Karrie Jacobs


June 14, 2010

The End of An Era

The view from my table at the ESPN Zone.

Above is the way the world looks from a prime table at the Times Square ESPN Zone’s Screening Room.  For the uninitiated, this is a  bar and dining area that is wall-to-wall screen,  simultaneously showing every imaginable sporting event.  The screen in the foreground is actually a small one that sits directly on the dining table.

One night, I accompanied my sweetie there,  along with his teenage son, and his son’s best friend,   and I was overwhelmed.  By the end of our dinner in the Screening Room, my brain hurt. I didn’t have a headache.  Rather, I felt as if my optic and neural bits had been rubbed raw.  I felt as if I, like Alex  in  A Clockwork Orange, had been given the cure. The subway ride home, by comparison, was positively zenlike.  Afterward, I thought the obvious: I‘m going to come back and bring my SVA D-Crit students with me. Alas, that won’t be possible.

Now, the ESPN Zone, a major tourist draw and nirvana for local teenage boys with deep-pocketed dads, is closing. (Right in the middle of the World Cup!) Parent company Disney is shuttering the one in Times Square  along with outlets in Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.  They’re no longer profitable, apparently.

Coincidentally, my most recent Metropolis column was a re-examination of screen-dominated environments like the ESPN Zone.  I wrote:

I think the age of the screen as an attention-hogging, room-filling, all-purpose information-device-cum-decorative-element may be nearing a close.

I would like to take the extreme downsizing of the ESPN Zone chain as evidence of my great prescience.   Rather, the  Zone has a couple of built-in  problems.  First, it’s a rip-off,  a business model based on heedless, free-spending tourists and overindulgent parents willing to pay for weirdly pricey arcade games and terrible food, poor value for money.  Not a dependable model these days.

And, as I pointed out in my column, there’s now no shortage of screen-intensive environments.  Neighborhood sports bars are almost as image- saturated as the ESPN Zone, and the drinks and food are likely to be better and cheaper, so why bother?

P.S. It’s the end of another era.  I just read ArchNewsNow and discovered that Bill Mitchell, former MIT dean of architecture and planning,  has died.  I haven”t spoken with him much since the 1990s, but back then a conversation with him was always a treat. Very smart man.   65 is way too young.