New York has transformed wildly in the past three decades. The years in which living in the city was an excitingly terrifying experience, a climate in which punk rock and hip-hop could not only be created but thrive, are dead and gone. Nowhere is this fact more evident than on the island of Manhattan, New York's most affluent borough.
The wealthy have always sought shelter in certain pockets of the island—the Upper East Side, especially—and still do. The difference between the past and the present, however, is that the lower classes who used to bunk among them have been priced out of existence, fleeing Manhattan for more rent-stable waters. The more time that passes, the more intense the social stratification becomes. Hell, even Harlem is gentrifying.
Today, Manhattan is mostly devoid of terror (with the exception, of course, of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum). It now exists as an outdoor shopping mall for the bourgeoisie, a place where the poor are allowed entry so long as they retreat, via subway, by nightfall after spending the day cooking Chilean sea bass for investment bankers and selling high-end handbags to the wives of investment bankers.
Times Square, former den of sin and vice (and all the porno theaters the two concepts would imply), is located smack dab in the middle of it. Most deride it as a garish, shticky tourist trap, the kind of environment that appeals solely to Ed Hardy–sporting mouth breathers who wouldn't bat an eyelash at dropping $60 to slowly snail through rush-hour traffic on a double-decker bus in 90-degree heat. It is, to be sure, that. But it's also, at this point, the most honest, accessible part of the island. Let us now sing its praises.
Its Mediocrity is a Comfort
Times Square is, essentially, a chain restaurant containing multiple chain restaurants, surrounded by digital screens running advertisements for the chain-restaurant equivalents of news, products, and services. There is no subtlety, no nuance. Its complete and utter lack of sophistication lies in stark contrast to the intense over-sophistication of the area that surrounds it, a collection of high rises, wine bars, and Park Avenue plastic surgeons that the average person could never afford to patronize. There is comfort in its mediocrity. It is a safe place for safe ideas.
Everything's a Chain
From M&M's World to McDonald's, Forever 21 to Famous Footwear, enormous chains line Times Square like trees in a forest (albeit a forest of trees slathered in neon and Budweiser ads). Times Square isn't the only chain-laden part of Manhattan, though—far from it. The rest of the island, as rents rise, demographics change, and the rich get richer, has begun to chain up. But just because a multinational clothing manufacturer in Greenwich Village sells $200 jeans instead of chicken fingers doesn't make it any less a chain that Applebee's. The saving grace of Times Square's chains is their accessibility to people who can't afford $200 jeans.
It's Accessibly Exorbitant
I'm not saying that Times Square is the most reasonably priced tourist trap in the world. It is, after all, designed to bleed the vacationing laborer dry by over-charging for flavorless hamburgers served in over-air conditioned restaurants that are over-stuffed with pop culture memorabilia. But at least those hamburgers are within one's reach. It's stupid, but possible, for someone without a college education to spend $17.50 on a Big Bite Burger at Guy Fieri's (bowel-clenching) American Kitchen & Bar. It's not possible, however, for a person to buy a Chanel handbag in SoHo without blowing her entire life savings.
Guy Fieri Does, Indeed, Have a Restaurant There
Home of the Vegas Fries ("a throwback to Guy's UNLV days"), which come both pre-slathered in dipping sauce and with an additional dipping sauce (bleu-sabi, natch), Guy's American Kitchen & Bar is exactly as horrifically beautiful as you would imagine. Sliders, disgusting enough as they are, are inexplicably spelled in the menu with a Y (as in "Slyders"). The menu also touts "Awesome" pretzel chicken tenders, the quote of "Awesome" attributed to no one. Alcoholic drinks that taste like juice boxes, combined with the aforementioned foodstuffs, make you want to lie in a dark, cool room with your eyes closed and stop the world for a few hours. They facilitate mediation and quiet reflection, followed by soul-shattering defecation. They build character.
You Can Be Self-Employed For $0 Rent
With the average retail rent in Manhattan ranging from $300 to $500 per square foot, there's a reason why everything's a goddamn chain. While I don't necessarily agree with the aggressive selling techniques of the guys pushing self-manufactured rap CDs on unassuming tourists (nor do I care for their sexual harassment), I appreciate the fact that, in Times Square, they spend $0 per square foot of the sidewalk space on which they bully scared Midwesterners into purchasing $15 CD-Rs. The same goes for people who sell personalized nameplates with copyright-infringing art, unethically manufactured T-shirts with slogans like "I [Heart] New York" and "Cool Story, Bro," and pre-broken costume jewelry.
Depressing Mascots Teach Important Life Lessons
A beaten, broken, bootleg Elmo. A sighing Mickey Mouse, foam visage propped atop a human forehead. A beautiful but morose girl in a princess costume, slowly walking down 42nd. The existence of these depressing characters teaches children the important definition of pathos—that there is, in fact, an end to the rainbow. This lesson can also be learned in front of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre, but Hollywood Boulevard has far more bong and stripper-shoe stores than TGI Fridays, therefore making it infinitely less kid-friendly.
It's a Great Place to Read Awful News
The 24-hour news tickers inform you, in small bites, about the awful state of the world—what's happening in Gaza, what fucked up thing Putin did this Thursday, where the latest suicide bombing took place. What better reminder that you have it better than the majority of Earth's residents than to read this harrowing information while standing in front of the biggest Chili's you've ever seen?
It's Impossible to Walk Through
Nothing is more frustrating, yet also more interesting, than being stuck in a slow-moving stream of humanity. Forced to shuffle behind a shorts-clad family, the patriarch of which carries an enormous digital camera far beyond his technical skill around his neck, you not only slow down your body, you slow down your mind. Let the endless digital stimulus surrounding you flow over you like a tide. Give yourself over to the new nature.
Sure, You've Seen Sbarro, but Have You Ever Seen a MAMA Sbarro?
Unless you've been to Times Square, I believe the answer is no. Which makes Times Square an important social and cultural epicenter. Possibly the most important social and cultural epicenter.
Follow Megan Koester on Twitter.