Times Square

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Horn & Hardart Automat Cafeteria, 146 W. 38 St. between Broadway and 7th Ave. (1986) (Image from 14to42.net)

David Freeland pulled in quite a crowd at the Tenement Museum the other night: standing room only in a room with no discernible air conditioning. I was a few minutes late and missed the opening comments, but I did catch him read from several chapters, including his finale for the evening — the conclusion to his chapter on Times Square automats and Depression-era labor disputes.

I enjoyed the other passages he read, to be sure, but the prose in this particular passage really moved me. He’d been talking about the chain of automats — automated restaurants, basically a huge selection of vending machines plus seating — that once populated the city. The original and most famous was Horn and Hardart’s, a Philadelphia import, which provided a cheap culinary centerpiece, the forerunner of fast food, for Times Square from the 1910s to the 1970s, when their locations were transformed into green-shingled Burger Kings, “an incongruous attempt,” Freeland writes, “to bring faux-suburban rusticity to the Crossroads of the World.” Oh, horrible harbinger of suburbanization to follow!

The chapter’s conclusion offers a glimpse inside the chain’s former location at 1557 Broadway, between 46th and 47th, where today you’ll find three-floors of tourist knick-knacks in a store called Grand Slam. You have to give Freeland props for being brave enough to venture inside looking for signs of the old automat, and find them he does:

[I]n the harsh overhead light of high-wattage lamps — the suspended, bowl-shaped kind used in gyms and cafeterias — it is possible to make out one more thing, battle-scarred yet remarkable for having survived at all. In the ceiling’s dead middle, clustered around the central pillar like a stalactite formation, twists a lovely design of blossoms and foliage, interspersed with tiny holes for the placement of incandescent bulbs. Then, on a perpendicular spot beside an air-conditioning grate, a rectangular patch of decoration — viscous and dripping like melted caramel — stands out against a bare white wall. Move back and the whole pattern becomes clear: it is what’s left of the Art Nouveau centerpiece unveiled [at the automat] that long-ago morning of 2 July 1912, ignored but not yet willing to disappear.

That last line seemed to sum up the argumentative and moral thrusts of Freeland’s project: a call to witness what surprising things remain — persistent, insouciant, repurposed, perhaps —  and to let that survival cheer you and move you to preserve more and more of the city’s quotidian past while we still can. Once a building’s gone, he warns, it’s really gone.

In the tradition of Ephemeral New York, here are a couple looks at an H&H postcard I found on line:

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Under the first, Flickr user Betty Blade wrote: “When I was a kid … I’d go wit my muddah to an automat (orw-dah-mat). She’d give me a fist fulla nickels and I’d run around and get what ever I wanted … as long as I was tall enough to reach.”

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25 years ago yesterday Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” debuted. Yesterday, 73 fans reenacted the dance at Madame Tussaud‘s in Times Square in an attempt to break the Guinness record for the most people to do the dance at once. Local ABC report, with video, here, and a nice account from the Times‘s City Room blog here. (Photo credit goes to the latter.)

Alas, the Times story contains the bad news that the record had already been broken  last weekend by a group of over 800 dancers in Austin, Texas, part of a worldwide  “Thriller” dance-off that included  over 4,000 people across the globe. The Texans, as the Village Voice‘s news blog snarked, “presumably [danced] with their thumbs in their beltloops.”

The full 13-minute original, which I tried to pretend I hated in the 8th grade but like everyone else was actually blown away by, is here (sorry, embedding disabled).

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