They Were Cheap So You Could Be Too: Photographs Of 1990s Times Square Sleaze

The Empire Theater (All photos © Gregoire Alessandrini; via his website, New York City 1990's)

The Empire Theater (All photos © Gregoire Alessandrini; via his website, New York City 1990’s)

In his now seminal ode to Times Square porn theaters and its importance to queer men of the era, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany describes the lurid landscape of Times Square, writing, “it was peep shows, sex shops, adult video stores and dirty magazine stores, massage parlors–and porn theaters” (14).

Yesterday, Jillian Steinhauer at Hyperallergic asserted in an article on Edmund V. Gillon’s photos of 1970s and 1980s New York, which, let’s be honest, were a bit snoozy, “We heart old NYC porn.” Well, kweens, so do we except we mean literal “old NYC porn,” gawking at the last days of depravity captured in Gregoire Alessandrini’s photographs of 1990s Times Square sleaze.

From Show World to The Deuce to Peep Land and The Playpen, Alessandrini’s photographs document Times Square’s “adult” businesses in a state of flux, closing down to make way for the Disney-fied Times Square Redevelopment Project.

The Playpen

The Playpen

Born in Paris, Alessandrini began photographing New York after his arrival for film school in the 1990s. Carrying his Nikon wherever he went, Alessandrini remembers, “At the time, I didn’t pretend to be a professional photographer but I guess I had the intuition of being the witness of a vanishing world. Here and there, one could see the remains of a golden era, of a certain idea of New York.”

Not only did Alessandrini photograph Times Square’s wonderfully perverse peep shows and porn theaters, but he also focused on colorful graffiti murals, worn signs and Lynchian diners, which can all be found on his blog where prints of all the images can also be purchased.

Despite the range of Alessandrini’s photographs, I, as a connoisseur of neon-tinged sleaze aesthetics, was particularly drawn to Alessandrini’s multitude of images of 42nd Street.

While Alessandrini’s photographs capture several theaters still open for curious patrons, these photographs are certainly not from the heyday of Times Square sex. After the booming 1970s and 1980s, Alessandrini’s Times Square appears a little sparse as many of the gay movie houses were shuttered by a health ordinance in 1985, using the threat of HIV/AIDS as an opportunity to rid the city of spaces of predominantly queer sexuality.

Cranes and construction everywhere.

As Alessandrini writes, “Cranes and construction everywhere”

Even though Alessandrini’s photographs portray the period of Times Square right after this ordinance and during the Times Square Redevelopment Project, that does not mean these photographs are not fascinating. Why, tired and past its prime is an aesthetic we like to celebrate at Filthy Dreams.

Like Tennessee Williams’ short stories set in the desolate Joy Rio theater, these photographs of 1990s Times Square depict a strange sort of destroyed and decadent beauty. I can’t help but imagine some worn-out old man like Mr. Krupper from Williams’ Hard Candy shuffling into one of these theaters to find redemption through sleaze and maybe a hustler.

Even more than my peculiar obsession with the aesthetic of Times Square, these theaters and other adult businesses undeniably played an important role in queer sexuality and life for decades. As Delany discusses in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the porn theaters, peep shows, adult bookstores and sex shops were all places where sexuality, namely queer sexuality, could flourish outside of the policing gaze of heteronormativity. While these locations were not necessarily the preferred place for many women to experience and explore sexual freedom, the darkened theaters became a place where many queer men flocked for anonymous sex and contact that transcended boundaries of class, race and ethnicity.

As Delany similarly explains, “In the 42nd Street area’s sex theaters, specifically, since I started frequenting them in the summer of 1975, I’ve met playwrights, carpenters, opera singers, telephone repair men, stockbrokers, guys on welfare, guys with trust funds, guys on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs, teachers, warehouse workers, male nurses, fancy chefs, guys who worked at Dunkin Donuts, guys who gave out flyers on street corners, guys who drove garbage trucks, and guys who washed windows on the Empire State Building” (15).

Jenny Holzer installation on The Liberty Theater

Jenny Holzer installation on The Liberty Theater

In addition to the queer significance of these porn theaters and their sordid aesthetics, one of my favorite parts of Alessandrini’s photographs are the appearance of Jenny Holzer’s text-based installations, which were created with Creative Time, placing selections from her “Truism” and “Survival” series on the empty marquees of these disappearing theaters. While I know no one was entering these theaters at this point, Holzer’s evocative and provocative phrases such as “What urge will save us now that sex won’t” and “Men don’t protect you anymore” make me picture confused theater patrons blinking wearily at the signs, wondering if they were, in fact, the new feature of the day.

Speaking of art and Times Square, many contemporary artists from Scott Ewalt’s devil-filled paintings featuring these lost Times Square relics like the Gaiety Burlesque and Show World to Scott Treleaven’s more subdued and abstract tributes to the coded sexualities performed inside these theaters are now looking to this era of Times Square sleaze as a source of artistic inspiration.

Show World

Show World

With this added interest in disappeared Times Square, Alessandrini’s photographs become more and more artistically relevant. As he exclaims, “More reasons for me to keep scanning my old negatives and color slides kept in an old suitcase for almost 20 years!”

Phew…I’ve certainly done more than my share of obsessing over the depravity and decadence of 42nd Street so I think it’s time to let the photographs do the rest of the work themselves. So sit back, smuggle in a brown bag of the liquor of your choice, maybe a few tissues and revel in some of the final days of Times Square filth:



8 thoughts on “They Were Cheap So You Could Be Too: Photographs Of 1990s Times Square Sleaze

  1. loved sam delaney’s times square red, times square blue. and love jenny holzer’s images in the mix! thank you for sharing Alessandrini’s work and your thoughts.

    Does anyone know the name of the owner of peepland during the 80s? He’s my birthfather and im trying to reconnect and find my family. I believe he was murdered but went by a fictitious name. any info would be greatly appreciated!!!

    • the man I knew slightly was Lonnie Davis who lived in east 70’s near Lexington Ave and was killed by one of the women who worked in Peepland. She put the body in the east river according to the NY Post at the time . 1985? +/- that’s all I know

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