Wed
Jul 21 2010 5:44pm
Sex and Urban Planning: Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a very odd book indeed. It’s two linked essays about the destruction of New York’s old Times Square and the loss of its gay porn cinemas. Very few people would see losing an area consisting largely of porn cinemas as a bad thing, but Delany does, and he makes a consistently interesting case for their existence as a positive thing. It isn’t always comfortable reading, but it’s certainly thought-provoking. The world does not contain much examination of the role of casual sex in a culture, and here Delany not only examines it but links it to theories about urban planning, about contacts vs networking, and about formal and informal relationships.

I first read this book because I am a completist and will read any prose Samuel Delany writes that doesn’t make me physically ill. I read it again now because I was thinking about the ways cities work. If you write science fiction or fantasy and you’re interested in putting together a city, this is vital.

Whenever I read any of Delany’s recent non-fiction or mainstream fiction, I enjoy it but wish he’d come back to writing SF. I understand from his Locus interview that his next book will be SF. I can hardly wait. The thing is that he’s an interesting observer, his speculations are fascinating, I’m interested when he writes about himself, his city, or people in the real world, but I enjoy his writing best when it’s set in a matrix of science fiction—his science fictional worlds are the best.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is mostly fascinating because Delany is talking about things people mostly avoid talking about. Sex often gets talked about in very conventional ways. Here he’s talking about encounters in a sexual context—people he met in and around the cinemas who may have been hustlers or just people, with whom he may have had sex or just conversation. The boundaries between kinds of encounters are blurred. At one moment he’s talking about Jane Jacobs’s theories about the way cities work and mothers meeting in the park, at the next he’s talking about how this parallels the social expectations of sex and conversation in the cinemas.

This book is probably an interesting social memoir for gay men who used to go those cinemas or others like them in other places. It’s not just AIDS that’s ended their era but changing expectations, which Delany deplores. He talks about both AIDS and expectations, and most of all about sex and community and the way sex and desire shape community—and of course, the way revulsion from certain kinds of sex are shaping the city. This is an elegy for a place and an era that were ending as he wrote.

For me it’s a report from something I’ve never encountered. If you’re a straight woman there isn’t anything remotely like this—so it’s interesting and also weird. Delany does talk about ways of setting up a situation like that for women, where sex wouldn’t be a commodity but a set of quirks you could safely match. In the utopian Triton, it’s like that for everyone. I don’t know if I’d like it—but I don’t know. I’ve never had the chance to find out, and I doubt I ever will.

Real cities have areas like this, and cities in SF and fantasy very often lack them, which is something worth thinking about, whether or not we want to explicitly send our characters there.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

18 comments
Noneo Yourbusiness
1. Longtimefan
"Real cities have areas like this, and cities in SF and fantasy very often lack them, which is something worth thinking about, whether or not we want to explicitly send our characters there."

It is intersting that in any era sexual attraction is a large part of social networking and in some social groups it is woven together more tightly than in others.

As far as exploring the concept in fiction because it has a counterpoint in reality I think one of the difficulties comes from real life having an age limit on such information.

People may not limit themselves in personal interactions based on wether or not something is "age appropriate" but publishers and other commercial interests have local, state and federal regulations on what is appropriate for general consumption and what has to have a "warning" and what can only be sold to certain people of a certain age.

In books and on the internet these boundries are not so easy to enforce from the user end so they tend to be set from the production end.

A writer may want to develop a world that is more socially and sexually fluid but if the publisher is not interested or does not feel that there is a large enough "appropriate" market it does challenge the writer to change or edit their postion to continue onward to publication and public connection.

There are more books that pass into the hands of people under the age these days than before. There is only so much any one can do and even then it does seem futile to do any restriction with the way people so blithely manuver around them.

