Marshall Berman’s 1982 classic of Marxist humanism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, hurtled through centuries of modern boom and bap, chasing elusive strains of Joycean street noise and shouting “the open way leads to the public square.” His new history of Times Square similarly thrills at the ways that the cubist-chaotic panopticon has allowed so many somebodies- from-the-multitude to realize themselves by passing through it—from Al Jolson to Lou Reed, billboard conceptualists to Benetton models, Sister Carrie to Carrie Bradshaw. It adds up to a Popular Frontin’ Broadway salute to the dialectical possibilities of mass-mediated democratic desire.
Berman, a CUNY professor and Nation contributor, finds his key image in “Times Girl,” from a 1903 cartoon postcard depicting a King Kong-sized babe-about-town bouncing her curves off the brand-new Times Building. It’s a primal scene, celebrating a hormonal surge of futurist progress and the luxury of insouciance. That heady idyll finds its dead-end Other in a violently sleazy ’70s, the sentimentalization of which Berman has little use for.
Between those poles, he finds his heroes in the messy space where aspirant, embattled, and resilient blur: Eastern European immigrant echt-adapter Betty Boop, the ubiquitous sailor and nurse sharing VJ-Day p.d.a., Ethel Merman wowing the Kennedy kids in Gypsy, Scorsese turning on the shot-out lights in Taxi Driver, and a trio of Christine Todd Whitman–esque corpo-dames working the Times Girl’s spirit into Rudy’s cleanup boondoggles.
Berman saves his most nuanced sweetness for a chapter on “living inside the deal,” pumping our ability to make meaning of the Square as a kiln of Godzilla capitalism. “If the Square’s two great elements are people and light, both look great today,” Berman writes. A few pages later, he gives an account of being personally booted off the sidewalk at Broadway and 42nd by an overzealous Reuters Building security guard (damn you, dialectic!). And even if popwise ruminations on Tupac, TRL, and Chappelle’s Show can feel a little like cranking “The Laffy Taffy” at a Dissent office party, that’s just part of Berman’s bull-hearted genius. He’s always looking for new ways to open squares.