of the daily flow of immigrants into the city, Hewitt devised a plan to ship them off every evening en masse to the raw Siberia of the outer boroughs, where he insisted they belonged and hoped they would stay.
By 1890 Manhattan already had the largest and most comprehensive mass-transit system in the world. In use for many years at the time of Hewitt's election were 94 miles of elevated railways that extended from one end of the island to the other, along with 265 miles of horse-drawn railways and 137 miles of surface omnibuses, also horse-drawn, that congested the city's main thoroughfares and left a fetid aroma in the air from the endless piles of fresh, hot dung. The main problem with Manhattan's "elevateds" was inefficiency and lack of range. Besides being unconnected to eath other, slow, outmoded, under-routed, and overcrowded, the deafening overhead rail systems that lumbered along fifty feet above the street thrust the streets below them-Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues-into the grinding screech and dreary gray of endlessly sunless days. It was estimated at one point that citizens living beneath or adjacent to the "elevateds" put up with as much as nineteen hours of rumbling and roaring every day, seven days a week.
Still, by 1890 the rails had played a key role in helping to bring Manhattan's population farther northward, which in turn helped speculators develop raw land into livable real estate, so much so that by the end of that year, the average Manhattanite was clocking almost three hundred mass-transit trips a year. However, the lack of direct service to the outer boroughs, the relatively slow speed, and the horrid noise and chronic overcrowding left much to be desired.
What the city needed, Hewitt insisted, was an interborough underground, or subway, an interconnected rail system modeled after those in Europe, which could move great numbers of workers in and out of the city on a daily basis. In fact, just such a system might have been in place in New York much earlier, before London, Paris, Glasgow, Budapest, Boston, and even Berlin, all of which had operating underground systems by 1861, if not for three major forces of opposition. The first was John Jacob Astor II, the son of New York's great real estate baron, who feared that widespread underground excavation would physically jeopardize or financially devalue his extensive Manhattan surface land holdings, as well as create the chance for workers to move to less expensive competitive housing. The second was shipping magnate, railroad builder, and legendary robber baron Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, owner and operator of the New York Central Railroad. Vanderbilt believed a mass transit system would cut into the profits of his own surface passenger and freight city rail lines, the last stops on his statewide transport line that connected the city's seaports to upstate and then, via the Erie Canal, to the rest of the country. The third, ironically, hit much closer to home. Hewitt's former mentor, Boss Tweed, while still alive and in power, had received considerable kickbacks from the predominant horse and carriage trade that operated out of the Great Kill barnyard on 42nd Street and Broadway, situated just above an east-west cattle and sheep path that ran from river to river. The barnyard sat on the northern end of Long Acre Square, an island twenty feet wide at one end and sixty feet wide at the other, the southern half of the so-called bow-tie islands created by the traffic-defined intersections of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.
Across from the Square was the Vanderbilt-owned American Horse Exchange of the Long Acre Farm, where people from all over the city traveled to buy everything from horses and buggys to fresh milk. Tweed had always opposed anything that might cut into this rich source of tribute, regardless of whatever benefit it might provide to the city. Although his demise removed one long-standing obstacle to Hewitt's plan, by the time he became mayor, his abandonment of Tammany left him with no political machine to help convince anyone at City Hall to invest in a new, public, interborough underground rail system.
The idea looked dead until the notorious Blizzard of '88 paralyzed the city and finally made clear the need for a new and better way than foot, horse, "el," or surface vehicle to transport the people of New York City. To Hewitt, the snowstorm was nothing less than a vote of confidence from God for underground rapid transit.
Unfortunately the Lord wasn't a reform Democrat. By the end of 1888, Hewitt, even using the blizzard as his exhibit A, not only failed to convince the city of the need to build a subway system, he lost his bid for reelection. His defeat permanently removed him from elective political power, although he did remain something of an effective backroom dealer, and he waged a three-year battle to push through the Rapid Transit Act of 1891, which, when passed, officially mapped out the routes for what was intended to be New York City's first subway system. Due in part to Hewitt's divisive politics, the plan crawled through the bureaucracy, and in 1901, with primary routes stalled in the planning stages, two new privately funded proposals for an underground subway system came before the City Council. One had its cars running off gigantic fans that would "blow" them in one direction and "suck" them back in the other. The other and far more practical design, which utilized electric power, was presented by August Belmont, a private developer motivated by the industrial profit to be made from social progress, and his was the one the city went with.
August Belmont was the son of German Jewish immigrant August Sch–nberg, who had journeyed to the New World to find his fortune. Born in 1816 in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Sch–nberg at the age of thirteen got a job sweeping floors for the Rothschilds, the leading Jewish banking family in Europe at the time. In 1837 he was sent by them to represent their sugar holdings in Cuba. En route, his ship docked in New York City and Sch–nberg decided to do some sight-seeing. So charmed was he by Manhattan, he never returned to the ship.
Eager to make a name in finance, he rejected any opportunity to join the so-called segregated, or parallel, aristocracy of the prominent Jewish families of New York, which included the Seligmans, the Kuhns, the Loebs, and the Guggenheims, all of whom had banded together to protect their interests from the midcentury spiraling of virulent anti-Semitism that had spread through the then still Protestant-dominated city. Sch–nberg did not want to be associated with the Jewish fringe, no matter how well made the cloth. He believed the opportunities for success remained too narrow. A young, aggressive man with heady dreams, he reinvented his name, his heritage, and his past as a way to gain entry into what he perceived as a highly restricted island of opportunity and wealth. In 1849, shortly before his thirty-third birthday, Sch–berg changed his last name to Belmont and his religion to Episcopalian, wooed and married the daughter of the great and celebrated Commodore Matthew Perry (who in 1854 would go on to "open" Japan to the West), and entered a new phase of his career.
The marriage produced a son, also named August Belmont, who grew up in a world of enormous American privilege. He attended both Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, after which he entered the family's banking empire. He quickly developed close personal and business relationships with many of the most prominent names in New York City, including J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and William C. Whitney. Belmont, an avid athlete all his life, by 1902 was chairman of the Jockey Club and had built what was considered at the time the most luxurious horse racing facility in the country, New York's Belmont Park racetrack.
For all his wealth and success, the younger Belmont remained an extremely unpopular figure in New York's social life. Short, fat, arrogant, and mean-spirited, he felt haunted by the Jewish ancestry he shunned and was forever sensitive to the point of paranoia about anyone who treated him with less than the respect he believed a successful Protestant of his standing deserved. In his late forties he began to consider what, besides a racetrack, his lasting legacy to the city might be and began to search for a project that would embellish his reputation with a fitting benevolence. He found it in Hewitt's dream of a citywide underground mass transit.
