"Down 42nd Street" is a path I walk five days a week. It has been enjoyable to watch the stunning metamorphosis of this grand boulevard over the past decade or so. It was, therefore, with eager anticipation that I picked up this new history of 42nd Street.
On one level, it was an enjoyable read, offering illuminating anecdotes such as the encampment of George Washington's troops on the grounds of what is now the New York Public Library during the pivotal Battle of New York. In the 19th Century, the site would house the Croton Reservoir colossus. On the adjacent property, the Crystal Palace pavallion -- featuring the tallest structure in New York at the time -- became the City's premier social gathering place until it burned down while firefighters futilely tried to draw ground-level water from the high-walled reservoir. The demise of the Crystal Palace would clear the way for the development of Bryant Park on this site in the period after the Civil War.
The book is loaded with fascinating tidbits like these for people who enjoy history.
A good portion of the book is devoted to the spreading hegemony of illicit drugs, pornography and crime on West 42nd Street in the period after World War II, and the reclamation of the street in the 1990s. This is where "Down 42nd Street" falls down. The author -- an entertainment writer -- presents several misstatements that seriously tarnish his narrative. At one point, he asserts that Olympia & York owned Rockefeller Center -- hugh?? -- and contends that in 1981, "Governor" Cuomo dropped his opposition to the selection of a lead developer after Mayor Koch hinted at challenging the "Governor" in 1982. (Cuomo did not become Governor until 1983 following a primary challenge from Koch in the fall of 1982! Don't they employ factcheckers at Warner Books?)
The storyline really becomes muddled when describing the sequence of events in Times Square in 1990s, and it is clear that the author is out of his element here. He creates the appearance that the Conde Nast Building was the last of the four "elephant legs" in the 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan to be built. It was the first. He has Morgan Stanley purchasing its headquarters on Broadway and 49th Street AFTER the groundbreaking on the "elephant legs" when, in fact, the purchase pre-dated the Conde Nast groundbreaking by at least two years. He has Bertelsmann -- a true Times Square pioneer -- moving into its Broadway headquarters in 1999, about five years late. The list could go on.
These factual flaws diminish what started out as an enjoyable history. Caveat Emptor.