The American Guides were unusual not only for their shaggy opulence and Americana maximalism, but also for their source of funding: the federal government.
Imagine stopping someone on a Manhattan street and asking for directions to Times Square. If that person launched into a monologue beginning, “It is the district of glorified dancing girls and millionaire playboys and, on a different plane, of dime-a-dance hostesses and pleasure-seeking clerks. Here, too, in a permanent moralizing tableau, appear the extremes of success and failure characteristic of Broadway’s spectacular professions: gangsters and racketeers, panhandlers and derelicts, youthful stage stars and aging burlesque comedians, world heavyweight champions and once-acclaimed beggars,” and then that person recounted the history of every theater and club, the development of the area’s rapid public transit, and the origin of the phrase “the Great White Way” (coined, supposedly, in 1901 by the adman O. J. Gude), all in a tone both disdainful and celebratory of the famed intersection that “lights the clouds above Manhattan with a glow like that of a dry timber fire”—you would know what it was like to read the American Guides, a curious series of books that appeared during the last years of the Great Depression. Specifically, you’d know what it was like to read the New York City Guide, which was published in 1939. And you’d be no closer to Times Square.