In 1904 Belmont broke ground on the first leg of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT). He planned a dig through twenty-three square miles of Manhattan's subterranean geology, which proved far more difficult than he imagined due to the uneven rock formations just below the borough's surface. To help solve the problem, Belmont chose William Barclay Parsons, a young man of like privilege with political connections to Abram Hewitt. Parsons developed a plan of shallow excavation he called "cut and cover" that allowed progressive sections the length of a city block to be completed and filled in, the surface of one section repaved before ground was broken on the next.
After two years of continuous digging that saw the city's streets uprooted in wormlike eruptions and that caused dozens of worker deaths, the IRT finally opened to the public with great fanfare. Thousands turned out on October 27, 1904, for its inaugural run. The new mayor, George B. McClellan, Jr., grandly took the controls of an eight-car train for the inaugural nine-mile, twenty-six-minute trip below Manhattan. This ride brought out huge crowds, who stood at the street-level subway stops and cheered when they heard the rumble of the train. Thousands gathered at the only place to see it aboveground, at the viaduct over Manhattan Valley, from 100th to 110th Streets. That same day, more than 100,000 people bought tickets to ride the subway. Two days later the number reached 350,000, and a New York institution had arrived.
Its instant success provided Belmont his legacy and turned the mayor into a New York City folk hero.
McClellan, a liberal with a clean record, the son of a Civil War general and a veteran of Tammany Hall politics, had run on a platform of anti-Tammany reform. His overwhelming popularity was primarily due to his support for the right of all adult working citizens to drink freely (his puritanical opponent had sought more prohibitive nighttime and weekend restrictions on the consumption of alcohol).
Among McClellan's many achievements during his six-year term were reorganization of the city's traffic grids to adjust for the arrival of automobiles and the removal of horsecars, a general clean-sweeping of the police, health, and street-cleaning departments, expansion of the park and playground systems, completion of the Queensboro and Manhattan Bridges, expansion of the Croton reservoir system into the Catskill Mountains, significant harbor improvements, and supervision of the enormous influx of millions of European immigrants (by far the greatest numbers being Russian Jews), which by the end of his tenure had seen the city's population rise to an unprecedented 41 percent foreign-born. The mayor's achievements in controlling the outbreak of violence caused by the resentment of native New Yorkers for the immigrants, in particular the still surging anti-Semitism, led the social reformer Jacob Riis to call McClellan "the best organization mayor" New York ever had. Indeed, McClellan ruled the city during one of its most challenging and exciting times and guided it headlong into the twentieth century.
Everything he accomplished, however, took a backseat among the citizens of the city to his being the mayor who "gave" them a subway.
The IRT quickly redefined not just the physical movement but the social direction of its riders, integrating the ethnic working class and thus helping to spiritually liberate it. By providing literal and symbolic deliverance from the isolation and limitation of the city's various ethnic ghettos, the subway became the public's essential link to education, recreation, housing, and commercial opportunity.
It also created the city's first twentieth-century social and cultural center. The opening of the IRT stop at 42nd Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue coincided with the New York Times's breaking ground on construction of its highly anticipated skyscraper headquarters. The two events combined to reconfigure Manhattan's midtown boulevard into a crossroads of recreation and commerce the likes of which had never before been seen in America. High-ticket entertainment, fabulous restaurants, luxury hotels such as the Knickerbocker on Broadway and 42nd Street, which both opera great Enrico Caruso and the reigning theatrical "superstar" of his day, James O'Neill, called their New York City home, modern underground transportation, and the newest northern border of the notorious Tenderloin with its well-equipped houses of prostitution-all shared space on the streets that immediately surrounded the Times's new headquarters.
The planned convergence of the great newspaper with the grand subway seemed far too much a coincidence to competing news publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was resolutely against either and who had the money and power to try to stop both. For all of Belmont's newfound status, the success of his subway and his "hidden" past created convenient targets for Hearst's tainted "yellow" journalism practices. When in his recently acquired New York Journal the publisher headlined stories of a "Jewish conspiracy" between the subway builder and Times publisher Adolph Ochs, the accusation touched Belmont in the most haunted recesses of his lifelong insecurities.
Hearst had discovered that the surest way to boost circulation in his newspapers was by headlining sex, crime, and scandal. His main competition for circulation in New York City at the time was Joseph Pulitzer's ravamped New York World, a once-prestigious newspaper that, in an attempt to increase circulation in the city's increasingly crowded field of thirty-five daily newspapers, was turned by its owner into the same type of scurrilous gossip-and scandalmongering rag as the Journal.
Hearst's notions of a conspiracy were based on what he considered the underhanded dealings of two prominent Manhattan Jews. The first was Belmont, whose Jewish background and Sch–berg family name Hearst "revealed" in his paper. The second was Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times, who happened to be Hearst's newest and potentially most formidable competitor. The son of a Talmudic scholar and successful diamond dealer, Ochs had gone into publishing and first established offices for his newly purchased journal on the ground floor of Printing House Square, the center of what was then the city's unofficial newspaper publishing district, Park Row, opposite City Hall. Although occupying quarters that bumped up against Hearst's, the New York Times stood apart from the Journal and all the other newspapers of the day precisely because of its marked lack of sensationalism. So much so that by the time Ochs decided to buy the financially failing paper, it was considered the dullard of the daily pack (a situation not helped by its inability to print clear photographs).
In July 1902 Ochs, realizing his newspaper had physically outgrown its downtown address, began to search for a new location. His first choice was a site a few doors up the street, but when the offered rents were suddenly and, to him, suspiciously jacked up, he made a bold and, to some, incomprehensibly risky decision to move uptown to Long Acre Square, what was then the northern end of the city's business district.
While to many it might have seemed an odd place to want to relocate, to Ochs and Belmont it looked like a bargain. With every neighborhood in Manhattan changing so rapidly-the brothels and the businessmen having already squeezed the first-generation middle-class residents out of the streets to the west of Long Acre Square-the entire city had become a paradise for real estate speculators. Throughout the lower part of the island, the undeveloped hills and valleys along the riverbanks that had been temporary dwellings for the homeless were quickly converted to high-end brownstones, and just as quickly collapsed back into slum dwellings, as working New Yorkers moved in league-boot jumps to find suitable housing close enough to where they could commute by trolley, elevated train, or rapid transit, yet far enough away, usually in the outer boroughs, to feel as if they lived in what was then considered the distanced safety of the sleepy suburbs.