It is interesting to think about. Even if it is not purely Science Fiction or Fantasy.
jere7my
2. jere7my
Very few people would see losing an area consisting largely of porn cinemas as a bad thing

Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
The Steel Remains is the only SFF book I can think of off the top of my head that has an area similar to San Francisco's Tenderloin or Hunter's Point/Bay Point, but even that isn't delved into as much as it could be.
JS Bangs
4. jaspax
I feel like I should read this book, if only because I'm one of those that doesn't see losing an area of porn cinemas as a bad thing, and I'm curious as to what sort of defense anyone could possibly make of it.
Clark Myers
5. ClarkEMyers
where sex wouldn’t be a commodity
is perhaps the element of fantasy that writing mostly avoids.

The nature of commodities in ports - from the old (very old by new world standards) old world Reeperbahn and Walletjies Straat to the new, New York, New York - is well covered. See frex Drake's Liberty Port - or in another port in The Voyage the tale of the ovipositor. Joe Gores in another genre tells tales of San Francisco.

There are tales of hi tech - rfid - (in the)mood rings and the casual exchange of virtual reality templates for recreation in the SF literature but those I recall like the century of casual sex in The End of Eternity are described as culture wide - certainly not geographically limited.

Tolerance and the lack in the fabled maison de tolerance is written of in the literature from or about the time and place - maybe from say Olympia Press - better known for competing with Penguin for the Traveler's (Library) dollar (smiley I suppose) just as Miss Kitty's has a big place in the Dodge of Gunsmoke.

As for changing times I am reminded of a tale of the passing of the old west - there's a man - now long retired - whose first job as a badge wearing gun toting Peace Officer in the west and specifically assigned as such by the City Fathers (obs sf Cities in Flight) was to watch for folks driving erratically through his mining town and - wait for it - to ask them if they wanted him to show the way to one of the several whore houses. That too has passed - the town was down to two with the recession last I heard.
jere7my
6. Mary Arrrr
Thanks for the heads up on this, I'm looking forward to reading it.

jaspax - Although Delany appears to be focusing on the porn theaters, many see Guiliani's clean up of New York City is seen as disastrous for America's future. The sad truth of the matter is that crime is a major creator of the sort of low cost housing that nurtures artists and an art scene. Few of the marginal people who inhabit a red light district become artists themselves, but as Delany points out, just being visible has its own importance. Note: this was explained to me not by some flaky artist type, but by a rock-solid Republican business school professor. He was worried because he was seeing the best and most creative students at the Ivy where he teaches heading to Europe instead of New York after graduation.

This is tied to a sociological concept I've found fascinating, the "defended community." Essentially a town defines itself as being a "nice place to live," and without necessarily actively planning to do so, begins excluding non-nice people. There are no homeless shelters, rehab centers, half-way houses, sex businesses, facilities for the disabled, or affordable housing. The problem is that these communities do in fact have residents who become drug addicts, go to strip clubs, become disabled or work retail jobs (or are teachers). Those people end up having to leave town. For people in the town an extreme othering of the poor and working class is created. I haven't gotten into the racial aspect of this, but google "sun-down towns" to learn about how the all white suburbs of America came to be.
Paul Arzooman
7. parzooman
The old Times Square of my youth was an incredible wonderland for a hyper-hormonal 14 year old. It also was great because no place I walked into seemed to care that I was 14. Along came the scold and corporatist Giuliani and suddenly we have the new Time$ $quare with wonderful chain restaurants and stores shoveling garbage at the tourists who could find the same or better back home. There also used to be quite a few S&M clubs around town which introduced me to lots of stuff as I got older. There's only one now and it's nothing like the old Hellfire Club. Sad.

My city used to be awesome in some ways and awful in others but it was a city. It was a garden where the fruit was all different and there for the taking. Now Giuliani and Bloomberg have turned it into an overly cultivated sameness covered in gray.
jere7my
8. peachy
I guess this is a function of preferring authors like Drake and Martin and Stirling... but my sci-fi/fantasy bookshelves have no shortage of brothels. (It's tough to write quality military fiction - or at least fiction in which fighting men play a significant part - without whores. Not impossible, but tough.)
Michael Burke
9. Ludon
Thanks for the information on this book. This is one I'm going to have to read.

