NEW YORK — New York. -- Can Times Square, Ground Zero of Urban America, stage a comeback from a 30-year assault of porn shops, theater closings, pickpockets, con men, and pervasive physical decay?
The two-year-old Times Square Business Improvement District has taken on what might seem like Mission Impossible -- to make the Great White Way, once again, a place that is ''clean, safe and friendly.''
Early reports are positive. Purse snatching and pickpocketing plunged 43 percent in 1992, the new program's first full year of operation. Crime reports for robberies and felonious assaults show a downward trend.
The feeling of safety rose rapidly when the Business Improvement District came on line in early '92, deploying 40 security officers onto the streets. They patrol from 9:30 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, answering people's questions, referring any serious incidents to the city police.
Street filth is vanishing, with heavy credit to the program's 45 sanitation workers. They're dressed in eye-catching, cherry-red jumpsuits and visored caps just right for a fashion-conscious town.
They're out from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, sweeping sidewalks and curbsides, painting street furniture, disinfecting sidewalks, scraping off graffiti. Times Square's streets were rated 45 percent clean when the district was created, but 95 percent today.
The pornography trade -- video stores, ''books and peeps,'' live-show places -- keeps oozing around the neighborhood. But sex shops are down to 40 from a one-time high of 140. Many were displaced from 42nd Street, where nine legendary theaters now stand dark and empty, awaiting fulfillment of a New York state-directed development plan.
Times Square's entertainment industry is still robust -- 37 theaters including all 22 landmark Broadway theaters -- and there's an influx of artists and film producers. Practically every block in the area has a new or renovated hotel. New restaurants are popping up. The Times Square trademark -- big, bold neon ''super- signs'' -- are growing in number and flash. Indeed, new zoning requires supersigns on big building surfaces.
And as if to prove that big money now takes all this seriously, such business heavyweights as Morgan Stanley and Bertelsmann AG, the German media giant, have taken over bankrupt office towers and moved into Times Square.
The idea of a Business Improvement District -- assessing all property owners, then providing marketing, planning, extra sanitation and security services -- is hardly new to New York, or to the nation.
Though few are as large as the leaders in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland and Denver, there are some 1,000 such districts of one type or another. New York City alone has 24, one more than 17 years old, serving areas ranging from Grand Central to Flatbush Avenue.
But if the Times Square BID is a latecomer, it's demonstrating New York verve.
Organized with the lead of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whose newspaper actually gave the Times Square area its name, the district is already New York's largest with a $5 million-a-year budget. Its board members range from Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger to Vincent Sardi of Sardi's Restaurant to Arnie Silver, owner of Times Square's oldest hardware store. A couple of hotels -- apparently happily -- pay assessments of more than $1,000 a day.
Special events include a ''Broadway on Broadway'' program each July (theaters presenting a free smorgasbord of their samples) and extra security for the 300,000 visitors who crowd in each New Year's Eve to watch the big ball fall (a scene some 200 million people around the world watch on television).
Around Times Square there's a string of infotainment booths providing tips, maps and schedules for the thousands of tourists (many from overseas) the area draws daily.
The object, says Gretchen Dykstra, who runs the Times Square BID, is to serve business. But it's also, she insists, to ''prove that the Crossroads of the World is also a real neighborhood, where people have a deep sense of place.''
That seems to be underscored by the program's very open way of doing business (published budgets, the broadly representative board). And then there's what one could call the ''smart heart'' part.
The district supports a new community court designed to handle cases rapidly, directly in the neighborhood, and give low-level offenders a chance to avoid jail by performing community services.
Under a ''bag exchange,'' the neighborhood's homeless are given shoes, socks, toothpaste and other necessities in return for turning in full trash bags. Most of the district's sanitation workers are formerly homeless people, recruited through a social-service agency that's helping them in each stage of rehabilitation.
Thankful for the jobs, they're turning out to be exceptionally loyal workers.
The Times Square BID themes are bright and astute revitalization, celebration of place and neighborhood, and using the resources at hand to give people a fresh chance. It says big bucks and humanism can mix. Make it the American formula for the '90s and we'd all be better off.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.