8TH AVENUE, Hell’s Kitchen

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Your webmaster will say it right away: I’m not a porno fan and have never bought a magazine, frequented the video shops or the theatres when the Deuce was in full putrescence. Not even the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. Why not? Well, there’s that objectification of women thing, though many women have no problems being objectified. Even the most serious or family-fare actresses have done cheese cake shots, after all.

No, I think it’s down to pure bitterness: after all, the women in Playboy or FHM wouldn’t give me the time of day if they were carrying grandfather clocks. So, why should I pay to see them?

All that said: I don’t mourn the Deuce’s old status as the sleaziest spot, the chlamydia capital, of the whole USA. I don’t miss the risk of being ripped off or mugged.

But, I’m not a fan of the whitewash that has been perpetrated on the New 42 since 1997, when even the tamest of the Deuce’s old “delights” was expunged in favor of Chevy’s and Madame Tussaud’s. You can’t tell me there isn’t a place in the world for a burlesque house in the Center of the Universe. I mean, IHOP is on its way! I decided to walk down 8th Avenue from Madison Square Garden’s rear end to Columbus Circle, where some of the old sleez remains, just as in days of old…

…so prepare for a page Travis Bickle would enjoy. For the most part it’s work safe.

8th and West 31st, left, and 8th and West 34th, right. For the past decade or so, any business loudly proclaiming that it sells DVDs sells pornographic DVDs. This area actually stretches south to about 26th Street.

Bickford’s was a chain of NYC restaurants; the franchise was pretty much dormant by the 1960s. There’s a Bickfords franchise in New England but I do not know if there’s a connection.

8th and West 38th: According to Jim Naureckas’ New York Songlines, “this 1903 Art Noveau building was designed by Emery Roth, architect of the San Remo (whose firm later designed the World Trade Center). It was at one point an actor’s hotel.” Other Roth buildings are 6th Avenue’s Warwick Hotel, the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South, and the Beresford on Central Park West.

When I photographed the building a few years ago, the corner store had a plain blue awning, but now it has a glorious “DVD Lingeries” red and yellow sign. Is it only in NYC that electronics and women’s underwear are sold in the same space? And what would Emery Roth think?

Not sure if S&G Gross, pawnbroker “est. 1901″ is still in business on 8th near West 34th.

Two more corner scenes, 8th and West 38th.

8th and West 40th. In the shadow of starchitect Renzo Piano’s new New York Times tower: XXX DVD, a psychic and a pawnbroker. The Port Authority bus terminal is also nearby.

Show World Center, 8th Avenue just north of West 42nd Street, opened in 1977, the year the Bronx burned, David Berkowitz* went on a killer rampage, NYC had a searing heatwave and accompanying blackout, and the Mets dumped Tom Seaver. It was also possibly the year the Deuce peaked in ignominy, though some say that didn’t really happen till the 1980s. After an abortive run at legitimacy, Show World is back to doing what it has always done so well.

*Berkowitz runs his own webpage from prison, which I am not linking to. This is a strange period in history.

A description from 1994: Show World Center is a four-story monument to New York’s thriving retail sex industry. On display in the lobby’s window is a clipping from The New York Times describing the center as “the McDonald’s of sex.” Inside, men stroll through a room lined with movie peep booths that look like confessionals. Hidden speakers blast Madonna’s voice: “Let your body move to the music.” Customers are hit by the smell of strong disinfectant, used throughout the shop to clean the floors in the booths. USA Today

We’ve seen the old Cameo Theatre before, on ForgottenTour 12 in Hell’s Kitchen: The Playpen Theatre is notable for being the former Cameo. A close inspection reveals two female figures above the door, one holding a film canister and the other, a camera. These could be playful depictions of Greek mythological Muses, though there was no Muse of Photography, of course. The Playpen neon sign still shows the Twin Towers.

Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s Deuce primer, “Sleazoid Express,” described the Cameo-Playpen thusly:

The Cameo was located down-and-dirty right on what was known in the mid-1970s as the “Minnesota strip.” The boulevards of sexual and financial needs collided here, attracting underage runaways like moths to a flame. It was a block so deep-fried in its own gristle that it was held up nationwide as a pinnacle of American degeneracy, a sexual Bermuda triangle where porn, exploitation filmmaking, and prostitution were likned together. It was a point of infamy in American archeology.

