Monuments of theatricality

City's drama and character reflected in its landmarks

For more than a century, New Yorkers have happily dedicated themselves to the proposition that it’s more fun to go out than to stay in.

It’s no accident that some of Gotham’sbest-known entertainment institutions are celebrating 100-plus birthdays this year. Madison Square Garden (125 years old), Loews Cineplex (100), and Times Square (100) are simply the most enduring monuments to a late-19th-century surge of public sociability.

Even before it brought crowds to prizefights, movies and the new theater district, that sensibility had already sent women to shop and lunch along 5th Avenue and persuaded the fashionable classes to dine and dance at luxurious hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria instead of at home.

New York City’s public spaces have always been gloriously theatrical. New Yorkers love a good show, and that includes the skaters at Rockefeller Center and the Christmas windows at Lord & Taylor as well as Broadway’s latest extravaganza.

Municipal authorities and real estate entrepreneurs have worked hard in recent years to make economic growth also satisfy a thirst for drama. Plans to clean up and redevelop Times Square stalled for decades until laws to preserve the historic theaters and ensure that electric signs would still glitter reassured locals that the area’s distinctive character would not be entirely lost.

The Time Warner Center, which partially opened in February with two towers of offices and condos fronted by an array of glitzy shops and restaurants overlooking Columbus Circle, was required by the city to include a performing arts complex. Jazz at Lincoln Center, slated to debut this fall, will include a 1,100-seat theater, a jazz club and recording studios.

In addition to the dazzling new entrance pavilion to the Brooklyn Museum, the borough will soon boast its own theater, designed by Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy. Also planned is a sports arena with a rooftop park ringed by a running track — that is, if the developer can convince the New Jersey Nets to move in, and overcome residents’ protests about traffic and noise.

Similar concerns, not to mention questions of affordability, are also dogging city officials’ proposed stadium on Manhattan’s west side for the Jets, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office is also touting as a lure for the 2012 Olympics.

Perhaps the weightiest decision the city has yet faced about how to define itself involves the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. Daniel Libeskind’s winning design capped months of debate about how architecture, retail and the arts could serve as both tribute and commercial center.

Nothing is ever easy or simple in New York. Locals don’t just revel in their public spaces, they’re protective of them. No one misses the drug dealers and muggers who used to make Times Square so menacing, but does the new 42nd Street have to be so … generic? Must so many of the restaurants be Applebee’s and California Pizza Kitchens? Sure, the Ferris wheel and the enormous roaring T. Rex at Toys R Us are great, but it’s still not F.A.O. Schwartz.

“Times Square has recast itself in a way that makes it a tremendously successful site in the world of global tourism,” says James Traub, author of “The Devil’s Playground,” a just-published history of the area. “Speaking as a New Yorker, I don’t find much that draws me there.”

The same could be said of Time Warner’s retail outlets, the same found in any upscale mall across America, and of the multiplexes (looking a lot like the ones you pull into off the highway in Illinois) that have replaced many of our movie palaces.

No idea fills New Yorkers with more horror than the possibility that our city’s pleasures are now mere tourist attractions, and commonplace ones at that — except perhaps Paula Zahn’s cheerful comment at the Time Warner opening party that “this will give the malls on Long Island some competition.” Gothamites do not deign to compete with Long Island, they pride themselves on living in a metropolitan mecca like nowhere else in the world. But is this still true?

Absolutely, declares Traub. “Unlike a mall or Las Vegas, there is still a sense of ungoverned urban energies in New York. When you walk down 42nd Street at 11 o’clock at night when the theaters have let out, the place is just so electric.”

Walking is the key. In one of the few cities in America where it’s still possible (indeed, preferable) to get around without a car, the aesthetic quality of New Yorkers’ public spaces may ultimately be less important then the fact that they arrive at them on foot in the company of other people. Locals like crowds, and it’s their comfort with conducting private dramas in public that creates the electricity Traub felt in Times Square.

You feel it all over town, from the TKTS booth, where young actors cluster to check out the half-price offerings and compare notes about recent auditions, to the East Village multiplexes whose lobbies are packed with movie buffs arguing furiously just as they did at the Thalia 40 years ago. New York will never be Anywhere USA, because New Yorkers themselves are the greatest show on Earth.

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