I moved to New York City in the mid-90s. The clean-up of 42nd Street hadn’t begun yet, and it was a desolate strip of abandoned burlesque houses and working peep shows, straight out of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. I walk across 42nd Street now and see things like an Applebee’s and the Hello Kitty store and Chevy’s, and can barely remember what it was like a mere 15 years ago. I grew up visiting New York City and emerging into Penn Station, as a child, you would immediately be confronted with the cray-cray of the streets. Penn Station has also cleaned up its act, but I remember walking by the people lying on the floor, the insistent panhandlers, and the prostitutes over on 9th and 10th Avenue by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Part of New York’s appeal was that element. Well, we all know that element is mostly gone now, although remnants of it exist, but certainly not at the entranceways to the city. The greeting committees are gone. Even though, when I moved here, I was unaware of the plans for the new 42nd Street, I did sense that something was changing, something was coming, so I have many pictures of the falling-down fabulous buildings devoted to smut on that famous avenue. There are still some peep shows on 8th Avenue, but they no longer cluster together like they used to. The main peep show building has now been turned into a comedy club but (and perhaps this is just my imagination), the feel of smut lingers around it. An entire atmosphere cannot change overnight. The street itself seems to remember what used to be there.

I have to say, I miss the smut.

I didn’t move here to live in Disney-World.

If I have my camera on me, and I see remnants of the smut that used to be, I have to capture it.

Taken before dawn, when I was working at The TODAY Show and had to be at work at 6 a.m. You really see some shit when you’re in New York at that early hour.

This awesome building was one of my favorites in New York. It was torn down last year, and now a giant glittering “SHAKE SHACK” stands on that block, with lines of Broadway theatre-goers down the block. I am happy for my city’s economy, but boy I miss the grunge of that smutty building. My friend Hunter took me in there one night to go into the private booths where you could watch porn by feeding coins into the slot. No live girls, just movies. It was insane. I could hear Hunter’s laughter ringing from the next booth, because he imagined me in MY booth right next-door. I took this picture at 7:30 in the morning, so you can see the early rays of the sun hitting that old-school architecture. Eff you, SHAKE SHACK.

I took this photo below in the mid-90s when I first moved to New York, before the renovation of 42nd Street.

Here is what this block looks like now:

And here below are more old burlesque buildings. These were actually on 42nd Street proper, in between 8th and 7th, which is incredible if you look at the photo directly above. That’s what it looks like now. Here is what was there, mid-1990s:

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32 Responses to Smut

  1. Mr. Bingley says:

    Man, I remember those days. It’s amazing how much the city has changed.

    I remember visiting a friend in High School who lived in the Village and we walked around Washington Square Park on a Saturday afternoon…simple country bumpkin that I was am I was amazed by all the chemicals and services I was offered.

    I remember how frightening the Port Authority was.

    I much prefer the new NY.

  2. Mr. Bingley says:

    And, of course, thanks to your post title I’m now humming along to Tom Lehrer :)

  3. sheila says:

    Port Authority was very frightening. Total anarchy.

    I miss the smut. Not the crime, but the presence of smut. I’m glad I captured 42nd Street before it became the grotesque display that it is now.

  4. Mr. Bingley says:

    I am, too. My daughter has no idea what Times Square looked like then; I’ll show her these photos.

    Speaking as someone who was robbed at gunpoint and hogtied with duct tape in my office in the 90s, yeah, I don’t miss the crime either.

  5. sheila says:

    Ugh! Terrifying! How about the grafitti covered subways? Those were INSANE. I miss those, too, even though they added to the anarchic feeling of the city.

  6. Mr. Bingley says:

    It’s almost jarring now to see those subway cars in movies from that era, isn’t it?

  7. sheila says:

    Totally. Like: who let it go that far?? It looks so INSANE.

  8. Mr. Bingley says:

    It’s almost, I don’t know, cartoony looking, all that big Rubber Soul-esque writing.

  9. sheila says:

    It had completely taken over every inch of every subway, inside and out. Strangely beautiful, but also giving that lawless feeling – like no one is in charge here.

