Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World
by Marc Eliot
Publisher: Warner Books
Pub. Date: November 2002
Marc Eliot's thorough history of New York's infamous tenderloin district is an engaging read for anyone with more than a passing interest in America's cultural capital. Though the tone of the writing often takes on the dry character and undeserved certainty of a textbook, the overall experience is enjoyable and enlightening.
Eliot's version of the evolution of Times Square and the 42nd Street corridor stretches as far back as the Revolutionary War, when George Washington led an important battle on a hill at what was to become 42nd and Fifth Avenue. By the end of the 18th century, this spot had become a burial ground for the city's yellow fever victims, and was later transformed into the site of the original Croton Reservoir. The reservoir helped to draw folks from the center of the city (which, at that point, lay far to the south) to the "suburbs" of what is now Midtown. In the late 19th century, this same site was used to train Union soldiers for Civil War duty. Not much later, the magnificent New York Public Library rose from the ashes in all of its Beaux Arts splendor, raising the architectural bar and turning "the Deuce" into a destination.
Though many have questioned the veracity and reliability of many of Eliot's sources and claims, "Down 42nd Street" performs the important function of making sense of how the district came to be the wonderful world of Disney that it is today. Eliot weaves all the covert political wrangling, historic events (the return of World War II veterans, hungry for the exotic sex and drugs they'd experienced overseas, for example), closed-door business deals, and mob activities that helped transform the street from Nowhere to the gentrified, Anywhere, USA, fantasyland of today into a cohesive story of sex, greed, power, and even altruism (local stops along the route between Nowhere and Anywhere include 42nd Street's time as the headquarters of American theater and as NYC's primary pipeline of drugs, prostitution, violent crime, and pornography).
The characters of Eliot's story are as colorful as the twinkling lights and brilliant displays they, directly or indirectly, helped to create. From the Roaring Twenties good times of Mayor James "Gentleman Jimmy Walker", the songwriting bon vivant whose laissez-faire policies supported the growth of "adult" entertainment in the Deuce, to the moralizing, wartime stance of Fiorello La Guardia, from the vicious yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst to the high-minded architectural criticism of Ada Louise Huxtable, and from the brutal business practices of the Teflon Don, John Gotti, to the tough-as-nails shrewdness of Rudy Giuliani, the characters of the narrative help tell the complex story of 20th-century New York City.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of "Down 42nd Street" is that Eliot manages to keep himself above the fray, allowing the story of 42nd Street's transformation from den of iniquity to tourist trap to be as problematic and messy as it truly is. Because Eliot is able to appear as a neutral narrator, the reader is left as conflicted as every New Yorker about the fact that, though it is now safe to walk river-to-river on the Deuce, we're not sure that we'd want to do so. While we're delighted that the historic Selwyn Theater is back in business as home to the Roundabout Theater Company, we're not sure how to feel about the fact that it is now known as the American Airlines Theater. While we find the glitz and glamour of the New 42 entertaining, we can't help noting the lack of authenticity, an ersatz quality to everything in the district that Mayor Ed Koch once referred to as "too much orange juice and not enough seltzer."
Though Eliot's writing falls into staid and prosaic blandness at times, in the end, Eliot is successful in his mission to tell the whole dirty story of 42nd Street. Anyone interested in the gritty history of one of the world's greatest cities will enjoy the perspective that Eliot brings.