Read The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub Online


As Times Square turns 100, New York Times Magazine contributing writer James Traub tells the story of how this mercurial district became one of the most famous and exciting places in the world. The Devil’s Playground is classic and colorful American history, from the first years of the twentieth century through the Runyonesque heyday of nightclubs and theaters in the 1920sAs Times Square turns 100, New York Times Magazine contributing writer James Traub tells the story of how this mercurial district became one of the most famous and exciting places in the world. The Devil’s Playground is classic and colorful American history, from the first years of the twentieth century through the Runyonesque heyday of nightclubs and theaters in the 1920s and ’30s, to the district’s decline in the 1960s and its glittering corporate revival in the 1990s.First, Traub gives us the great impresarios, wits, tunesmiths, newspaper columnists, and nocturnal creatures who shaped Times Square over the century since the place first got its name: Oscar Hammerstein, Florenz Ziegfeld, George S. Kaufman, Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, and “the Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan; bards like A. J. Liebling, Joe Mitchell, and the Beats, who celebrated the drug dealers and pimps of 42nd Street. He describes Times Square’s notorious collapse into pathology and the fierce debates over how best to restore it to life.Traub then goes on to scrutinize today’s Times Square as no author has yet done. He writes about the new 42nd Street, the giant Toys “R” Us store with its flashing Ferris wheel, the new world of corporate theater, and the sex shops trying to leave their history behind.More than sixty years ago, Liebling called Times Square “the heart of the world”—not just the center of the world, though this crossroads in Midtown Manhattan was indeed that, but its heart. From the dawn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, Times Square was the whirling dynamo of American popular culture and, increasingly, an urban sanctuary for the eccentric and the untamed. The name itself became emblematic of the tremendous life force of cities everywhere.Today, Times Square is once again an awe-inspiring place, but the dark and strange corners have been filled with blazing light. The most famous street character on Broadway, “the Naked Cowboy,” has his own website, and Toys “R” Us calls its flagship store in Times Square “the toy center of the universe.” For the giant entertainment corporations that have moved to this safe, clean, and self-consciously gaudy spot, Times Square is still very much the center of the world. But is it still the heart?...

Title : The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square
Author :
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ISBN : 9780375759789
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 336 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square Reviews

  • Kressel Housman
    2019-03-27 17:35

    I read this as research for a historical fiction contest I hoped to enter, but I didn’t get very far before I realized that I wasn’t going to finish the book, much less my story, before the deadline. That put a real damper on my enthusiasm for the book, but I regained it in the second half. As has happened before with books that cover a broad swath of history, the closer the book got to my lifetime, the more I appreciated it.The book is about the history of Times Square and 42nd Street, which were marketed as separate entities when 42nd Street turned into New York City’s center for porn, peep shows, and prostitution. The book begins with the birth of Broadway as a theatre district, but even in its golden age, Broadway always had elements just skirting the edge of conventional morality. Ziegfeld’s Follies were the first to push the envelope, and the heart of “legitimate” theatre remained Greenwich Village for a long time. It took a while for a Eugene O’Neil play to be produced on Broadway, but when it was, it was a sign that Broadway was no longer just for low and middle-brow musical extravaganzas.The decline of theatre began in the 1950’s with the advent of television. Why pay Broadway prices when you could be entertained at home for free? The peep shows filled the commercial gap of that empty real estate, which attracted the lowest elements of society. The Beat poets loved hanging out there precisely for that reason. To those expatriates of suburbia, the seamer side of life was the only authenticity. The Beatnik connection was complete news to me; I always thought they preferred the Village.With the urban decline of the 1970’s, the porn district of 42nd Street was so out of control, it might even have shocked the Beatniks. I grew up in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, and I remember knowing as a teenager that West 42nd Street was a place to be avoided. In my college years, I couldn’t avoid Port Authority because I’d travel to and from school over there, and so I got to see 42nd Street for myself. It was as disgusting as I’d always been told. I’d also been warned that pimps prey upon young naïve women at Port Authority. Nothing like that ever happened to me, but I did prove my naiveté by getting conned out of my last few dollars over there one time.And then came the cleanup, though plans for it were under way for decades. Mayor Koch rejected the Disneyfication plan, saying New York would lose too much of its unique character. But Mayor Giuliani embraced the plan, legislating that porn shops could only operate at a certain distance from one another, which ended the concentration that made the neighborhood so distasteful. Now the Disneyfication of Times Square is complete. The Beatniks would probably vomit at what it looks like now, but as far as this New Yorker is concerned, it’s a much safer place to stand outside waiting for a bus.If you like theatre history, you might like this book. Ditto if you have any interest in the development of New York. The research is thorough and the writing is mostly engaging, though the chapters bored me. (Interestingly, Donald Trump gets three mentions in the book: once in comparison to a media hound of early Broadway, once for gaudy architecture, and once as a statue at Madame Tussaud’s. The book was published in 2004; the author, as well of the rest of us, never could have dreamed that he would ever become president.) As for my own attempt at historical fiction, I think I might have done better with two of the books the author cited in his acknowledgements. Oh well. I certainly learned a lot.