  10. kevin says:

    As I read the post, what came into my mind was the great scene in Defending Your life
    I’m the guy who came up with the phrase “All Nude”. How many days are you seeing
    23. – I love that movie.

  11. David says:

    Wow, Bill, Stacey & I were just talking about this very thing last night. Remember the time you, Jackie and Brooke went into the live, nude model booth together and watched those girls “working their way through college?”

  12. george says:


    I’m thinking ‘Hello Kitty’ and ’Shake Shack’ (whatever they are – must I get out more?) could stand as an oblique (or back of the hand) tribute to old 42nd Street.

    Speaking of ‘whatever that is,’ this is my first encounter with ’cray-cray’ – had to look it up – another Rhode Islandism – Eastern Seaboardism?

  13. sheila says:

    David – sadly, I was not there on that legendary night and I am still so upset about it, although I’ve heard every single side of the story possible.

    It really is amazing, the transformation – and how much I have gotten used to it!

  14. sheila says:

    George – No, I don’t think so. At my last job, everyone said “cray cray” and I think that’s where I picked it up. I enjoy the word. “Relax with the cray cray” my coworkers would say about this or that. It’s catchy.

  15. David says:

    What?! Why are you emblazoned in my memory as being there?! One too many tequila and ginger ales.

  16. roo says:

    I had a truly horryfying experience at a peep show in the days before the Disneyfying of 42nd street. There’s a long persion, but the short version is that she was very pregnant, you could see her bag and clothes tossed around the beige carpet around her, and in retrospect (though I knoew little of this at the time) she was probably on crack. AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!! My eyes! I just wanted a peep!

    Never again. And the punishment was the crime itself.

  17. Jen W. says:

    LOVE the black and white photos. Smutty gorgeousness.

  18. Mr. Lion says:

    God, a DKNY billboard. Now I feel old.

    What I miss most about “old” NY is actually the parking lots. There was a huge one at the corner of 42nd and 8th, and then another on 41st between 7th and 8th. Parked there thousands of times, walked a few hundred feet to work. All of that’s gone now, alas, but they had the same character as the porn shops.

  19. dg says:

    Nice pictures Sheila….brings back memories for me as well. I don’t necessarily miss the smuttiness of the old times square I definitely prefer it to freak show that is there now .Do you remember driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and being greeted by the crack heads trying to “clean” your windshield with a nasty old rag? We’d roll down the window a sliver and stick a quarter out and then they might leave your car alone. Port Authority…I distinctly remember getting off my morning bus, taking a few deep breaths and then hold my breath while I hustled to get down to the street.It was literally a toilet. I would then walk to my office on 34th street down 8th avenue-stepping over and walking around the strung out crackheads who littered the sidewalks. And the smut was everywhere…a crusty old vet who I worked with then used to come in and tell us what was playing at the gay porn theater he walked past to get to the building. “Hey Denny, Left-hand Larry is playing down the street”. And everytime I go near the Bryant Park now…the beautiful people, the fashion shows…just a few years earlier you wouldn’t walk past it after dark….crazy.

  20. sheila says:

    Mr. Lion – Yes, you are so effing right – the parking lots!!!! Wow. When the hell did they disappear??

  21. sheila says:

    David – I SO was not there, but I FEEL like I was.

  22. sheila says:

    Roo – Oh God. Yes, that is bleak bleak BLEAK.

  23. sheila says:

    dg – Yes, the windshield guys! Just standing there, and you had to deal with them – you were totally trapped. I am curious: how did they get rid of those guys? New laws? Crackdowns? Because they were there for DECADES and then, poof, gone.

    There are still some areas in New York where I hesitate to slow down to look thru my purse, or do anything except walk straight ahead – because some crazy person will immediately come up to me – but it is nothing compared to what it used to be.

    Amazing, huh?

  24. Pingback: Wasn’t this how Skynet started? | Blog of the Nightfly

  25. Noonz says:

    Jesus Christ, The Playpen is now a Shake Shack? In high school, I had a friend who lived around the corner from that place.