The Cameo was owned by Chelly Wilson, the ipsissimus of Times Square’s pyramid of pornographic film producers, exhibitors, and directors. She had an illustrious pedigree in the history of bottom-drawer exploitation film, bringing the world everything from black-and-white softcore straight movies to gay hardcore movies. a Greek emigré, Chelly named her theatres after love-characters from Hellenic mythology, such as Venus, Eros and Adonis….

During the 1972-1977 porno-chic era, the Cameo’s kinky fare drew elbow-to-elbow crowds of voyeur film lovers, who ran to the theatre before any loathsome hack censor’s scissors could whittle down their kicks. Despite the chaotic atmosphere inside the theatre and outside on the street, appreciative crowds always packed in for premieres of films like Alex de Renzy’s sado-scatalogical “Femmes de Sade”…

Sleazoid’s “porno-chic” reference probably refers to the 1972 Brando vehicle “Last Tango In Paris,” thought to be a breakthrough in its time. Your webmaster saw it a few years ago and was repulsed by the Brando character’s insufferable callousness. A few years after its release, Harry Reems from “Deep Throat” turned up at my school, St. Francis College, to talk about his conversion to Christianity. Only my friend Jack Killcommons, who passed away a few years later, had any pointed questions for him.

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York: apparently, the Playpen and its co-tenant, the Funny Store, have screamed their last screams.

Near the Cameo: Ladies’ World and Paradise Alley. What came first, the store or Kevin Baker’s novel? Or the 1978 Stallone vehicle? Or perhaps the bar on 150th Street and 41st Avenue in fab Flushing? The Philly bar/restaurant? The phrase tends to crop up.

According to Naureckas, Smith’s, at West 44th and 8th, opened in 1954. Its glorious neon sign in red and green blazes brightly at night.

In New York City’s Best Dive Bars, Wendy Mitchell describes it…

The Irish bartender was incredibly welcoming, even if the crowd mostly kept to themselves. The regulars just sort of grunted to one another, but after a few hours of drinking, you could be their next buddy. That is, if you can stomach the stench coming out of the men’s room and the musical accompaniment of Was Not Was’ “Walk the Dinosaur.”

8th and West 46th. This emporium has been known as the Pleasure Palace in the past but now is DVD Palace.

For you out of towners, note the photo. This is pretty much how NYers cross the street: notice how everyone is looking right for oncoming traffic instead of straight ahead at the don’t walk sign (the Man and the Hand). When the traffic thins out, they will cross.

McHale’s was a neighborhood dive on West 46th and 8th that unfortunately, your webmaster never entered. It has been replaced by the massive multimillion $$$ Platinum NYC condominiums. (photo left from September 2000)

The Platinum ad campaign is a reminder that firms, especially in midtown Manhattan, are sometimes using what approaches softcore porn to attract attention — thereby subtly returning the area to what it once was. (I’ll explore this further on a future remnants of 42nd Street page.)

Meanwhile, across the street from where McHale’s used to be, we learn that the Collins Bar, with its great Moderne sign and circular neon sign, closed shortly after your webmaster shot these photos in June 2007. Here are some views from the last night; we hope the comely bartenders find work elsewhere.

The whole block containing the Collins and DVD Palace has been purchased for development. Old-timey neighborhood bars don’t fit in the developers’ vision for midtown Manhattan; only high rise towers do.

The death of the Collins also spells the end for Nilupul Video as well as Xtremes.

An impressive panoply of signage on 8th between West 46th and West 47th.

8th and West 47th: Your webmaster was scuffling a couple years ago (I tend to scuffle every few years) and was thinking of joining Grey Lines as a tour guide. Then I realized that there’s a reason I only do a limited number of ForgottenTours a year, and the thought of giving one or two every day sounded a bit tiring.

Another porn palace disguising itself somewhat as a dancewear and lingerie emporium.

