PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Where the Ball Drops: Days and Nights in Times Square

by Daniel Makagon

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004

304 pages. Halftones, map, notes, and index

$29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8166-4275-3

Where the Ball Drops opens at a spatiotemporal apex: the “crossroads of the world” at the dawn of the millennium—in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 1999. Looking out at the Ball and down at the crowd from the thirty-first floor of the Conde Nast Building, Daniel Makagon is afforded a privileged bird’s eye view of the Square. Yet he is drawn to the streets below, torn between the distanced view of the observer and the desire to be part of the excitement and chaos on the ground. This dichotomy runs throughout the book, as Makagon balances his roles as detached scholar and engaged ethnographer.

Skillfully weaving together a rich historical view of Times Square with descriptive prose in which he serves as an embodied tour guide, Makagon offers insight into the political and cultural circumstances that shaped, and continue to shape, diverse views of Times Square. He describes a battle of images—both real and idealized—held by the business owners, politicians, residents, and tourists who have an interest in the Square. He notes that these “conflicting visions of the Square and expression of those dreams in the public sphere have remained a primary feature of Times Square’s culture” (71). As the Square has served as an iconic public space for more than a century, Makagon asks what Times Square represents, and for whom. There are various answers to these questions, and the multiplicity of meaning is perhaps the clearest answer to be found.

Underlying much of Makagon’s study is the question of whether one should lament the loss of the gritty, seedy Times Square and its replacement with a new kind of public space that is primarily driven by consumerism and the entertainment industry. Yet, as Makagon argues, the Square has always been a center of consumer culture and entertainment, and these are forces that motivate tourists to visit. The built environment itself provides evidence: “In fact, Times Square tells us why people come to the district. We see the reasons in the physical markers. People come for entertainment, to bathe in the bright lights, and to see and be seen. Democratic impulses rarely dictate who comes to the Square, when we arrive, or who we want to be once we get there. Instead, advertising shapes our sense of self” (8). Of course the neon-lit spectacle that is Times Square is inevitably formed by advertising. The consumer culture and entertainment that gives this space its iconic status draws tourists and residents alike. The powerful influence of advertising that we encounter in everyday life is heightened in Times Square, in part because of the enormity and ubiquity of advertising images that depict standards for beauty and pleasure. If one travels to Times Square seeking an experience of the good life, one is surrounded by exemplary models of it.

Where the Ball Drops is a scholarly exploration with a journalistic style, reminding the reader almost nostalgically of Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe. As he points out in the introduction, Makagon is “working within a tradition of writing that strives to place the reader in the scene” (xx-xxi), drawing on the practices of New Journalism. It is not difficult, however, to find the acute observer and scholar in the author’s self-presentation as “just a guy” on the street. This duality serves the book’s project well, as a detached perspective would deny the reader access to everyday life in Times Square. Yet the casual man-on-the-street perspective can at times be off-putting. Each chapter begins with journalistic-style reporting from the streets, such as the description of a late night fight that opens the book’s introduction: “It was after 2 a.m. and I heard a sound from across the street: puuhhhhhh. I looked up and heard it again. Puuhhhhhh. A white man in his early thirties wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans punched another white man who was shirtless and wearing shorts” (xi). Such visceral descriptions indicate at times that Makagon is at his best as a cultural critic rather than a reporter.

In Chapter One, Makagon uses the New Year’s Eve celebration to lay out the conflicts that mark Times Square, particularly the desire to impose order and constrain the movement of people that is endemic to the New Times Square. Through the lens of his own experience, Makagon notes that these controls are marked by ethnicity and class, as the desire to create a glittering and clean public space entails efforts to clear out the presence of “undesirable” individuals and groups.

The second chapter, “Looking for Ghosts,” is primarily historical in nature, elucidating changes in the Square from the establishment of the theater district to the official naming in 1904 when the New York Times moved its headquarters to the new Times Tower, through the changes in Times Square resulting from Prohibition, the Depression, post-war affluence, the development of the Square’s sex industry in the 1960s, and finally the Disneyfication that turned Times Square into a family-friendly forum. Each of these transformations continues to influence how Times Square is perceived as public space, particularly in terms of the nostalgic sensibility that marks tourism districts with historical appeal.

Chapter Three looks closely at the recent transformation of Times Square. Interviews with members of the Guardian Angels, local residents and workers, and community leader Jim McManus, among others, are supplemented with archival news coverage and theoretical framing. The merging of ethnographic work and critical cultural research highlights the complex cultural practices of Times Square. Makagon argues that the New Times Square is “formed by an intricate relationship between the material (people, public parks, buildings, bridges, streets, and museums) and the symbolic (films, photographs, television shows, and advertising)” (99). As such, Times Square can be understood as not only physical space but also a rhetorical and ideological construction. The material transformation of the Square depends on rhetoric and ideology to draw visitors back to spend their leisure time and money.

In Chapter Four, Makagon interrogates Times Square’s status as “the crossroads of the world,” looking at historical and contemporary influences that contribute to the Square’s iconic reputation. He examines the flows of information into and out of Times Square that continually work to reinforce its cultural prominence. Of particular interest are the various ways Times Square is represented on television—by networks who leverage the streetspace to demonstrate their cultural centrality, from the annual New Year’s Eve broadcasts to Good Morning America, and from MTV’s Total Request Live to The Late Show, where David Letterman lends celebrity status to some of the Square’s local characters. These deployments simultaneously affirm the significance of Times Square and the programs broadcast from it.

Chapter Five is aptly titled “The Vibe,” as Makagon works to articulate “the diverse and, at times, conflicting characteristics that contribute to the overall feel of urban life” in Times Square (162). What makes Times Square come alive, and to what ends? The combined effects of excitement and anxiety certainly contribute to the vibe, as does the diversity in age, ethnicity, and culture among those who occupy the Square. Makagon offers examples through a recounting and analysis of his experiences as a participant-observer in Times Square.

In the final chapter, Makagon returns to Times Square post-September 11, and stands with others on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks to watch the reading of the names broadcast on the Astrovision screen at One Times Square. His interests here are focused on yet another shift in the nature of Times Square, and whether that moment of patriotic expression allows for the feeling of community he has always sought there. He concludes that there is “a new ground zero, and New Year’s Eve is no longer the most important date in New York City, but Times Square continues to be the place to look for clues about the city’s priorities and the methods used by individuals to continue the healing process” (199).

While primarily a focused study of Times Square, Where the Ball Drops is also an exploration of the cultural, economic and interpersonal forces shaping urban life in the United States. Makagon argues that Times Square can serve as a mirror for other cities and towns, yet it is a mirror that is always brighter, more crowded, and more diverse (156).


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