  26. Pingback: Tweets that mention Smut | The Sheila Variations --

  27. Pingback: New York’s Historical Smut

  28. dg says:

    Sheila, not to get all socio-economic on you but I remember when Giuliani ran for mayor and narrowly lost to Dinkins, he was talking about fighting crime from the street level up. People generally didn’t take him seriously. Four years later crime and the crack epidemic were so rampant(remember the “no radio” signs in car windows? A feeble attempt to prevent your car radio getting ripped off) that Giuliani was voted in and his first move was to bring in police commissioner Bratton and the first thing did was go after the windshield wiper guys and the graffiti guys. They were helped out massively by the ebbing of the crack epidemic as well and then Disney came into times square with “The Lion King” and the rest is history. Again I’m with you that the new times square is much more obscene than the old. And that’s saying something.

  29. sheila says:

    dg – very interesting. I think Malcolm Gladwell wrote about that process in one of his books, if I’m not mistaken. Maybe The Tipping Point. And they also decided to crack down on the turnstile-jumpers – I remember my days here as a teenager and how often people just jumped over the turnstiles without paying. Now, I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen that. It’s amazing, the cultural change.

    When you see crowds of people sailing over the turnstiles, it gives an atmosphere of lawlessness – and the law-abiding people are outnumbered – it’s a very strange thing. If everyone ELSE is jumping the turnstiles, and getting away with it, why can’t I?

    So by focusing on what are almost cosmetic problems, as opposed to deeper underlying issues, the SURFACE of New York became more welcoming – and less frightening … and therefore, other things could happen (like Disney in Times Square).

  30. blue girl says:

    Hey Sheila, Long time reader here. I miss the old New York too. But the even older NY than what you’ve written about here. The first time I went to the city was by myself, at midnight. Took a train from Queens to Penn Station and met a friend there who had moved to NYC the year before. This was in the early 80s. Long story. I was 18, in Queens from Ohio to sing in a wedding and skipped out on the rehearsal dinner evening to escape to the City I grew up loving in my imagination. I remember being afraid to do it and wanting to call someone from home for encouragement then thinking, Who would ever encourage me?! No one! They’d tell me I was nuts! Had a great time that night, though. And am so glad I did it. It was a great night and has always been a great memory. Not to mention a great story!

    I miss the grit, too. “Mean Streets” New York has always been the one most alive in my imagination.

    Also, check out this link about the Broken Windows Theory:

    Guiliani took the concept and ran with it.

  31. sheila says:

    Hi, bluegirl!

    As a teenager, I would come down to New York often (I had family here) and there was also the yearly Drama Club outing – which I seriously need to write about, since our “chaperone” would basically set us free for the entire day, and then we’d meet up at the theatre that night. This was also in the early to mid 80s. Like: WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?? Thank goodness nothing awful happened. But we would just ramble about the crazy streets, on our own, and it was a total blast!

    I have heard of the broken windows theory. I believe Malcolm Gladwell covered the “cleaning up” of New York in The Tipping Point (I have to check) – and the “cosmetic” things that Guiliani focused on FIRST. It really appears to have worked, in New York’s case.

  32. julian halevy says:

    I’ve been in New York for many, many decades and have seen it metamorphose again and again. The 1960’s, though, were in fact the wildest days, pure lovely fucking anarchy and sex everywhere, innocent and smutty at the same time. Of course, being in my twenties and newly released from suburban constraints helped. Rent was cheap, cheap, cheap and bohemia ruled the day. By the seventies the twin phenomena of smut and drugs overwhelmed the innocence, but being gay, especially, I didn’t mind the grungy sex venues which abounded everywhere. Eventually, I became staider but I maintained reprobate leanings and continued to enjoy the looseness and lewdness all around me. Giuliani’s attempts at sanitization were half-hearted because he himself was so corrupt, but Bloomberg embarked upon a steadfast program of bourgeoisification and…Voila! New York is the suburbs that I escaped from all those many years ago! So sad…

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