In 1904, the year midtown subway service began and Ochs moved the Times to its new location, Long Acre had in just the last decade already economically yo-yoed twice, with prices for property in the area now low enough for Ochs to be able to buy. The initial cost was no problem. It was the building of his tower that almost ruined him.
The construction budget was $250,000, which was considered at the time enough to build a twenty-five-story, 363-foot-tall structure. Ochs intended his to be the tallest building in the city, an ornate reach-for-the-sky tower, with the first three floors made of Indiana limestone surmounted by sixteen stories of white brick, elaborate ornamental Gothic-styled balconies and cornices cast from terra-cotta, topped off by a six-story tower.
The actual cost at completion of his new headquarters ballooned to an astonishing $1.7 million in turn-of-the-century dollars. Ochs had hoped that his primary outside tenant, the Equitable Life Assurance Society-which had already loaned him $150,000 to use as seed money against a security interest of 51 percent of the newspaper's stock-would make up the difference. Equitable, however, turned him down at the last minute over a dispute involving access to exterior advertising signage (it wanted more than Ochs was willing to give), approval rights regarding other tenants, and, for safety reasons, elimination of the six-story tower (due to foundation problems). The tower proved the breaking point for Equitable when Ochs refused to eliminate it from his building plan. Uncertainty remains as to where his completion money finally came from, although there is some evidence to suggest that mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim may have loaned Ochs an additional quarter of a million dollars (the original estimate of the entire cost of construction) he now so desperately needed.
With his new financing at last in place, Ochs scheduled the ceremonial cornerstone inset for 3 p.m. on January 18, 1904. It was a quiet event on an unusually cold day, and limited to a one-sentence speech by Ochs's daughter, curly-haired eleven-year-old Iphigene Bertha Ochs, who spoke softly into a megaphone, to "declare this stone to be laid plumb, level and square." The crowd then quickly dispersed.
Despite Adolph Ochs's best efforts, at its completion his magnificent building, which was visible on a clear day from as far as twelve miles away-all the way up in the Bronx, and in Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey as well-was considered by many to be only the second tallest in the city. He had wanted his tower to surpass his competitor's Pulitzer office building on Park Row, home to the New York World (which, at its completion in 1892, had replaced Wall Street's 284-foot Trinity Church spire, erected in 1846, as New York's tallest structure). Ochs nevertheless insisted for years that, when measured from its lowest subbasement to the tip of the tower, his building was, in fact, taller than Pulitzer's.
What had finally prevented Ochs from soaring well past the World and straight into the heavens, was not being able to dig deep enough to support the heights to which he aspired. As it turned out, much of the subterranean rights directly under and surrounding his new tower belonged to August Belmont, whose new IRT subway ran too close to the building's center of gravity to safely allow any further excavation. The deepest the Times could go was fifty-five feet, which, in addition to limiting the height of the tower, made for an incredibly crowded and ultimately inadequate operating space for the paper's presses.
Why, then, Hearst inquired in print, would Ochs acquire such an impractical site? The answer also came from Hearst, whose two New York Park Row organs, the morning American and evening Journal, published the same front-page story two days before the Times cornerstone was laid, "revealing new evidence of the Jewish conspiracy" afoot to make 42nd Street the "Jewish" cultural center of the city.
Hearst's "scoop," published during the height of a particularly hot anti-Semitic backlash resulting from the immigration explosion, gained new life when, on April 8, 1904, just three months after the cornerstone ceremony, the New York City Board of Aldermen renamed Long Acre "Times Square," a moniker that just so happened to have been suggested to them by none other than August Belmont. The move infuriated not only Hearst and Pulitzer, but also James Gordon Bennett, Jr., another powerful city publisher whose highly respected New York Herald, located eight blocks to the south of the new Times Tower, continued to refer to the square in his papers as Long Acre (Herald Square, another Broadway criss-cross, had been so named with much fanfare just a few years earlier to honor the relocation of Bennett's newspaper to the triangular plot of land on 34th Street across from Macy's department store).
The day of the renaming, Hearst signed yet another angry editorial that appeared in both the American and the Journal aimed at the so-called Jewish conspiracy. Headlined "Mr. August Belmont and His Tame Ochs," the piece suggested that Ochs was financially indebted to and therefore controlled by Belmont and so viciously attacked the physical features of both with such blatant language it brought an immediate libel suit from Ochs. Hearst's description of the publisher of the New York Times included such terminology as "uneducated...oily...[with] obsequiously curved shoulders," imagery that became the paradigm for the new century's anti-Semite caricature of the American Jew.
Buried somewhere beneath the avalanche of Hearst's racist attacks lay the untold truth behind what was, in fact, the less-than-coincidental relationship between Ochs and Belmont. Not known at the time to Hearst, whose hatemongering had lockstepped his own journalists' investigative abilities into a campaign of racist propaganda, Belmont was in fact a major stockholder in the New York Times and had disguised his holdings by what appeared to be but in fact was not a blind trust managed by one E. Mora Davison, a politically influential business associate. Belmont was also on Equitable's board of directors, and although Equitable did not become a tenant and refused to put any more money toward construction of the top of the Times Tower, it still held a controlling interest of stock in the Times against its initial $150,000 investment. Later on, Equitable was rumored but never proved to be the grantor of an additional million-dollar mortgage to Ochs, against even more stock, and also (and also never proved) the source of an early $75,000 loan young Adolph had used to originally purchase the Times in 1896, just one day before the paper was to land in bankruptcy.
Belmont's Subway Realty Corporation, the company he had created to build the IRT, also happened to have brokered the sale to Ochs of the raw land upon which he built his tower. As soon as the deal had been finalized and even before the cornerstone had been laid or plans for the new 42nd Street subway stop made public, Belmont and Davison quietly began lobbying the Board of Aldermen to rename Long Acre "Times Square."
If any reason were needed as to why Ochs and Belmont wanted to keep these dealings private, if not secret, Hearst's ongoing and brutal anti-Semitic attacks on every motive, interest, dealing, and the integrity of both men provided excellent ones. Hearst's loud and angry insistence of the extent of the veiled relationship between Ochs and Belmont (although apparently he did not know all the details) and his running accusations of a Jewish conspiracy sufficiently intimidated Ochs, who downplayed the occasion of the renamed square in his own New York Times. Rather than splashing it on the front page, which in those days carried dozens of stories, he placed it several pages inside the newspaper.
