Last fall, we got an inside look at the refurbishing of the old Peep-O-Rama neon sign, and its installation in the renovated Times Square Visitor Center. Recently, I got a chance to go by and visit it.
The sign hangs over what the Visitor Center's website calls "A Fantasy and Desire exhibit featuring...three show booths, which now showcase videos on the history of Times Square." The show booths are covered in a familiar red Formica and sport a pair of slots for quarters that don't actually take quarters. (The usual smell of citrus disinfectant is also missing.) You stand inside and look at images of sexy, squalid old Times Square, and there is absolutely nothing sexy or squalid about it.
Tourist children venture inside, looking up at the images of prostitutes and XXX marquees, not knowing what they're seeing. Still, the sight of children in those red Formica peep booths creates a cognitive dissonance. "Mommy, come look," they shout. It's all wrong. Oddly debased by the kiddies, the peep booths seem sheepish and apologetic, wishing they could creep back into the shadows and perform their intended function.
At the gift shop, you can buy magnets that mimic signage from the old peeps--"Only One Person in a Booth" and "Live Girls On Stage." There's something humiliating about them being displayed on a carousel next to Lady Liberty and other such innocent magnets. I mean that the peep magnets themselves seem humiliated, as if they might be cringing and wondering, "What are we doing here?"
The whole thing made me think of tigers in a carnival cage, things once wild and dangerous that have been beaten into submission and put on display for the entertainment of families with children.
Back in December, when the Visitor Center opened, the Times asked about its preservation of porn: "'We’re at a point where Times Square is thriving and it’s safe to look at this from a historic perspective and have a sense of humor,' said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance."
It's safe now. You can look.