  • Patti
    2019-04-15 13:25

    More like 2.5 stars. The idea is fascinating: trace the history of Times Square from its humble beginnings to the giant corporate billboard that is today. I appreciated some of the earlier chapters but got bogged down with his writing style. The book just got boring the longer it went on. I did learn some useful information but think it should have been about 100 pages shorter.

  • Krista
    2019-04-18 17:42

    What is it with folks who write for the New Yorker publishing books that claim to be stand-alone works but are, in actuality, simply a collection of the articles they've written for the New Yorker, expanded and stitched together with rough yarn?All of that said, I enjoyed the read immensely, regardless of the patchwork feel of the thing. Traub does a nice job of presenting the history of Times Square (if a little spotty on some of the details of certain, "uninteresting" eras)One feels nostalgic for the bygone era before television killed the urban gathering place. A gathering like the two million who congregated in Times Square on August 14, 1945 would now likely take place on Fox News, CNN and Facebook. And one feels the loss of that sense of community.One also realizes that "Broadway" is a relatively modern invention. And that it has never been about quality; profit. Always profit. Traub writes, "It seems a strange irony that the quality of theatrical writing improved markedly as the cultural power of theater declined; but perhaps it's no irony at all. As Broadway lost its status as the proving ground for national culture, where plays were hatched to be distributed to the hustings, theater became an increasingly local medium, needing to please only a local, and of course, a sophisticated audience. Movies took on the burden of suiting the lowest common denominator."I disagreed with Traub's placement of the early musicals (ie Oklahoma) as literary schlock designed to peddle songs; there is very little similarity to the kind of musicals that started with Oklahoma and the musical revues of decades prior, a mistake that shows Traub is thinking more as an urban historian than a music historian. And Traub is of a mind that Times Square is now inauthentic because crime and vice are under control; somehow, to Traub, a place is not real unless there are drug deals, arrests and porn. "...vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated, or accepted as the price of "authentic" urban life, if the streets were to be made welcoming to "respectable" folk ... [but] how could you eradicate whatever was pathological about 42nd Street and its environs without, at the same time, eliminating everything that made it worth caring about in the first place?"I'm not a New Yorker, so I can't claim that I understand exactly where Traub is coming from and, intellectually, I see his point, but the idea that making a place safe kills its soul seems incongruous. Perhaps cleaning it up creates a different soul. But clean, safe and entertaining does not necessarily make a place soulless. Except when it does. Hmmm.I also found highly amusing the genesis of the idea that Times Square meant lots of lights and signs; there was a time when urban planning and zoning decried the signs as pure trash but now you cannot build in Times Square without including signs; the rules are very strict. The Great White Way must remain; though it is less white now, in many ways.The main point of the second half of the book seems to be the development of our idea of populism and how it has changed over the years. Sadly, populism is now corporate culture. "Our idea of populism was whatever it is people would choose for entertainment in their spare time; it required that we be non-judgemental," said Rebecca Robertson, a public official tasked with revitalizing Times Square in the 1980s. Traub goes on to comment, with obvious distaste, "Once you choose to be nonjudgmental in matters of taste, you will eventually find common ground with the equally nonjudgemental purveyors of mass culture." So redevelopment planners are at a disadvantage; "The 42nd Street Development Project was designed to make the block attractive to private developers, who would lease most of the space on the street. Public officials would establish design guidelines, but the marketplace would decide who would occupy the space. And the marketplace was going to supply the lowest common denominator." So we get Applebee's and Toys R Us instead of "authentic" businesses. Architect Kevin Kennon says, "The big problem that architects have faced is how to energize a public space. So much of what used to be public activity has now been superceded by television, the Internet, videoconferencing. You're trying to say that a life exists in the public realm that's not virtual; but because that virtual part of us is so ingrained in us, we have to work with it in order to reengage the real world." Traub goes on to elaborate; "So the task, in other words, was to revitalize that old sense of Times Square as an agora, a happy urban welter, even as entities like Morgan Stanley were turning Times Square into the central switchboard of the global information network - to harness the abstract, bit-stream world in the service of the face-to-face world that it seemed bent on eradicating."People call this kind of development process "Disney-fying" a place but there's great irony in that Disney's true involvement in Times Square redevelopment is one of the most "authentic;" Disney re-created the "archaic splendors of the New Amsterdam Theatre and has used it to present The Lion King, an exercise in avant-garde puppetry that has confounded the company's critics with its insistent modernity and its unmistakable stamp of individual authorship." Yet Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, says, "Personally, as a guy who supports the arts, works in the arts, spent my life doing it, for me personally to produce a play is very interesting, but when I think of what I need to do for the company, it makes sense to do things with a great return." Disney and Clear Channel (responsible for most of the Broadway tours) "face issues of scale that necessarily change their calculations; investments are not worth making if they can yield only a modest profit. And the imperative of mass appeal sharply limits one's options, in theater as in every other art form ... neither Clear Channel nor Disney is likely to nudge theatergoers every far from their comfort zone, because there's simply not enough money in discomfort."So art and profit will never meet. And the entertainment that will survive will be the one that stuffs the most money into people's pockets. And places like Times Square will always reflect that relationship between art, entertainment and profit. For better. Or for worse.And one can't help but wonder how our current ideas of populism will fare; perhaps someday, when populism is so virtual that there is no sense of carbon-based community, we'll feel nostalgia for the big touring musicals and Applebees because at least, back in the day, people got out of their houses and saw each other in the flesh once in a while. And then some urban planner will be tasked with recreating the suburban shopping mall as the great gathering place. And it will be decried as inauthentic because you just can't bring back Claire's and Target without making them a parody of themselves.Hmmm.