Nor did Ochs ever fully acknowledge the facts of the many and complex connections he had with Belmont and Equitable directly linked to the new subway station being built at his corporate front door, which, while it hindered the operations of the Times's presses, in a relatively short period increased the real estate value of both the station and the Times's headquarters nearly tenfold.
When the new station opened, it soon transformed the cultural map of 42nd Street and the neighborhoods that surrounded it. Shortly after the IRT began making its regular Times Square stop, middle to high-end residential housing became available from 44th and Broadway up to 47th Street and all the way to the Hudson River, a plot of land on which the Astors quickly built two hundred additional town houses and several hotels, including the family's newest crown jewel, the Astor Hotel, on the west side of Broadway at 44th Street. Because of it, 43rd Street, the single block between the new commercial center of Times Square and the neighborhood's burgeoning upscale residents to the north, became an unintentional buffer zone that filled with the increasingly crowded Tenderloin's pretty young prostitutes.
As for West 42nd Street itself, the subway station effected a tidal change. Hewitt's original mass transit plan to keep the working-class people out of Manhattan, had delivered precisely the opposite. Midtown was now accessible twenty-four hours a day to anyone in the city who could spare a nickel to ride the subway. Ironically it was this surge of endlessly coming-and-going visitors that helped transform the all-but-deserted-after-dark stretch of sex and crime into a round-the-clock commercial boulevard of naughty gentility where every type of family entertainment conducted business alongside the hottest and most infamous brothels this side of Paris.
THE NEW Times headquarters officially opened on New Year's Eve 1904. To celebrate the occasion, Ochs threw an all-day street party that concluded with a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower. Much to Hearst's anger and disappointment, the promotion proved so successful that Times Square immediately replaced City Hall Park as the favorite gathering site for New Yorkers to ring in the new year. By 1906 the crowds had grown so large that the Times, by now fully integrated into the new social and economic scene that had blossomed around its namesake square, began a holiday custom that soon became recognizable around the world as the official time and place America noted the arrival of the new year. To mark the annual occasion, Ochs arranged to have a large illuminated four-hundred-pound glass ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
Legitimate theater impresarios now fell over one another to open new playhouses in a neighborhood that just a few years earlier none would go near, believing then that Long Acre would never be good for anything but crime, drugs, and prostitution. Before the arrival of the New York Times, the square had developed more of a carnival atmosphere than one conducive to a corporate alley. Not long after, dozens of prostitutes worked both sides of the Times Tower, resulting in relatively few new nonentertainment big-dollar investors relocating directly on 42nd Street.
Indeed, the business of sex dramatically increased its visibility on the city's newest and most popular main drag as its purveyors moved to compete for the newly available entertainment dollars by dressing up their street women and fashionably upscaling the houses they occupied. Onetime two-dollar streetwalkers now dressed in high style and proudly walked with umbrellas twirling on their shoulders in the midday sun. They could afford to spend money on clothes and accessories, as most worked two jobs, one as a prostitute and one as a showgirl at the many new dance halls built along the west side of the street-often referred to now as "Soubrette Row"-to accommodate the neighborhood's growing everyday populace. Five years into the new century 42nd Street became the showcase boulevard where merchants of the sunny side competed with hawkers of the shady to sell the workingman his ticket to get into, if not in on, the great American dream.
As for Abram Hewitt, whose original vision of a subway had led to the first great wave of commercial development on 42nd Street, historical anonymity was to be his fate. Hewitt never again enjoyed any widespread measure of public acceptance. Economic decline, meanwhile, eventually befell the New York publishing empire of William Hearst, whose sensationalist moral outrage he continued to vent in his papers. No longer just Jews but Democrats, union organizers, Wall Street speculators, bootleggers, and show business entrepreneurs all came before the loaded barrel of his editorial gun. Nevertheless, none of his publications was able to displace the stalwart New York Times as it became the city's, and the nation's, newspaper of record.
NO ONE BETTER EXEMPLIFIED the twentieth century's moral, cultural, and physical shift in the city's body politic than legendary mayor James J. "Jimmy" Walker, who first came to political light as a Tammany supporter of Governor Al Smith. A Democratic state senator in the early twenties, Walker was elected mayor in the fall of 1925, a halcyon time in America of easy money, easy virtue, and even easier vice. Walker personified the city's rebellious attitude against social restriction in an era that began with the passage in 1919 of the Volstead Act, which enforced the national ban on the sale (but not the private consumption) of alcohol. The purpose of the federal government at first seemed clear enough: to discourage the growing immortality that the nation's newest craze, nightclubbing, had produced, nowhere at the time more concentrated in New York City than on West 42nd Street, which by that year boasted dozens of thriving nightclubs. The day after Volstead, these became "speakeasies," establishments that no longer bothered with quality control, cleanliness, overcrowding, or curfews. By the time Walker was elected mayor, 32,000 speakeasies were operating throughout the city. Entirely in keeping with his political style of governing, he happily looked the other way at the city's booming, if illegal, bootlegging industry. While still a state senator he had helped pass legislation that legalized Sunday post-church entertainment, including baseball, boxing, and moviegoing, which forever endeared him to a working class grateful for anything that helped bring relief to their six-day, sixty-hour workweek, who in turn elected him mayor.
A party loyalist, "people's" mayor, and Broadway celebrity with as much charisma as any of its stars, for the longest time, no matter what he did-and he did a lot-in the eyes of his constituency Walker could do no wrong. Not when a then relatively unknown Congressman Fiorello La Guardia criticized the mayor's giving himself a raise in pay from $25,000 to $40,000. Walker's laughing and effectively neutralizing response was simply to raise his hands in mock astonishment and declare, "Why, that's cheap! Think what it would cost if I worked full time!"
Not even when the very married Walker's well-known penchant for Broadway's feather-clad chorus girls resulted in his leaving his wife for showgirl Betty Compton, a move actually celebrated equally among the me-too fantasists of the decade's high-society swingers and the daydreaming minimum-wagers. This was, after all, the height of the "anything goes" decade. Who was going to complain about what this mayor did on his own time when tax revenues from the seemingly never-ending private real estate deals brought an annual half billion dollars to the city, much of which Walker earmarked for better wages for city employees? "The people" loved him for that. They applauded when he announced that a gambling casino was to be opened in Central Park. They cheered when he dismissed critics who accused him of looking the other way while the sale of girlie magazines proliferated on 42nd Street. When asked about it, he simply shrugged his shoulders, hundred-watt-smiled, and said, "I never knew a woman who was hurt by a magazine." In his spare time-and he had a lot of it-he wrote pop ditties, one of which, the prophetic "Will You Love Me in December (as You Do in May)?," became a huge nationwide hit.
