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

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Synopsis

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 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?


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About James Traub

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JAMES TRAUB has been writing about the politics, culture, characters, and institutions of New York City for twenty-five years. Currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, he has also served as a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written for the country’s leading publications in fields as diverse as foreign affairs, national politics, education, urban policy, sports, and food. He is the author of two books with New York City settings—one on the Wedtech scandal of the mid-1980s, the other on City College of New York. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and son.From the Hardcover edition.
 
Published December 18, 2007 by Random House. 336 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

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Kirkus Reviews

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On the hundredth anniversary of the naming of Times Square, journalist Traub (City on a Hill, 1994, etc.) traces the colorful history of America's premier theater district and appraises its most recent makeover by Disney and other global corporate brands.

May 20 2010 | Read Full Review of The Devil's Playground: A Cen...

Publishers Weekly

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The first part of Traub's learned cultural history focuses on Times Square (originally Longacre Square before it was renamed in 1904) when it was the center of New York's—and the nation's—entertainment industry.

| Read Full Review of The Devil's Playground: A Cen...

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