Stand in the middle of Times Square today and it feels like a cross between Disney World and the Mall of America. A few blue video stores are still scattered in amongst the glittering array of retail choices, but between the bustling crowds loaded down with brightly colored shopping bags and the giant neon crustaceans floating above chain restaurants, it’s a tourist’s paradise (or nightmare, depending on your opinion of crowded sidewalks).
It wasn’t always so. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, Times Square was shorthand for drugs, prostitution and the general urban decline that gripped the city in those days. Crime was rampant and families and young professionals fled the city, and that was before crack hit the streets. Bad times, however, can breed good movies: The French Connection followed New York narcotics detectives trying to track down a huge shipment of heroin, and is one of the crowning glories of early ’70s cinema. On a lighter note, Ghostbusters is a take back New York tale packaged as a comedy; the supernatural stands in for the soaring crime rate. Even more fun, though, is John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.
In the movie, Manhattan has been sealed off as a prison filled with
roving gangs of criminals sentenced to life terms. When the president’s
plane is hijacked and he crash lands on the island, criminal Snake
Plissken (Kurt Russell) is offered a deal: Rescue the president and
leave Manhattan a free man. Oh, and the year is 1997. It’s a semi-post
apocalyptic world we’re dealing with here: The rest of the country
remains intact, but New York is a smoking ruin. Plissken wouldn’t
recognize Times Square of today — although it seems likely that he
might enjoy lunch at Hooters — but the movie is all the more enjoyable
for the New York apocalypse that never happened.