No question, he had the touch. Despite a sizable share of political corruption-the going rate during his administration for mayoral appointees was a Tammany-tradition standard first year's salary-and blatant womanizing, for most of his administration Walker proved a surprisingly effective politician. In 1928, for instance, when a subway strike threatened to cripple the city, Walker used his Irish charm and strong backroom influence to help effect a key settlement that allowed him to keep his spirited vow to maintain the traditional five-cent subway fare, New York's primal symbol of working-class freedom and democracy. It was this tough political victory as much as his freewheeling lifestyle that confirmed his place in the city's populist pantheon.
As 1928 came to a close, "Our Jimmy," as he was known to his constituency, was on top of the world, until his high-life popularity finally proved too top-hat heavy. Walker's fall began, perhaps not so coincidentally, in the days following the 1929 stock market crash. In the morally thick morning aftermath, subway-strike victories were no longer able to balance Walker's flamboyant lifestyle, which to many now contrasted a bit too vividly with the newly depressed economic reality. Almost immediately after the crash, the city's Patrick Cardinal Hayes publicly denounced Walker's personal ways, going so far as to suggest New York's economic downturn and the country's as just retribution for Walker's and other "wayward" leaders' immoral ways.
Things got worse quickly after that for him and the city. On the heels of the prelate's denunciation, worker riots broke out in Union Square, which brought federal troops into the fray. U.S. Attorney Charles Tuttle, who, like the cardinal, placed at least part of the blame for the city's growing social unrest on Walker for what he described as a borough slipping into moral anarchy, demanded an investigation of City Hall. Tuttle soon discovered what even the most casual observer would have: that there was, indeed, an alarming amount of corruption at all levels of the Walker administration, nowhere more prevalent than in the city's court system, most tellingly the women's court, and the police vice squad.
Early in 1930 Tuttle appointed a separate investigative committee, headed by Judge Samuel Seabury. Walker refused to testify, an action that was widely regarded as being tantamount to a confession of guilt. The situation was made worse when eight Democratic district leaders refused to waive immunity and testify. Early in 1931 a prospective witness was murdered, prompting Governor Roosevelt to expand Seabury's investigation to include the District Attorney's Office. By April, Walker's entire city government was under a cloud of deep suspicion.
A year later, in May 1932, after a series of delaying tactics, Walker was ordered by Roosevelt to testify before Seabury and answer all his questions. Walker and Seabury locked horns in court, a series of sensational sessions which saw the mayor effectively elude the judge's more pointed accusations. Ordered by Roosevelt to be more forthcoming, Walker managed to avoid being recalled until after the Democratic convention, held that summer in Chicago, where he openly supported Al Smith against the governor, who got the presidential nomination anyway (and would, of course, go on to win the first of his four national campaigns). That fall, Walker once again went before Seabury, but this time the judge was better prepared, and the mayor was finished. Roosevelt decided Walker had to go, but allowed him to resign. In September 1932 Walker left for an "extended vacation" in Europe, what amounted to self-imposed political exile. As he sailed out of New York Harbor that fall, he took along with him the last fading echoes of the once-roaring decade that had so dominated the city he'd ruled and loved.
Despite the grimmest morning-after of the first three decades of the twentieth century, despite the massive corruption and the worst economic collapse in the city's history, Walker's impact would not soon be forgotten. His visceral, if vicarious, workingman's link to New York's social glitterati lasted until he died in 1946 at the age of sixty-five; by then the fanciful accounts of his glory days having elevated him to folk-hero status. Twenty-five years after he resigned, eleven years after his death, Walker's life was made into a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Bob Hope in the title role as Beau James, the mayor of New York who happily sang and danced his way into the city's revisionist storybook history.
IN 1930, AS WALKER'S STAR was fading and the grim reality of the nation's economic collapse began to set in, one of America's premier industrialists, Detroit's Walter P. Chrysler, aware of the falling price of 42nd Street's already commercially cheap and available space, decided to build to the east, believing he could transform that part of the street the way Adolph Ochs and his tower had Times Square. Chrysler was not alone in recognizing the potential of the East Side. A generation had already passed since the 1916 opening of the glamorous Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street at Park Avenue, after which the glory of the city's economic upswing followed Walker back over to the razzle-dazzle of the anything-goes West Side. Walter P. meant to take advantage of this stalled decade of East Side development by putting his money into a new, eponymous building that would dominate that side of 42nd Street.
The Chrysler Building was completed in 1930, on the site of one of the city's once most recognizable structures, the all-but-forgotten turn-of-the-century Bloomingdale Brewery, at the time the city's largest beer-maker. The skyscraper that replaced it remains to this day one of the magnificent monuments of the style introduced at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts DÈcoratifs, popularly known as Art Deco. Its geometrical roots came from Vienna-an acute German expressionist angularity, setback collisions from cubism, a lobby of red Moroccan marble, elevator doors inlaid with Japanese ash and American walnut, a ceiling mural 110 feet long and 76 feet wide by Edward Trumball depicting the building, airplanes in flight surrounding it, and scenes from the automaker's factory assembly line, an exterior skin of aluminum applied with the mind-brush of Frank Lloyd Wright, thirty elevators, doors of wood veneer on steel, and a line of idealized automobiles in white and gray brick with mudguards, hubcaps, and winged radiator caps of polished steel in the wall frieze above the twenty-sixth floor of the facade.
Originally planned as an office project and designed by architect William Van Alen for former New York State senator turned real estate developer William H. Reynolds, the seventy-seven-story (1,046 feet) structure was to be topped by a glass dome, lighted from within, to give the effect of a giant glowing diamond in the New York evening sky. Unable to complete it because of the financial downturn, Reynolds sold the unfinished building to Chrysler, who financed it out of his own pocket, boasting that no corporate funds would be used, thus ensuring that his sons would one day inherit his personal monument to his own greatness. Fearing that the Empire State Building, then in its final planning stages, might be redesigned to stand higher than theirs, Van Alen and Chrysler kept secret for as long as possible the addition of the fifty-foot flagpole that would sit atop a 185-foot, seven-story spire, itself clandestinely assembled from the sixty-fifth floor, its five parts lifted by derrick to the top from within a fire tower built in the center of the building.
