Samuel R. Delany's latest book consists of two long essays. "Times Square Blue" is largely a memoir, about the street life and the porn theaters that used to exist in the vicinity of New York City's Times Square. "..Three Two One Contact: Times Square Red" is a more theoretical essay about the redevelopment of Times Square over the past decade and more. Both essays mix anecdote and analysis, though in different proportions. Taken together, the two essays make for an impassioned, and I think vitally important, socio-political argument. They also reflect obliquely and quite interestingly on many of the themes that animate Delany's various works of fiction.
Delany's concern over the current redevelopment of Times Square is the animating force behind both essays. In the past decade, there have been concerted attempts by the New York City government to "clean up" Times Square. The ostensible purpose of the cleanup is to make the area "safe" for tourists and families. What this means in practice is an organized campaign to put an end to the pornography, prostitution, and drugs that have traditionally been located in Times Square. This social agenda has been accomplished through a combination of police harassment and real estate development deals. The bars and movie houses have been closed down, and the buildings they were in have been in many cases destroyed. To replace these businesses and buildings, the city has turned the Square over to the "imagineers" of the Disney Corporation, as well as given tax breaks to encourage the construction of huge new office towers.
"Times Square Blue" is a wonderful evocation of the old Times Square of hustlers and beggars, sex shops and gay bars and porno movie theaters. Delany writes in detail about denizens of Times Square whom he has known-Ben the shoeshine man, Darrell the hustler, Hoke the bartender, and so on. Some of the folks he mentions have been destroyed by drugs or by AIDS, but many have managed to survive. They are all uncertain of their future, however, due to the changes being imposed on their neighborhood. By giving us uncondescending portraits of these people, Delany puts a human face upon what has been too often seen from the outside as the blight or scuzziness of Times Square.
The longest portion of the essay is about the gay cruising scene in Times Square's porno theaters. Delany writes tenderly and in great detail about sexual encounters he participated in or witnessed while frequenting these theaters over a span of thirty years. His disarming frankness, together with his zest as a storyteller, makes this section particularly moving. I don't think I have ever read any account of sex and sexual encounters (whether truthful or fictional, gay or straight or whatever) that has been so demystified-or perhaps I could better say, so clearheaded and refreshingly down-to-earth. Nothing in Delany's accounts is idealized by utopianism or burnished by nostalgia. But neither does anything ever appear sleazy or depraved (as is so often the case in sensationalistic accounts of sexual 'subcultures' written for outsiders). Delany implicitly rejects our culture's tendency to define sexuality, and especially non-heterosexual and/or non-monogamous sexuality, as being (whether for good or for ill) transgressive. Delany links sexual desire to the multifarious pleasures of the flesh and intellect, rather than seeing it (in the fashion of so many modernist and postmodernist visionaries) as a sort of metaphysical absolute. He is most of all concerned to underline the everydayness of a sex life that included multiple encounters with multiple partners in these venues. The emotional fulfillment and sense of community provided even by the most fleeting of these encounters is (or at least should be) not an extraordinary situation, but a basic experience of everybody's life.
This sense of everyday fulfillment and community is what links the first essay to the second. "…Three Two One Contact" takes the situation described in the previous essay as a kind of touchstone for a humane and democratic vision of urban life. Delany defends the fluidity, openness, and contact that he found in the old Times Square against the totalitarian sterility of the new one. The operative word here is contact. Delany sees the continual unexpected contact between strangers that continually occurs on big city streets as perhaps the most valuable amenity of urban life. For this notion of contact, he draws upon Jane Jacobs' classic text The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But he goes beyond Jacobs, by paying far greater attention than she did to issues of class and to the pressures of late capitalist economics. Delany's argument draws a contrast between the randomness of urban contact and the more structured web of connections that goes under the name of networking. He argues that the unplanned, serendipitous encounters of the former are humanly far more productive and valuable than the predictable but severely limited engagements offered by the latter. (Though he insists that both forms are in their own ways necessary and valuable, and warns us against adopting a rigid dualism that would maintain that contact is good and networking is bad, or that would fail to recognize the myriad hybrids and intermediate forms between them). And he warns us that the current renewal of Times Square, together with similar urban redevelopment projects in cities around the globe, threaten to eliminate most of our possibilities of contact, and leave the suburban sterility of networking as the only sanctioned form of social connection. The consequences are calamitous, for gays and lesbians in particular-since they have been historically compelled to fall back upon the fugitive pleasures of random contact for the want of any legally recognized alternative-and more generally for anybody who values a richer and more humane style of life.
My summary of Delany's argument does not do full justice to the richness of his book, to the wide variety of incidental topics he illuminates along the way. His use of the flexible "extended essay" format allows him to comment in passing on matters great and small, from an account of how the financing of monstrous new office building actually works, to some modest proposals about how spaces like the porno theaters of Times Square in the 70s and 80s might be made more accommodating to women. Nor do I have the space to give an adequate account of how these essays resonate with the concerns found in many of Delany's works of fiction, such as the "ambiguous heterotopia" of Trouble on Triton (1976) and the extended sexual narrative of The Mad Man (1994). I will just conclude by reiterating my sense that Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a courageous book, and a vital one in these troubled times.