@ Longtimefan #1
"There are more books that pass into the hands of people under the age these days than before. There is only so much any one can do and even then it does seem futile to do any restriction with the way people so blithely manuver around them."

As one who is in his 52nd loop around old Sol, I have to disagree with you. Back in the 60s and early 70s it was common for the rack of adult (porn) books to be next to the rack with the comics and kid's magazines in shops like 7-Eleven and Highs. Whether through theft or through an older brother these books got into the hands of the kids and were passed around or sold to other kids. The internet has made it easier in some cases and aided the proliferation of the fringe and absurd (adult furs in diapers?) but I see today's electronic marvels as only a replacement for the lax attitudes of times gone by.

In commenting on this thread in general again I should point out that Science Fiction occasionally offered delicious naughty treats for my young mind. The most notable example in my young reading was Harlan Ellison's A Boy And His Dog. And that brings me back to a topic of this thread - movie theaters. The theater in that story was neutral territory where the boys went to relieve stress and while I don't remember this being explored in the story, I can see this theater being the place where information could be gathered or shared and strategic alliances could be explored and forged. I guess I'm going to have to dig that one out and read it again.
jere7my
10. RandolphF
One more book to read. We've had something similar in Seattle--I mentioned that most of the downtown has been "cleaned up" in the name of "preservation." I think it's a loss. Tough, gritty neighborhoods are problems, but they also have a lot of life to them, and they are often important to a city's culture. Think how much art and music has come out of such places, from Edo Floating World to Paris's Pigalle!
jere7my
11. RandolphF
BTW, one author who does write approvingly about such neighborhoods, though she is more interested in the artists, is CJ Cherryh.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Peachy: Whorehouses are not uncommon in fiction. Areas of town where people who enjoy sex have casual encounters with each other, sometimes with money changing hands, sometimes not, are rarer.

RandolphF: Are you thinking of Hell Deck in [i]Heavy Time[i]? That's the closest I can think of in Cherryh, and that's not about the artists at all, that's industrial workers wanting relaxation when they're off work.
Nancy Lebovitz
13. NancyLebovitz
parzooman, I've wondered about what's lost by keeping young people out of bars-- it means they have much less chance to hear current live music.
jere7my
14. RandolphF
I was thinking of Forge of Heaven. But I wasn't thinking well. There are also the dockside scenes in the Alliance/Union books and also most of Merovingen Nights. Hmmm. Is there a relation between stories of corrupt noble courts and stories of tough neighborhoods? Ummm. Charles Delint. Ellen Kushner. Maybe...
jere7my
15. RandolphF
Correction, Angel with the Sword, Merovingan Nights is the series name.
jere7my
16. Eugene R.
George Alec Effinger's "Marid" novels (starting with When Gravity Fails, 1987) are set in the Budayeen, his version of the French Quarter of New Orleans, without the "tourist appeal", transposed into an unnamed Middle Eastern city. It has very much of the "rough trade" feel of the old Times Square porn house district.
jere7my
17. NightRelic
It's pretty apparent from most of the comments here many of you haven't read this book. In my opinion from reading the book, it isn't just the loss of porn clubs Mr. Delany is writing about, it's the loss of community and the loss of variety of lifestyle. It is these things that left me extremely sad at the loss he feels and probably many others feel.

My only experience of the old Times Square was the few times I visited NYC as a teenager and during college. Walking through this area there was always a sense of danger, alieness and urgency for me to move on through as quickly as possible because I wasn't a part of this scene at all and didn't want to be.

Not being gay or interested in procuring sex of other kinds, it was just a place to pass through. But it was also, to me, what made NYC, NYC. It represented the diversity of lifestyle possible in New York City. It represented all the things I could be if I chose to, opportunity for a different kind of life than the ones I could see from the rich, white bread, homogenized, restricted, pent up suburb I would return home to.