The completed Chrysler Building immediately became the stuff of 42nd Street legend. The pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White occupied an office on the sixty-first floor and made Chrysler's gargoyle ornaments world-famous when she crept out on one to take a picture of the city from that vantage point, even as she was having another taken of the event. A young James Agee, after having had a few, was said to have dangled by his hands from the fiftieth-floor office of Fortune magazine, another of the building's tenants, "for the fun of it." And Chrysler himself kept private quarters at the top, an office suite and an apartment that had a lavish dining room ringed with a frieze of autoworkers in polished black glass on a field of frosted blue. He had instructed his builders to make sure his was the highest toilet in Manhattan, so that he could look down upon the city from his porcelain throne and, as one observer wryly put it, "shit on Henry Ford and the rest of the world."
In the end, Chrysler never actually moved his corporate headquarters from Detroit to 42nd Street. Choosing instead to keep his auto company in Michigan and, except for a private apartment, rented the Chrysler Building's office space out to others. Nevertheless, he saw the building as a self-righteous glorification of his own achievements. No longer simply a building, it was, as architect Philip Johnson once suggested, built to bring its owner close enough to touch the face of God.
A year later the Empire State Building officially replaced it as the tallest building in the world.
ON THE TAP HEELS of Walker's resignation former congressman Fiorello Henry La Guardia marched to power. La Guardia had run for mayor against, and was crushed by, Walker in the 1925 election, having unsuccessfully campaigned on a platform of anticorruption by pointing a morally accusing finger at the flamboyant administration during the good times, when nobody cared. Four years later, with the Depression's tight grip on the nation and the city, the former congressman used 42nd Street as his moral stomping ground to eventually thrust himself to the top of the city's political power heap.
At five feet two inches, the plainly dressed, stocky, pugnacious La Guardia, once described by Time magazine as "henshaped," was a puritanical workhorse fusion candidate who took his Depression-age election as a personal mandate to clean up the city's epidemic of crime, corruption, sex, drugs, and bootlegging, by focusing on the evil incarnate embodied on West 42nd Street. With the zeal of a backwoods preacher, La Guardia denounced as immoral everything about life on the boulevard of sin that Our Jimmy had once so glorified.
Even as the country's newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was taking historic economic measures to reverse the free fall into chaos and self-destruction, La Guardia determined that the way to political and social salvation lay in moral redemption. After cleaning up what had become the most corrupt police department of any city in America, La Guardia set about to destroy the gambling sites and dens of sexual and alcoholic corruption that had flourished during the previous administration.
The third mayor the teetering city had had in the three years since Walker's resignation, the Little Flower, as he became known (the literal translation of his given name), was a native New Yorker from lower Manhattan's Little Italy, the son of a Jewish mother and an Italian father (La Guardia became Episcopalian by choice). His "no free lunches" style of politics held enormous appeal for the hearts of the increasingly influential, if still largely disenfranchised, New York immigrant voting bloc. La Guardia was determined to destroy the pinball "scourge of the city's children" by declaring war on what had become a national obsession, and to him the symbol of all that had gone wrong in America. With ax in hand, and newsreel cameras always close by, he went on a personal rampage against the city's amusement halls.
The legendary La Guardia crackdown on 42nd Street was intended to make an example of those whose moral breakdown had helped to depress the city economically. One by one he personally padlocked the street's notorious burlesque houses, strip joints, game parlors, and houses of prostitution, among them the China Doll, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Latin Quarter, the Versailles, and the Paradise. Such was La Guardia's at times juvenile manner that often, when speeding down the street holding on to the side of a racing fire engine, he'd stick his tongue out at whatever club owners happened to be standing outside, or raise his thumb to his nose and wiggle his fingers. He also removed 42nd Street's traditional trolley cars, because, he angrily declared, they were too provocative, allowing women's dresses to blow above their knees, and besides they s
lowed down his beloved fire trucks.
He made fingerprinting of all employees mandatory, outlawed such indigenous rituals as penny gin-rummy card games in the back rooms of restaurants, and threw audits on virtually every nightclub on the street, causing many to go out of business when they couldn't pay their exorbitant tax bills.
La Guardia's grandstand destruction of the shady side of 42nd Street resulted in his accomplishing little more than driving the strip shows, the gambling, the bootlegging, and the prostitution literally and figuratively ever further underground. With burlesque, for example, nothing much changed at first beyond the proximity of naked women's tassels to the street; whereas before they did their thing on little stages above the entrance of the nightclubs they worked, now they did it in basements where the entrance was at the bottom of metal double cellar street doors originally installed to roll down beer barrels. As for the jazz and combo clubs that had once been among the most identifiable signatures of 42nd Street nightlife, they found a new and relatively undisturbed home along West 52nd Street, while the floating gambling dens scattered throughout the Upper East Side before settling into the shaded-window walk-ups of East Harlem. La Guardia fought back, broadening his fingerprint policy so that only those musicians who had secured a city-issued cabaret license could play in any of the boroughs-which was said to be only slightly less difficult to acquire than a gun permit for any performer who'd ever gotten so much as a speeding ticket.
The last "legal" burlesque house on 42nd Street, the Orpheum Dance Palace, where the women were now called taxi dancers (the approximate equivalent of today's strip-club table dancers), was shuttered by La Guardia in 1942. By then it was the only form of live if not exactly "legitimate" theater left on the boulevard. At the height of the turn-of-the-century theatrical boom, seventy-six theaters of one type or another had thrived on or near the fabled street. By 1932, for a number of reasons, among them the Depression, the restrictive policies of the mayor, and the arrival of movies that "talked," the number had fallen to thirty-three. Ten years later, in 1942, with the closing of the Orpheum, it fell to zero. Fiorello's ferocious morality campaign left a cultural blight on West 42nd Street that, except for a brief upturn after World War II, would last a lifetime.
The end of World War II also saw the end of the La Guardia era. The same day that more than a million New Yorkers filled Times Square to celebrate the Allied victory in Japan, the Little Flower announced he would not be running for a fourth term.
IN 1945 WILLIAM O'DWYER was elected the next mayor of New York City. An Irish immigrant who'd arrived in America in 1910 with twenty-five dollars to his name, O'Dwyer had worked his way through Fordham Law School, become the district attorney of Brooklyn, and gained a flash of fame as the man who prosecuted the legendary mobsters of Murder Incorporated. Defeated by La Guardia in the 1941 mayoral race, O'Dwyer served overseas during the war and upon his return won the city's top office. He was easily reelected in 1949, but the next year found himself ensnared in a nasty series of City Hall scandals centered on police corruption, judges on the take, and a million dollars in illegal bookie-generated payoffs. In 1951 O'Dwyer resigned "for health reasons" and permanently relocated to Mexico City.
