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Transforming 42nd: Dedicated People Can Change the World with William Daly

Dec 14 2018
42nd Street, circa 1985. The FDNY was a regular presence on the block in the 80s. Credit: FDNY
42nd Street, circa 1985. The FDNY was a regular presence on the block in the '80s. Image: FDNY.

In advance of the debut of the documentary film Against All Odds: Transforming 42nd Street, we spoke with William Daly, who headed the Midtown Enforcement Project, a special task force created by Mayor Abe Beame to help clean up 42nd Street and Times Square.

William Daly was Director of the Office of Midtown Enforcement (previously called the Midtown Enforcement Project) from 1984 to 2001. There he led a group of lawyers, investigators, inspectors, and urban planners from different City agencies to identify new approaches to rooting out crime in the area. 

What was your first experience with 42nd Street?

Before I became director [of the Office of Midtown Enforcement], I was an investigator on the street. I would go into all the peep shows, and while a lot of people may have envied me, it wasn't really that cool. It was really not safe. Times Square originally had a lot of movie theaters and arcades and things like that. But by the mid-’70s, it had degenerated into the capital of the adult entertainment industry in New York City. And it became the central nervous system of criminal activity that started on 42nd Street and spread out into the city.

How did that affect the community? How did it affect crime?

Along Eighth Avenue, but in particular on 42nd Street, there was a relationship between growing crime and the concentration of the sex industry. We were able to improve 42nd Street only after we showed, in court, that the deteriorating economic conditions in Times Square were connected to crime and the concentration of sex businesses.

Originally there were a lot of penny arcades. But as technology advanced, single-viewer peep shows became peep shows with eight-millimeter cameras that showed pornography. Those became video terminals with 500 channels.

I think the people who are familiar with the area now would find it hard to believe what was going on in these establishments back then.
William Daly
Director, Office of Midtown Enforcement, 1984–2001

As crime intensified and drug use became more endemic to the city, it became especially concentrated on 42nd Street. A lot of the cheap hotels in the area were home to drug dealers. In the theaters, you could watch a B-movie or even a live sex show—and you could also buy drugs. You could bring a prostitute into the theater. It was really quite unsavory. I think the people who are familiar with the area now would find it hard to believe what was going on in these establishments back then.

There's no other block in the city that had that amount of crime. Now it's kind of unimaginable, but back in the early '80s, there were almost 2,200 felonies alone on 42nd Street just between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

An adult entertainment establishment circa 1992. Over time, 42nd Street became synonymous with the sex industry. Credit: Peter Aaron/Otto for Robert A.M. Stern Architects
An adult entertainment store ~1992. Over time, 42nd Street became synonymous with the sex industry. Image: Peter Aaron/OTTO for Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

How did tourists fare during this time?

All tourists, not only foreign tourists, were prey for thieves, criminals, and robbers on 42nd Street. Tourists would be lured into topless bars by flyers that said, "Girls of All Nations Available Inside," and then get robbed inside. The police were always busy on that street.

Was there a concerted effort to change all that?

In 1975, during the Abraham Beame administration, a group of theater owners and business people in Times Square formed what eventually became known as the Mayor's Midtown Citizens Committee. They demanded that the Mayor put together a government-funded group focused on enforcing whatever laws there were, specifically in the 42nd Street and greater Times Square area. The result was the formation of the Midtown Enforcement Project. I was hired as the first investigator on January 19, 1976.

The Midtown Enforcement Project integrated the City’s best enforcement tools into one toolbox. It had lawyers, investigators, inspectors from different agencies, and a group of urban planners who thought through how to best solve the problems of Times Square, particularly on 42nd Street. The inspectors were from the Health, Buildings, and Fire Departments, and they were accompanied by two police officers. They made sure there was integrity control and provided security for the inspectors as they traveled around Times Square. Integrating all these different skills into one specific outfit within the city was a new idea.

42nd Street, circa 1992. Credit: Peter Aaron/Otto for Robert A.M. Stern Architects
42nd Street, circa 1992. Image: Peter Aaron/OTTO for Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

When did you start seeing change?

We started seeing things change in Times Square right away. The one exception was 42nd Street. But, we made some inroads through the city's Nuisance Abatement Law. If police were able to significantly reduce prostitution by making at least two arrests in one establishment in a single year, we could move in court to close the place down immediately. And the changes to the Zoning Resolution allowed the City to close a lot of the spas, massage parlors, and gymnasiums that were basically prostitution fronts. Both those tools, the Nuisance Abatement Law and the Zoning Resolution, were the brainchild of Midtown Enforcement.

How did the Office of Midtown Enforcement interact with the 42nd Street Development Project?

We worked very closely with the 42nd Street Development Project. We shared our statistics from 1976 through 1984, which detailed the rise of the sex industry, the crime in the area—and what we had been doing to address what was going on in Times Square but were not able to do on 42nd Street. They used the information we gave them in the environmental impact statement, which was the basis for the continuation of the 42nd Street Development Project.

We started seeing real improvements on 42nd Street in 1990 when the 42nd Street Project started closing buildings on 42nd Street through eminent domain, which got rid of some of the offending uses. At the same time, the Dinkins administration had passed the Safe Streets, Safe Cities bill, which added more police to the streets.

The Empire Theatre, circa 1992. Credit: Peter Aaron/Otto for Robert A.M. Stern Architects
The Empire Theatre, circa 1992. Image: Peter Aaron/OTTO for Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

What was your biggest contributions to the project?

There is a saying that you should not underestimate the ability of a small group of dedicated people to change the world. We had a lot of smart people working together, bringing all of the City's tools to this project, and in the long run it worked very well.

What does that say about collaboration?

Right here on 42nd Street, you have a public-private partnership that worked. It couldn't have been done by the government alone, and it wasn't being done by private industry alone. The theaters, originally, had called upon Mayor Beame and later on Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani to do something.

Each administration added something to the mix, and what we have today is a result of a continuing effort over the years to really address a specific problem. It shows the City can do it, and the City can do it in collaboration with the private sector.

It couldn't have been done by the government alone, and it wasn't being done by private industry alone.

What leads to change? Do the establishments have to change first, or does law enforcement have to come in first? Law enforcement is usually the vanguard. I think that's something we learned in the Giuliani administration. Once management of the Police Department changed, neighborhoods throughout the city became a lot safer. Management continued to be improved by the Bloomberg administration, and crime is still going down under the de Blasio administration.

When you look at the neighborhood today, what do you see?

It's something that, when we started working in 1976, we probably could not have imagined. Back then, we were always worried. Serious crime, on 42nd Street, made news not only in New York. It made news in London. It made news in Paris. It made news all over the world, and people were afraid to come into the city. They would say, "Times Square is not a safe place." But now everybody wants to be in Times Square and on 42nd Street. It's basically Oz compared to what it was back then. It's an amazing transformation, and it's been nothing but good for the city.

Editor’s note: Q&A has been edited for length and readability.

Learn how NYCEDC helped transform the once dangerous and rundown 42nd Street into an economic engine and tourist destination.