Ghosts of 42nd Street

A History of America's Most Infamous Block by Anthony Bianco

by Garrett Chaffin-Quiray

9 March 2004


A View from Midtown: Dealing with the Deuce

New York City holds unique sway over the American imagination. Culturally centered on Manhattan, one of five city-counties amalgamated into the metropolis, New York City is also significant for possessing some of the nation’s most significant landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. Alongside these landmarks is the theater district of 42nd Street and Times Square, to which millions flock for staged entertainment and the buzz of life on the Great White Way. Here, the rich rub elbows with the poor. Creative types glean inspiration. Energy builds and dangers lie around every corner.

This showbiz neighborhood, called the “Crossroads of the World” and the “Deuce,” is the heart of Anthony Bianco’s Ghosts of 42nd Street, a place alive with clashing personalities, extraordinary events, and historic change. Yet for all this excitement, Ghosts of 42nd Street isn’t a very good book.

cover art

Ghosts of 42nd Street

Anthony Bianco

A History of America's Most Infamous Block

(William Morrow)

Such negativity comes as a shock in the wake of Bianco’s seven-page introduction, called “Overture,” which is a first rate essay outlining what’s to come. Perhaps written to entice readers while convincing his publisher of the books commercial potential, Bianco informs us of the sweep of 42nd Street, of the romance of its streets, of its many broken dreams, and colorful history. Beginning with the first chapter, however, he quickly shifts into an uncomfortable balance of featured profiles and events that lack a larger sense of cause and effect.

Because it’s touted as the definitive cultural history of the eponymous street, Bianco fails to be definitive on any level save one. Seasoned by his work at “Business Week,” Bianco has a flare for shaping biographical detail into lively profiles. To the extent he focuses on 42nd Street’s movers and shakers, he offers a primer on force of personality. Once subjected to the demands of cultural history that requires attention to more substantial influences than individual lives—forces like patterns of migration and economic flux, to name just two—Ghosts of 42nd Street comes up wanting.

The problem stems from Bianco’s thesis that considers 42nd Street as wholly dependent on its theaters, which were first erected in 1899. It’s not a bad thesis, but it excludes much from the scene that might usefully explain parts of 42nd Street’s history in the last 100-plus years.

Numbering 10 in total, the theaters under discussion include the Apollo, the Lyric, the Harris, the New Victory, the New Amsterdam, the Times Square, the Selwyn, the Liberty, the Empire, and the Rialto.Through the course of their fates over decades, Bianco shows how the 42nd Street impresarios and land developers laid the groundwork for Broadway, culminating in New York City becoming the capital of American entertainment in the 1920s. Then there was the Great Depression and World War II, and the area transformed into a squalid porno marketplace, perhaps most vividly detailed in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), before it finally retrenched as an entertainment capital in the 1990s.

Bracketing each of these transformations, all part of the present physical reality of West 42nd Street, Bianco starts with the story of Oscar Hammerstein I in the 1890s and continues through Disney’s commercial colonization in the 1990s. Across this expanse equaling the 20th century, he’s never particularly concerned with forces outside his target neighborhood. Of necessity, these contextual pointers could have included helpful remarks and analyses of urban development and decay, Prohibition, World War II, the expansion of American highways, the predominance of television in post-War life, the 60s generation, and the fantastically Byzantine structure of New York City and state government.

No doubt this larger context is a wormhole for any writer on deadline. But it seems that Bianco is capable of undertaking this kind of hulking investigation after considering his discussion of the “lobster houses” of the 1920s and the mainstreaming of pornography and video recording technology in the 1970s and 1980s. His bibliography also suggests an interest in doing the necessary research for a scholarly “proof,” just as he displays a journalist’s keen eye for unraveling events, as indicated in his lengthy account of the 42nd Street redevelopment efforts from the 1970s on.

Without taking root in socio-economic forces, but instead relying on interviews and various secondary documents, Ghosts of 42nd Street is all surface without adequately reaching the cause and effect inherent to its stated project. Better contrapuntal organization between profiles and socio-cultural events, or the combination of micro- and macro-“think,” would have improved this flaw and potentially made it a superior work. As written, such scope is lacking, much to the book’s detriment.

On the plus side, Bianco’s biographical sketches are terrific glimpses of the players at hand. Luminaries like Hammerstein, Florenz Ziegfeld, Gypsy Rose Lee, Fred Papert, the Durst Family, Robert Moss, Rebecca Robertson, and Michael Eisner come to life in wonderful detail, meaning other writers similarly fixed on New York history can use Bianco’s work to benefit future investigations. That these portraits are so strong also highlights how Ghosts of 42nd Street too rarely considers influences within Manhattan’s history, let alone the rest of New York City, New York State, or the rest of the world.

So much exclusion of cultural cause in the book is the wall into which Bianco ultimately crashes. His ability, skill, and subject matter deserve better, not so much in terms of loving detail, for he is a New Yorker and one who is obviously fascinated by his home. His book is simply less complete than it would have you believe and in trying to be an end-all discussion of the Deuce, it disappoints readers in consideration of what it attempts to achieve but fails to deliver.

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