He was replaced by Vincent "Impy" Impellitteri, appointed interim mayor by the City Council. Impellitteri, a stylish bon vivant with a touch of the flash and glitter of James Walker, proved to be less than met the public's eye and lost the 1953 election to Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr., son of one of the most respected politicians in the city.
Wagner was the city's low-profile mayor for three terms (twelve years) and helped to stabilize the city's progressive, if turbulent, economic lurch into the second half of the fifties. At the time of his inauguration a new wave of immigrants, mostly from Europe and South America, had once more radically shifted the city's general census. By then, 56 percent of New Yorkers were either immigrants or sons and daughters of foreign-born parents, and it would be on the shoulders of this new crop of willing minimum-wage day workers that New York would continue its thriving rebound.
By the end of Wagner's first year in office, 40,000 active factories and 100,000 new retail outlets contributed to a citywide gross product of more than $10 billion. After World War II, more than 40 percent of the nation's shipping passed in and out of the harbors of New York City. Postwar prosperity brought a new serenity to the city and allowed its mayor to put a low-profile functionary focus on his role as chief executive officer.
Under Wagner's watch, seventeen acres that stretched from 46th Street down to the eastern tip of 42nd Street, all of which had been donated by the Rockefeller family, developed by William Zeckendorf, and designed by Wallace Harrison (who had worked on Rockefeller Center), began full-time operation as the permanent international headquarters of the United Nations.
The site was separated from 42nd Street by a high brick cliff with inset stone steps originally intended to protect the residents (and buildings) of Tudor City from tidal waves. This stretch of land had been purchased by Zeckendorf, to develop into a futuristic combination housing and retail complex that he planned to call X-City. Unable to raise sufficient funds for the project, Zeckendorf decided to sell it instead and put a price of $8.5 million on the land.
In 1945, Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, agreed to move the organization from San Francisco to either New York or Philadelphia, depending on which city could offer the best accommodations. By the end of 1946 it appeared that Philadelphia was going to get the United Nations, a situation that outraged Nelson A. Rockefeller, son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Knowing Zeckendorf's property was for sale, Rockefeller placed a call to his father, who immediately arranged to contribute the full purchase price of the land to the United Nations. When the deal was completed, Lie announced that Manhattan was to be his organization's new home.
Its highlight was modernist master Le Corbusier's Secretariat Building, which broke ground in 1947. The cornerstone for the Plaza was laid in 1949, and construction was completed in 1954.
AT THE SAME TIME, on West 42nd, a far different kind of development was taking shape. In the years immediately following World War II, a far more explicit, rough-trade pornographic sexual subculture had surfaced west of Seventh Avenue. Much of it had sprung from two sources. The first was the American enlisted man's wartime experiences abroad. Having been exposed to a less puritanical, more aggressive sexuality in Europe and a highly ritualistic eroticism in Asia, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who left as callow boys returned as sexually experienced men, accustomed to the easily available pleasures they found in the young girls overseas eager to give their American saviors something to savor in return.
The second was the limited options available anywhere outside of the city for its still dead-bolt-closeted gays. The two groups gradually coalesced in the early fifties in a street-savvy proliferation of straight and gay bars and male prostitution rings on West 42nd Street.
Wagner treated that situation and the entire street as the outbreak of a morally perverse epidemic and, to save the rest of the city, in effect quarantined it. His initial counterattack was to have the City Planning Commission rezone the neighborhood so he could legally shut down what would then be the illegal bars that were fronting homosexual prostitution. This move backfired when the bars were quickly replaced by storefront operations that offered a more explicit, if under-the-counter, pornography reminiscent of the "dirty magazines" (gay and straight) that soldiers had found to be so easily attainable overseas and wanted more of back home. A weary and frustrated Wagner finally wrote off West 42nd Street as a total loss, a moral leper colony for which containment within its own boundaries seemed the best solution.
It was a decision that, while the complete opposite of La Guardia's hands-on one-man war, was just as damaging to the street. By 1960 the Wagner administration's policy of isolated toleration was seen as an opportunity by the organized crime families of New York to plant their beachhead flags on West 42nd. The Gambinos, especially, would develop a hugely profitable market for the production and sale of totally explicit, industrial-strength pornography, the ultimate come-on that helped turn the street into the sleaze capital of the world. Left alone by a timid mayor, the mob expanded into all of porn's peripherals, including male and female prostitution rings, the deliverance of child runaways to middle-aged male pedophiles, and the distribution of yet one more favorite of World War II veterans: heroin (derived during the war from battlefield morphine), which induced extreme-and extremely addictive-euphoria. Pure white heroin quickly became the drug of choice among the hard-core set that congregated on 42nd Street at Eighth Avenue, where it was always cheap and plentiful.
IN THE EARLY SIXTIES, Wagner's quietly efficient administration began to break down, weakened by a series of internal scandals that smacked of old nineteenth-century Tammany-style bossism. In early 1964 construction of the mayor's and Robert Moses' world's fair in Flushing Meadows was hampered by the revelation of widespread payoffs and accusations of racial discrimination against union leaders. Months later, during one of those hot New York July days when it seems the heat escapes from a hole directly connected to hell, the city degenerated into a four-day race riot that signaled the onset of "white flight" and coalesced the city's minority leaders into a powerful political force.
In one final attempt to contain the festering race issue, Wagner sought to buy a quick-fix social cure by increasing his annual operating budget and earmarking the majority of the new money for construction that included a large number of previously unavailable jobs for minority workers. His plan received a boost when Nelson Rockefeller, who had by then become the governor of New York State, endorsed legislation allowing the mayor to personally reapportion the city's finances. The mayor spent as much as he had and more, running up a massive debt to fortify the impression that the city's minorities were doing as well as he wanted them and everyone to believe.
This round of buy now, pay later economics set the stage for the emergence of an obscure Manhattan Republican congressman, Charlton Heston-look-alike John Lindsay, whose chief asset was the essential one Wagner lacked: youthful charisma in a manner and style reminiscent of John F. Kennedy. Lindsay became the minority party's New Frontier alternative to the city's reigning and increasingly tedious Eisenhower-like mayor. He won the November 1965 election by promising to "turn things around" in a city that, despite Wagner's checkbook politics, was torn by racial strife and an increasingly unstable economy.
