BRIGHT-BLUE neon letters spell out ``New York Police Department,'' and send a reassuring message to passersby here in Times Square. A medley of blaring taxicab horns, street vendor cries, and pedestrian voices sounds almost like a rendition of George Gershwin's ``Rhapsody in Blue.'' The scene does not fit the recent image of this area as a lawless tract of urban America.
This police substation is one of the most visible manifestations of the public and private cooperation that has helped transform seedy Times Square into a somewhat safer area over the past several years.
At about 10:30 one night, a NYPD squad car pulls up in front of the substation to pick up a reporter. Capt. Jane Perlov, the officer in charge, worked in Harlem until she was assigned to Times Square a year ago. Her shift lasts from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Even a casual observer will see she commands respect from the men who work for her. She is direct and no-nonsense and yet retains a sense of humor.
Captain Perlov patrols what used to be the biggest trouble spot in New York. The brilliant glare from the supersigns fades almost to black as her driver turns the corner onto 42nd Street, continuing the nightly rounds in the squad car. He heads west between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
Here, on the block that has been called New York's ``brightest memory,'' nine legendary theaters sit dark and empty like ancient archaeological sites. These landmark theaters, awaiting renovation, are empty even of the pornography that they used to house. No trouble here tonight.
A covey of adult-video stores, which crowds the western end of the block near Eighth Avenue, does not seem to be attracting many patrons. But as the squad car turns north on Eighth Avenue, a lengthening parade of video-sex outlets and X-rated theaters has spread around the corner from 42nd Street in the past year.
``Crime goes where there's opportunity,'' Perlov says.
The car moves on. Eventually it heads east on 44th Street, past the St. James Theater where the hit musical ``Tommy'' is playing.
``It's so quiet in this precinct,'' Perlov says. ``This precinct had the reputation of being the busiest in the world. But crime has gone down so much that new police officers actually want to go to a more active place.''
While crime is still a major concern in Times Square, it has generally declined in the last four years, according to police figures. The number of reported robberies has gone down steadily from 1989 to 1992, the last year for which full counts were available. Felonious assaults decreased from 834 in 1991 to 740 in 1992. The number of murders dropped from 12 in 1991 to seven last year. The number of reported rapes remained the same, however, with 37 reported each year in 1991 and 1992.
Part of the drop in robbery and other violent crime has come as a result of New York City's four-year-old Safe City-Safe Streets program, which centers on putting more police back on the beat. But credit also goes to businesses that are struggling to change the essential character of this ``crossroads of the world.''
Dozens of interviews with police officials, corporate executives, community activists, and even Broadway producers reveal that most of them who work and some who live in Times Square feel more secure than they did three or four years ago. Structural changes initiated
Times Square's revitalization is structural, not surface, these people claim, and some officials say it is only a matter of time before adjacent areas are also safer. And homelessness and other social problems are not just being swept under the rug of redevelopment.
``You can't measure security in terms of just one thing; it is a result of many things working together,'' says William Daly, director of the Mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement (OME). A special anticrime unit, OME was first established in 1975, with Mr. Daly as the agency's first investigator, to fight street narcotics sales and prostitution in Times Square.
Police Deputy Inspector Chester Fox, who is in charge of the Midtown South precinct, sums up the area's safety in personal terms: ``My daughter lives in Manhattan, and I have no problem with her going up to Times Square. If I'm going to let my daughter go, I'm going to let anybody go.''
Times Square is actually more of a triangle than a square. Its name comes from the New York Times, whose newspaper offices were on this site. In fact, the Times building is still here although the newspaper relocated a half-block away on West 43rd Street years ago.
The number of homeless people living on the streets of Times Square is down from what it was a few years ago: According to a recent survey by the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), the area had 33 ``permanent homeless'' people.
The Times Square Bag Exchange, run by the BID, helps the area's homeless by giving them shoes, socks, toothpaste, and other necessities in exchange for bringing in full trash bags.
Last year, the BID spent $54,000 to get about $1 million worth of merchandise from area businesses for 35 neighborhood social-service providers. ``We are going back to the idea of neighbor to neighbor,'' says Grechen Dykstra, president of BID. ``We are linking businesses to local social-service providers.''
One thing about Times Square that hasn't changed is ``the Great White Way's'' plethora of neon signs. Currently, there are 40 computer-driven ``supersigns.'' The number of these signs will go up as more office towers comply with special zoning regulations requiring them to devote space to supersigns. Their light gives pedestrians another layer of illumination.
``I think most of us who are here in Times Square and work in Times Square have seen it improve tremendously over the last few years,'' says Rebecca Robertson, president of the 42nd Street Redevelopment Project, a subsidiary of the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC). Her agency is in charge of redeveloping the block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue.
``Times Square feels safer, and it's cleaner,'' says Michael David, president of Dodger Productions, one of the hottest theatrical producers on Broadway, having produced both ``Tommy,'' and ``Guys and Dolls.'' Mr. David, who lives on 44th Street near Seventh Avenue in the heart of Times Square, adds, however, that the news in the historical theatrical district is not all good.
