Times Square becomes a pedestrian zone

New York City’s famous Times Square became free of cars this Monday.

This is the latest in two decades of radical changes to what used to be a dirty, dangerous, but uniquely vibrant part of one of the world’s greatest cities. City officials have blocked traffic from 42nd to 47th Streets at Times Square and between 33rd and 35th Streets at Herald Square in a much-anticipated move we first reported on back in February.

The traffic jams are being replaced by pedestrian plazas and more shops. The hope is to attract even more visitors to New York City’s iconic square by getting rid of noise, pollution, and frequent accidents. New Yorkers celebrated Monday with a big block party and setting up lawn chairs in the middle of the road. The city plans to have various events and street performers every night in the coming weeks to attract more people to Times Square.

Old-time New Yorkers like yours truly have fond memories of the old Times Square, full of seedy bars, seedier adult shops, and crumbling movie houses where you could watch a double feature of martial arts films for two bucks. I saw my first Jackie Chan film in Times Square, my first zombie picture, not to mention countless Z-list action flicks. Ah, the Eighties!

But not everyone liked Times Square at its decadent best. It was too close to Broadway, where accountants from Omaha wanted to see musicals without being reminded that the world isn’t like it is in A Chorus Line.

First to go were the movie theaters, replaced one by one by adult video centers, as if the area didn’t have enough of those already. No more blaxplotation or ninja flicks, just hard core. Then the porn shops got shut down. Times Square began to look like Disneyland. Now the squalling, bumper-to-bumper traffic has gone the way of the dodo. The armpit of New York has been replaced with the outdoor equivalent of a shopping mall. Progress? Well, it’s certainly safer (how I survived my teen-aged trips to the old Times Square still amazes me) but I can’t help but think that by killing Times Square, New York City has lost something.

Every city has its grotty area. Amsterdam has its red light district, London has Elephant and Castle, and New York had Times Square. The thing is, these neighborhoods are often really interesting and alive. The red light district in Amsterdam has some of the city’s best architecture. Elephant and Castle has an amazing variety of African shops and restaurants. Times Square has. . .well, had. . .an exciting street life and a variety of movie houses for every taste. And no, I’m not talking about the adult stuff. Back in the day, all sorts of people went to Times Square, everyone from well-heeled businessmen up to no good, to curious teenagers like I was, all the way down to street hustlers and petty thieves. That’s what I liked about it. Now it’s tourists and the middle class. Aren’t there enough places like that?

Any other old-time New Yorkers out there have any thoughts on this?

Les Misérables: Cross-cultural wonder

I saw Les Misérables the first time in Singapore when the touring company came through. There were Chinese subtitles of the lyrics projected on screens at the sides of the stage or across the top. I can’t remember which. Three of the cast members came to the school where I was teaching to talk with students about their lives as actors and about touring internationally. Afterwards, for a brief while, I had Les Mis fever. The symptoms being: the songs play over and over and over again in your head; you feel deliciously depressed and uplifted at the same time; and you feel like stopping repression somehow–somewhere–some way.

One of the wonderful things about living overseas is being a part of something that has universal appeal, even if it just means sitting in an audience. Here’s something that tops the feeling I had when I sat in the 12th row of the orchestra to the left of center stage.

For the 10th anniversary celebration of Les Misérables there was a concert at Royal Albert Hall that included 17 different Jean Valjeans from different countries, each singing a few lines of “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “One Day More” in their native language. I found it on YouTube. Watching it gave me a touch of Les Mis fever.

If you want to see “Rent” on Broadway, don’t wait

If you’re looking for a show to see on Broadway, why not pick one that won’t be there after June 1? “Rentis closing after a 12-year-run. [via New York Times] This has me thinking that perhaps I ought to head to NYC to see it once more myself. I saw this show several years ago when the Broadway touring company was in Columbus. I can vouch that there’s not another show out there with so much heart.

For anyone who has struggled to find ones place in the world, make a difference, and be heard, you’ll relate. Even if you know someone like that, you’ll relate. The musical, based on Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” was written as a partial response to the AIDS crisis, as well as the gentrification of many New York City neighborhoods.

Since the mid-1980s there are neighborhoods in NYC, once affordable and a bit edgy, that have become more and more boutique drenched with nifty little eateries only middle class folks and those with deeper pockets can afford. My brother’s neighborhood near Mark’s Place is one of them. One of my favorite restaurants, Rectangles once served a wonderful Middle Eastern appetizer plate, but it closed because of not being able to afford the rent anymore. This was only two or three years ago, but it was affected by the change.

Some critics wonder if “Rent’s” message has passed, similar to the criticism of the musical “Hair” that made a small comeback this past year (I know of two productions.) Personally, I don’t think so. Regardless, the lyrics and music are absolutely wonderful. Now that it’s closing, this opens up the possibility of more regional theaters staging a production. Already the song “Seasons of Love” has made it into school choir concerts.

I think the story remains pertinent. There are always people who struggle, make friendships, get disappointed, feel hope and looking for fantastic lyrics to sing their heart out (at least to themselves.) In “Rent’s” case, the singing–boisterous, often joyful, and mostly hopeful–comes in the type of songs that you’ll actually remember once the curtain has gone down and you are back in your own life searching for your “one song” that lets you know that you’ve made a difference. Here’s a You Tube video that includes “One Song Glory.” Switch the in the word “post” for “song” and there is the blogger’s version. I always keep my guitar on hand.