At about West 50th, where the third iteration of Madison Square Garden (till 1968) and Worldwide Plaza is now, the sleez falls away and 8th Avenue becomes respectable. Odd that Gershwin Way is on West 50th, since the George Gershwin Theatre is located on 222 West 51st Street. Not only did the Knicks and Rangers play here for years, but Marilyn Monroe sang John F. Kennedy “Happy Birthday” at MSG in 1962:

Your webmaster rang up #50 this very week, without a similar celebration.

I was attracted to the Sosa Borelli storefront since it uses the underused Bodoni typefont.

I’m straying from “the mission” just a bit by finishng the 8th Avenue walk by discussing two well-known buildings, but here goes.

The photo, depending on your point of view, looks like a future dystopic or utopic rendering of Manhattan’s future. The Hearst Tower, completed at 8th Avenue between West 56th and 57th Streets in 2006 by Lord Norman Foster, the innovative British architect, marked the final completion of the Hearst Magazine Building, begun in 1927 by George Urban and George Post. The original 6-story building had a massive foundation since it was always assumed a skyscraper would be built on top of it, but the Depression ended the plans for several decades.

The tower, whether you enjoy the design or not, is one of the most innovative buildings in recent memory. Emporis:

- No vertical steel beams are used above the base. This is the first such case in any North American steel-framed skyscraper.
- Light sensors in the building measure the amount of natural light coming in, and automatically minimize the usage of electric lighting inside.
- A system on the roof collects rainwater and, instead of directing it into the sewer system, uses it to water plants throughout the building and to replace moisture lost through air conditioning.
- A three-story water feature named “Icefall” courses through the grand atrium inside the entrance. The sheet of flowing water is supplied by the rainwater collection system, and helps to humidify and to chill the lobby.
- Interior walls are kept to a minimum in order to maximize penetration of natural light throughout the building.
- Three parallel escalators slice diagonally across the “Icefall” in the lobby, from the ground floor to the corner of the mezzanine.
- Each of the four-story triangles (known as the ‘diagrid’) on the facade is 54 feet (16.5 meters) tall.

The original building married classical forms with the burgeoning, streamlined Art Deco style. I refer to the novel often, but the original Hearst Magazine Building seems to epitomize the struggle between the traditional forms espoused by the mentors and collegaues of Howard Roark, and the innovative styles he wishes to create in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

Only this exterior portion remained after the insides were gutted during the construction of the Hearst Tower from 2002-2006.

Of more elderly vintage is Gaetano Russo’s Columbus Circle monument, dedicated in 1892, 400 years after Christopher Columbus’ three ships arrived in the New World.

The monument consists of a statue of Columbus posed on a column mounted on a base surrounded by fountains; an allegorical figure depicting the Genius of Discovery stands on the base. Both Columbus and the latter figure are carved of Carrara marble. Bronze elements include two bas-reliefs portraying Columbus’s journey, as well as an American bald eagle and lotus-shaped cresting. In addition, bronze ships’ prows and anchors adorn the granite column. The surrounding fountains, designed by Douglas Leigh, were inspired by water displays in Rome. A gift from the Delacorte Foundation, the fountains were dedicated on Columbus Day, October 12, 1965. NYC Parks

At right, Momo Sushi has crafted an unusual red and black facade at 8th Avenue and West 56th Street.

A view from the lobby at Time Warner Center. Topped by a pair of towers reaching 69 stories in height, it is the corporate seat of Time Warner, the cable empire, and houses multimillion-dollar apartments as well as upscale shops and restaurants. It replaced the New York Coliseum (1954-2000), which had suffered for years after the Javits Center replaced it as the city’s convention capital; and earlier than that, the rococo Majestic Theatre (1902-1954).

As the NY Times’ Christopher Gray noted as far back in 1987, a twin-towered project was on the drawing boards to replace the Coliseum.

The momentum is definitely turning against 8th Avenue’s old strongholds of sleez, and the dive bars, the video shops, the peeps, the pawnbrokers, would seemingly have only a few years left, if that long, as money pours into Manhattan’s west side. But are we only a lengthy recession away from the resurgence of the raincoat brigade?

The number eight looks like two balanced zeroes or infinity turned right side up. The Chinese say 8 is the luckiest number.

8/25/07

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