Unfortunately for the new mayor, his progressive spin didn't last very long.
Within days of his election, the city, along with much of the Northeast, suffered a massive blackout. New York remained in the dark for fifteen hours (except for the 1963 Kennedy assassination and periods during World War II, the only time the lights had gone out on Broadway and Times Square for that much time), and even before Lindsay's inauguration, the press seized on the notion of a city groping in the dark.
Less than two months later, Lindsay was struck by yet another major blow when he failed to prevent a subway strike by the Transport Workers Union. The strike, led by the union's colorful, longtime leader Mike Quill, lasted twelve days and cost the city $800 million in business revenues and $25 million in wage earnings. The walkout was caused by budget problems, as the subway system, after a series of horrendous accidents and decades of financial losses, was taken over by the city in the fifties and put under the control of the newly created New York City Transit Authority, with a mandate to operate without a deficit.
However, to the citizens of New York, the absurd reality of the eventual settlement was that the average pay of the subway rider was now less than that of the subway worker, whose union had won its members a substantial pay raise based on a new twenty-cent fare. After being held at a nickel from 1904 until 1948, in eighteen years it had now quadrupled.* The blame was put at the new mayor's door, the buck-stop for the city's failure to withstand the force of Quill's bullying. And Lindsay felt the weight on his broad, if sagging, shoulders, a bold example, as one observer put it, of how to run a city so that "the rich get richer and the poor get dumber." By 1969 the city's operating budget had tripled to an unprecedented $7 billion.
That same year, the city's spirit temporarily up-ticked when, in January, Joe Namath's Jets pulled off a major upset in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Lindsay, the city then made that magic leap from the miraculously sublime to the blindingly ridiculous when a snowstorm a month later paralyzed the outer boroughs. Although the streets of Manhattan were immediately plowed, the blanket of ice and snow was left untouched in the outer boroughs in some neighborhoods for as long as a week. The fallout was the lasting impression that the Mayor only cared about Manhattan-one city tabloid said it took Lindsay so long to do something about the storm because he couldn't find Queens, another New York daily wrote that the mayor had "more trouble with Queens than Henry VIII"-and had sold out the real estate interests of the outer-borough residents by granting sizable cooperative residential tax breaks for Manhattan's elite while shoving public housing down the throats of the other boroughs' middle classes.
New Yorkers, citizens of the so-called Fun City, a term first used by sportswriter Dick Schaap, which became the calling card of the Lindsay administration, had their spirits lifted once more when another "miracle" took place that fall: The quixotic Queens-based Mets, New York's "other" baseball team and longest-running joke, somehow defeated the windmill and beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
However, for all the glory of New York's 1969 Cinderella sports victories, the euphoria in so-called "Fun City" as the Lindsay Administration optimistically dubbed it, lasted less than a year. The glass slipper once more shattered in the spring of 1970 when Detective Frank Serpico accused his fellow police officers of looking the other way when it came to the public's safety on 42nd Street and elsewhere and was among the first to suggest that there was a mob connection between pornography and drugs, the former being the lure for the latter, and that the police knew it and looked the other way while taking a piece of the action for themselves. Serpico's revelations pushed the mayor to create an independent investigative committee. The controversial findings of the Knapp Commission resulted in Lindsay's being labeled soft on crime, and plunged the city's residents still further into an urban landscape of fear and despair.
Nevertheless, for all his problems governing, Lindsay loved the glamour and sizzle of Broadway as no mayor had since the heyday of Jimmy Walker. Unlike so many before him, he never gave up on Times Square. He hoped to save the theater district by tweaking the city's Planning Commission's longstanding zoning restrictions on new construction in Midtown West. Unfortunately, his vision of a revitalized Great White Way was decades ahead of its time, and his courtship of out-of-town developers caused many to wonder if he was selling out New York to a bunch of fat-cat rubes and ultimately cost him more votes than it won. Still, Lindsay might have been able to pull this audacious plan off had it not been for the early seventies national recession that devalued real estate, plunged the city ever closer to bankruptcy, and killed any chance he might have had to star in the real-life saga of his own political salvation.
BY THE END OF LINDSAY'S administration, New York had had enough of so-called Republican-Liberalism and elected a mayor whose style of Democratic politics was firmly rooted in the legacy, if not the halls, of Tammany.
Former comptroller Abraham Beame took office in January 1974 and inherited a city that seemed once again on the brink of disaster. As if to underscore the dire situation, one month before the new mayor took office a major span of the West Side Highway, one of New York's two major surface arteries, this one connecting Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge, upstate New York, and Connecticut, collapsed in a dusty, lifeless heap.
Unlike his suave, Wasp predecessor, Beame, a first-generation Jewish American whose parents had emigrated from Poland to New York City at the end of the nineteenth century, was a short, stocky man with a shock of neatly trimmed white hair, the face of a bulldog, and the heart of one too. His political consciousness came from a youth spent in the 1930s socialist whirl of New York's Lower East Side. After flirting with that decade's lurch toward radicalism, Beame shifted his political aim toward the center and began working for the Brooklyn Democratic machine. By the early sixties he was the city's comptroller, a springboard from which, in 1965, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor, losing to Lindsay in the general election.
Eight years and two Lindsay administrations later, Beame cannily took his cue from the pages of the La Guardia handbook, and when his administration ran into fiscal problems, he determined to salvage it by rescuing 42nd Street from the sinkhole of filth, prostitution, and drugs into which it had fallen. However, despite his efforts, West 42nd Street continued to flourish in filth, with no fewer than twenty-five XXX movie theaters, a dozen topless dance stables, unchecked street prostitution and corner drug dealing, and a seemingly endless supply of anything-goes, readily available hard-core storefront porn shops openly operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
In 1977 Beame failed to win his bid for a second term. Instead, the voters turned to the city's newest political hero, the dark horse defender of Forest Hills and one of the frontline warriors in the successful mid-seventies battle to save 42nd Street's Grand Central Terminal from demolition. As it had with so many of his predecessors, midtown's moral redemption became the foundation plank of Koch's successful campaign for mayor. Like Elmer Gantry in pinstripes, Koch vowed to cure all the city's economic and social ills, via the salvation of 42nd Street.
And as the city was about to discover, in the great tradition of politics, New York style, Ed Koch could politically holy-roll with the best of them.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Rebel Road, Inc.