Greetings from Times Square

Shining brighter than ever, its neon past is wed to a video future.

When Brendan Sexton was in high school in the early 1960s, he used to come to Times Square to see first-run movies. "You could see foreign movies at the Apollo Theater for a buck.

[The area] was raunchy enough to look like what people call Times Square, but it was quite safe. Most all the theaters on 42nd Street were showing real films, not 'adult' films," says a laughing Mr. Sexton, now president of the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), a group of local businesses.

Nowadays, as Sexton peers out of his eighth-floor office window on a much different Times Square - "the Crossroads of the World" - it's still with pride. "Times Square 2000," beginning today, is a high-tech 24-hour New Year's celebration.

It features live video feeds from around the globe displayed on Panasonic Astrovision screens. At midnight, the famous Waterford crystal ball will make its final trip of the 1900s down a 77-foot flagpole atop One Times Square at 42nd Street and Broadway.

In the early '70s, when adult movie theaters, topless bars, and high crime rates dominated legendary 42nd Street - "where the underworld can meet the elite," according to a lyric from the vintage 1933 movie "42nd Street" - a lot of the Times Square area stretching from 40th to 54th Streets deserved its slang moniker of "slime square."

In fact, the crime, sex industry, and graffiti got so bad a decade ago that New Yorkers began to stay away from Broadway theaters in droves. Tourists started to avoid New York and go to places like Toronto to see Broadway-style shows.

Now the pendulum has swung back - with vigor. Street crime has dropped more than 50 percent since 1992; nearly 40 "porn" shops have been shuttered since 1994, and so-called adult movie theaters have vanished from every nook of the Times Square area. Huge office towers, hotels, and luxury apartment houses are rising from the rubble of razed cheap hotels and tenements, as well as mom-and-pop stores, clothing shops, and cleaners.

But the question remains whether the pendulum of urban and technological renewal has swung too far. Is Times Square losing its identity as a theater district and becoming a video epicenter, broadcasting news, entertainment, and advertising 24 hours a day?

"Times Square has become Disneyland," laments Michael Alpert, a veteran Broadway press agent. "All those old hotels and the elderly people sitting in the middle of Broadway. That's all over now. It's all chain stores, like the Warner Brothers and the Gap ... you could be anywhere. It's cleaned up and become Milwaukee."

Community activist and performance artist Billy Tanen also criticizes what he calls the "vertical malling" of the area. Times Square "is disappearing," he told The Associated Press last month. "The theme-parking of New York is starting to happen."

But a chorus of boosters, including Sexton, who was formerly head of New York's Municipal Arts Society, say the area will retain a lot of its unique character.

"It's new but it's old," Sexton says. "Times Square has reflected, in exaggerated form, the American experience.... Just as New York is in many ways the ultimate city in America, Times Square is the ultimate New York neighborhood.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square was terribly dangerous. It was scary.... So it took a huge investment and a lot of trouble on the part of this city, state, private investors.... It took a huge effort - and a lot of work to change it."

Indeed, from new street-front studios for ABC's "Good Morning America" TV show and MTV's cable TV network, to the 1.6 million-square-foot Cond Nast headquarters at 4 Times Square housing the new ESPN Zone Restaurant, Times Square on the verge of 2000 has a vitality perhaps unseen since the theater building boom of the 1920s.

And then there are the supersigns, now nearly 60 strong, and the dozen or so huge video screens. Additional portable giant screens have been set up for the New Year's Eve celebration, which began at 7 a.m. today with festivities in the South Pacific marking the first moments of 2000 broadcast live to Times Square.

At the same time, the area's raffish target-shooting galleries, corner hot-dog vendors, and Hubert's Flea Circus have given way to vast video-game arcades, chain restaurants, and the soon-to-open 60,000-square-foot Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Famed old first-run movie houses like the Capitol have been replaced by a 25-screen movieplex on the south side of 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

But Times Square promoters say the area will always retain some measure of its turn-of-the-century architectural charm. "Even [at] Disney, many people worry that it is somehow not being true to Times Square," Sexton says. "But when they came to Times Square, they didn't transplant Orlando, Fla. They renovated the historic New Amsterdam Theater [where Disney's musical "The Lion King" plays on and on], which I think is the most beautiful theater in New York City."

A telling landmark outside Sexton's window is the $3 million Coca-Cola sign, created by the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. With its one mile of neon tubes and 13,000 incandescent light bulbs, it's typical of the growing number of computer-driven supersigns and video screens remaking Times Square.

Tama Starr, the third-generation president of Artkraft Strauss, says that the famous signs in the square are going to be even larger and more plentiful.

"The signs ... have always been an exaggerated picture of whatever was obsessing consumer America at a particular moment," Ms. Starr says. In the 1920s, they depicted things like household appliances. "Now we have lots of 'dot-coms,' fashion, financial services like Reuters, and we never had any of those categories before."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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