``I was driving down Eighth Avenue and saw another porn house that's opened,'' he says.
But as a whole, pornography is down throughout Times Square. The number of sex-related businesses has dropped to 25 percent of their level a decade ago, or to about 35 such establishments today. According to OME, the number of massage parlors went from 13 throughout all of midtown Manhattan from 30th Street up to 60th Street in 1979 to zero as of last year. Adult movie theaters went down from 21 in 1979 to 10 in 1992. Adult video stores, however, have mushroomed, from zero in 1970 to 20 in 1992.
Nevertheless, law enforcement officials have been criticized as slow to react to an increasing drug problem on pornography-packed Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 49th Street.
Eighth Avenue is the border between Times Square and the Clinton area, a largely residential neighborhood just west of the the bright lights of Broadway. In a recent interview with the Monitor, Police Inspector George Brown, who is in charge of all police throughout mid-Manhattan, says that the department's tactical narcotic team (TNT) ``had been there [on Eighth Avenue] less than a month.''
Critics say the TNT should have been there long before and that this is another example of foot-dragging. Community leaders in Clinton voice concern that crime - especially narcotics trafficking - has increased in their neighborhood. They contend that buyers and sellers of drugs have moved over to Clinton because increased police presence has focused almost exclusively on Times Square. Moreover, they charge that top law-enforcement officials have no coordinated strategy to deal with the problem.
Mr. Daly of OME disagrees with the premise that crime has been displaced to Clinton. ``I base that on a couple of studies we did. When crime decreased on 42nd Street, for instance, which is the prime engine that drives crime in the midtown area, crime decreased by even more in the Clinton area.'' But he does admit that the illegal drug trade in Clinton has gotten worse.
Clinton is still sometimes called by its more colorful and notorious name, Hell's Kitchen, a place that inspired stories similar to those in the musical ``West Side Story.'' Gentrification has proceeded more slowly than in other areas of the city, but an increasing number of tenements are being renovated. The area's rich history
Times Square has gone through many transformations since New York's theater district started to move north to 42nd Street at the turn of the century. Aside from the 37 legitimate Broadway theaters in Times Square - the highest concentration of such theaters anywhere in the world - only a few of the area's other venerable theatrical institutions are left following the area's steep decline in the 1970s and the building boom in the '80s.
The Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, though outside the rather arbitrary border of Times Square, is still standing. Built in 1904, it was home to Dorothy Parker and John Barrymore and the ``Algonquin Round Table,'' an informal luncheon club of newspaper and theater people. The hotel is now owned by a Japanese company.
Forty-second Street changed radically beginning in the Great Depression. Burlesque moved in, as did second-run movies. In the late '60s, pornography, prostitution, and narcotics trafficking took over the Times Square section of the street. Now, 42nd Street is poised for a rebirth. In December of this year, the UDC, which owns the nine historic theaters on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, will begin renovation of the 799 Victory Theatre. Work on the Lyric Theatre next door will follow.
The $18.2 million earmarked for renovation of these two theaters is also part of a public-private partnership. Two private developers who have an option to build office buildings and a hotel on 42nd Street have, in effect, agreed to advance this money to the UDC, in return for substantial tax savings.
The long-awaited redevelopment of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues promises to bring the total number of theaters up a few notches. But some observers are skeptical that the block will ever make a complete comeback.
``I used to think it would happen in my lifetime,'' says Harvey Sabinson, executive director of the American League of Theatres and Producers. ``But now I don't think so.''
Nevertheless, many changes have already taken place in Times Square: A new or renovated hotel sits on practically every block, from the new Maclowe Hotel on 44th Street to the completely renovated Sheraton New York (formerly the Americana) on 53rd Street. An estimated one million people work in the area's new office towers, hotels, theaters, and other places.
MTV, Polygram Records, and other entertainment-related companies that have relocated into Times Square in the last several years bring thousands of employees to the area. These, coupled with an estimated 20 million tourists each year, flood the Broadway theaters, movie houses, and more than 300 restaurants.
Among other positive signs of Times Square's transformation:
* Art exhibits. This summer a multimedia art show on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues placed pointillist representations, Jenny Holzer aphorisms, and other items on the block's empty buildings and theaters. People who work in the area say the exhibit is a major step forward from the street's tawdry past.
* Bus Terminal improved. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, once a major trouble-spot and eyesore, has strengthened its security. The gigantic bus station is also cleaned more frequently.
* Problem hotels closed. The Strand Hotel on West 43rd Street was shut down permanently. According to police, it was a major drug-distribution point.
* New corporate tenants. Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream has become one of the latest companies to announce it will be in Times Square. Ben and Jerry's will occupy the first floor of the old Times Square Hotel at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. The hotel itself is in the process of being renovated, partly for homeless people.
Business and development leaders say they believe Times Square's renewal transcends politics, and that no matter who wins this year's mayoral election, it will continue.
``We have an ongoing program,'' says Deputy Inspector Fox of the Midtown South Precinct. ``They [the police] are not at full strength yet. Fiscal year 1994 will bring the police department up to its highest level.''