Thanks to Chris Graham at the Story Reading Ape for publicizing the #newrelease of my latest book, Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen. The Story Reading Ape is well-known to writers for writing tips and profiles of authors. Chris has also designed book covers. A very versatile ape!
The city and state proposed a complete makeover of Times Square, the world-famous intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue with 42nd Street. The redevelopment would run from that crossroads along West 42nd Street to Eighth Avenue. The project rode on the back of eminent domain, along the way razing the Times Tower and raising office towers on 42nd Street. The blighted, crime-filled area would be transformed into a shining mecca of entertainment and corporate wealth.
In our view, the massive project was a spear aimed at our neighborhood.
It would drive up real estate values, increase tenant harassment, and potentially force out low, moderate, and middle-income residents. Even though there was a specific zoning district, the Special Clinton District, restricting high-rise development in most of Hell’s Kitchen north of West 42nd Street, speculators and unscrupulous landlords would seize this opportunity to turn the neighborhood into towers of condo-heaven.
Barbara Glasser, Rob Neuwirth, and a few others started the Clinton Coalition of Concern. Jim Condeelis and I were at the first brainstorming meeting at HCC.
The Times Square project, we agreed, would place a great deal of pressure on our low-rise, working-class, and middle-class neighborhood.
“They won’t stop at Eighth Avenue. Developers will want to build here in our neighborhood.”
“Landlords will harass people out of their apartments so they can sell their buildings unoccupied.”
“They’ll try to change the zoning and get rid of the Special District.”
Our objections to the redevelopment project itself went down different avenues. We agreed that eminent domain should be used for the general good, but what is “the good” in this case? The people who would benefit were the already wealthy. Property was being taken from one group of private owners and given to another. Perhaps in several ways this was an illegal use of eminent domain.
The group decided to hold a public rally to inform people about the project and its impact on the neighborhood.
On June 27th, the Clinton Coalition of Concern held a speakout and 150 people came, as well as Ruth Messinger, Councilwoman for our district, and Andrew Stein, the Manhattan Borough President. The state’s Urban Development Company (UDC), one of the lead agencies, sent people. I took charge of the sign-in table, handing out literature and asking people to sign a petition opposing the project.
Richard Burton had replaced Anthony Hopkins in “Equus” on Broadway. On February 20, 1976, they met at the theater.
People waited in the soft glow outside the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street. About twenty after six, Tony Hopkins, his wife Jenny and a friend of theirs came down the sidewalk in the murky darkness from Eighth Avenue. He went into the theater, virtually unnoticed. He looked at me, but made no sign of recognition. He looked serious and I thought later, I did not see him smile all evening. More like he was making a long trek after the war in a Tolstoy novel. I was happy for him that he was going to meet Burton and could imagine he would be wondering how it would go with the old lion of the theater, and at the same time, Tony had an aggressive reaching-out quality and could assert his own personality and identity.
Barricades lined a path to the stage door. Richard Burton came out and the TV news people turned on their lights, sudden brilliance in the winter darkness along the street. The small crowd surged toward him. The TV people stayed and so did the police, so the crowd did, too. I decided to get out of the way and stood behind the crowd against the theater wall. Burton signed autographs and went back inside.
Almost an hour later, Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine drove up. The chauffeur jumped out and announced to the police that he was “bringing her in in a minute.” He opened the back door and four or five policemen gathered around her and swept her toward the stage door. The barricades were pushed aside by their rush and the crowd fell back, pressing me and several others against the wall. We were off our feet for a few seconds. People yelled, “Help,” and “Back up” and me, “Hey, watch it.”
Once she was inside, the crowd broke up quickly. Tony came out the stage door. He walked past me without a word. I walked away, tired of celebrities. Next thing he was standing beside a limousine. He reached toward me, taking my hand, with a look as if he were holding onto a lifeline.
He said he would be at the theater again tomorrow at 5:30.
I nodded and stepped back, wondering if he was going to get into that limousine. He’d said that was the life he didn’t want.
I couldn’t look. I was thinking, please don’t get into that limousine. I wanted to say to him, run free. Run as fast as you can.
And I did not look. I walked through Times Square mixing with the late-night weirdos and freaks and savored my freedom. Did he envy me that? At the same time, he was making use of his freedom, good use, more productive than I was I had to admit, to invent his own destiny.
I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog.
Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake
Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?
Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.
So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.