Today we live in an incredibly restrictive society by comparison to the one I remember from the 70's and early 80's. Differences in lifestyle, while represented in the media far more than in the 70's are judged far more harshly, in my opinion. Back then, these things were tolerated and allowed to exist in the city, while everyone that didn't like it just ignored it. Now, while these lifestyles are portrayed on reality television, soap operas, sitcoms and news magazine shows, it's more as a sideshow to be judged and erased from real life, so those who disapprove and are made uncomfortable by them don't have to see them in any more. It seems the only visible, accessible images left are caricatures and these are what teens will emulate.

I agree with the person who said it was as easy to get porn and other adult goodies before the internet. And it had much greater variety than what you have on the internet. Yes, there's more variety as far as fetish, but the variety of tone is gone. Everything is pretty hard core now, whereas back in the 70's you could have a million best seller like Dhalgren containing every kind of sex and love you could want side by side with the more staid SF from the 50's, at an affordable price with a cover that would draw in even a 16 year old like me, despite it's length.

I also remember going to the drug store in town with friends, where the Sunday NY Times was on the same shelf with Playboy, Oui and Penthouse and could easily accommodate one of those magazines without looking any bigger, if you removed the magazine section. And my Stepdad's collection of Playboy & Oui dressed in unmarked brown paper bags in the basement side by side with all the other undressed magazines was way to obvious and easy access. I also found a similarly dressed copy of The Sensuous Man on the shelf.

But back to Dhalgren. It's one of my all time favorite books. It's the one that made it clear to me I wasn't gay. I grew up marginalized and made fun of, shy and without socialization, so I had no opportunity to date in High School. Other kids would call me gay as a result. One does question oneself under these circumstances. When I was turned on by the hetero scenes and not the gay scenes, it was obvious what I was. This was incredibly important to me at the age I read this book. The fact I had easy access to it, without my Mom knowing about what I was reading (or anyone else for that matter) was crucial. Yes, maybe I could have figured that out from watching porn on the internet, but I was the type of kid who probably would not have watched it at that age. It would be too visible and too easy to get caught. Dhalgren was far less extreme and presented the alternatives in a realistic context, whereas internet porn is anything but that. These types of scenes used to be acceptable in magazines like Analog and Asimovs. Growing up during the New Wave, I expected to see experimental fiction and some sex in SF. Today with even the slightest expression of sexuality these magazines receive complaint letters from parents who expect them to be clean enough for their 13 year olds.

Well, this is a long enough rant. I think you get my point. I don't think we've benefited from the lack of permissiveness and elimination of real life examples of sexuality and loss of community. I got pretty far away from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, but I think I stayed within its topic. It's an excellent book that portrays a way of life and community not often discussed or seen in the our PC society and is a very necessary account of what NYC used to be. If you haven't read it, you need to.
jere7my
18. mattwan
Thanks for posting this, Jo. I've just requested a copy of the book through ILL.

My state has just signed into law a bill that will be forcing all adult theaters to close. I'd never seen such institutions before moving here a few years ago, and they've since become an integral part of my life that I'm sad to see go.

As has been suggested, casual anonymous sex is the essential reason for going to such places, but for those interested in life there are plenty of other rewards as well. On a busy night ad hoc communities form, coalitions of the greedy capturing more than their fair share and of the benevolent trying to keep the flow of interactions more open, and even then the majority of bystanders remain alone and unaware or uncomprehending of the deeper game being played.

Theaters also complicate the predominate narratives of attractiveness. It is common to see conventionally stunning and conventionally hideous men playing together. It is also common to see the conventionally attractive aggressively rejecting the less-attractive, but I think the former gives the lie to the idea that the latter is the natural order of things. Most interesting to me is the phenomenon of less-attractive men wrapped in the commercial markers of attractiveness--fashionable clothes, hair care products, cologne, etc.--who become increasingly frustrated at being evaluated on their actual physicality instead of on the illusions of attractiveness they've paid so much for.

I apologize for the length of this comment, but it's so rare to find a forum for discussing such things. Thanks again for providing the opportunity.

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