  • Straker
    2019-04-11 17:45

    Interesting, well-written history of New York's most famous public space. Published in the early 2000s, the book is a bit dated in spots (for instance much space is devoted to the opening of the Toys R Us Times Square flagship store, which closed in 2016) but certainly still worth reading.

  • Elizabeth
    2019-04-02 11:20

    This was impossibly dull. The story was so interesting but the writer focused on dull pieces and got caught up in his own tics. It was so difficult to get through as he droned on and on. Endless pages on Toys R Us for crying out loud.

  • Dwight Davis
    2019-04-15 12:29

    Really interesting take both on city planning, philosophy of the built environment, and a history of Times Square. Somewhat out of date now, but still a fascinating read.

  • Kathy Wojo
    2019-04-17 18:47

    Didn't keep my interest like I thought it would. Well researched, and if you are a fan of New York City this would be a great read. But for me I just couldn't stay interested.

  • Susan Olesen
    2019-03-29 10:30

    Okay, it’s out of date (2004) but it’s history, so it’s good until that point, and since most of the landmarks he talks about are still doing a thriving business, I’m not having a problem with it.Times Square, simply put, is the Icon of America itself, almost as much as the White House. For more than a hundred years, it has been the center of the world, the image people have when they think of New York, or Broadway, or important theater. This is where American standard songs were written (Grand Old Flag among them), where the careers of vaudvillians and early movie stars began, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, and so many, many more. The Ziegfeld Follies. Here is where the great American musical blockbuster began – West Side Story, Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Cats, Lion King. Here is where the sailors kiss the nurses at the end of the war. Here is where time itself starts, when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve (as it has since the early 1900’s), cheered on by upwards of two million people clogging the streets.Why here at 42nd Street? In 1904 Longacre Square (renamed Times Square) was one of the two pivotal hubs for the new underground subway. Eight thousand people passed through, making it ripe for marketing purposes. And market they did. Times Square bore the first lighted billboards (1894), and the first animated billboards (a monstrous 75-foot ad with a chariot race that had people clogging the streets to gawk at one-minute intervals). Lighted signs are such a part of the history and zeitgeist of Times Square that it is now a law that buildings in the square will have some type of lighted signage.For all its fame, Times Square has seen its ups and downs, from its heyday in the 20’s, when it roared with speakeasies, to the underworld of the 30’s, the movie and theater premiers of the 50’s and 60’s, to the dark decline to the sex shops and prostitution in the land of Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy in the 70’s and 80’s, and to its deliberate rebirth into a world mecca once more in the 90’s and 00’s. Traub spends time discussing the branding of Times Square, that Times Square itself is a commodity with a feel and an image, no different than a corporation. By installing such family-friendly stores as Disney and Toys R Us as mega-anchors, of high-end Marriotts and Lehman Brothers to show world-wide reach and financial power, “Times Square” cements itself as a destination contender. This was a strange idea, but it truly does work.My only complaint on the book, which was fascinating in some spots and a bit dull in others, was that Traub begins covering the theater district in detail, but then abandons it, discussing the fear of “Disneyfication” with plays like Beauty and the Beast and Lion King, but almost nothing about the resurgence of Broadway theater, so long a staple of Times Square. No mention of the record-shattering run of Cats. A little mention of the destruction of the Helen Hayes and some renovation of others, but theater disappears in the lights of Toys R Us, when, in reality, if you’ve ever tried to get desirable seats to a Broadway show, it really doesn’t. The theater brings the crowds who shop at the Toys R Us, who eat at the Hard Rock, who take pictures with the Naked Cowboy, and the tourist shoppers see the marquis and inquire if seats are available. The resurgence of the Broadway theater, almost undone by the advent of motion picture, is too important to be glossed over. A fascinating book, in all. I will be heading to NY in the next few weeks to check it all out, look for the landmarks he mentions, and put it all together in my head. So much more history than you realize.

  • Karen
    2019-04-21 13:25

    I really enjoyed this book, which traces the history of Times Square from its earliest beginnings to the era of redevelopment and "Disneyfication" in the 1990s. I was surprised to find myself liking the later, more contemporary chapters, just as much if not more as those on Times Square's early days. It seemed that perhaps Traub, a reporter at the NYT, was more engaged with the later chapters, for which he could do on-the-scenes research and interviews, than with the earlier ones, which were all, of course, based on historical records. Of course, NYC being what it is, much has changed again since Traub's book was written, but this doesn't really matter. For me, the best part of the book is following the whole sweep of change in Times Square and coming to an understanding of why things turned out as they did.

  • Dianne Landry
    2019-04-08 16:30

    Ah, Times Square, that wonderful, crowded, loud, gaudy centre of iniquity. The stories this place could tell! As someone who has spent many hours there (including one drunken New Year's Eve, don't ask) I can say that unfortunattely, Mr. Traub is not the man to tell them. His style is very plodding and just doesn't do one of my favourite places in the world the justice it deserves. Oh well, at least he tried.

  • Xander Ring
    2019-04-03 17:19

    This was a very good read.  A comprehensive and entertaining history of Times Square and through it a history of entertainment in America.  The chapters on the glory days and decline of this area are fascinating and entertaining.  I'll be in New York in a few weeks and I look forward to seeing Times Square with new eyes.  

  • Ty
    2019-03-27 14:18

    I went to school in Times Sq. during the twilight of its dirty days. I miss the grit and dirt and am blinded by the lights making TSQ the playground it was never meant to be. One thing that hasn't changed is how much the tourists annoy the fuck out of me

  • Lynne
    2019-03-27 18:17

    Too long. The history of Times Square is very interesting; the author should have limited the book to telling the stories rather than offering his opinions. It would have been helpful to include a map of Times Square. Photos, too.

  • Tom
    2019-03-26 11:30

    Absolutely boring, I cannot finish this.

  • G.
    2019-04-04 11:37

    A fast concise and fascinating history of 100 years of Times Square. Who new urban history could be so much fun.

  • Annene
    2019-03-30 16:42

    More like 2 1/2 stars. It's a fascinating subject, but the book is just not that well written.