Times Square, in the heart of Manhattan, has undergone many facelifts in its one hundred years of history. The home to Broadway, Madame Tussaud's, MTV, and the brightest advertisements in mankind, Times Square is truly a spectacle of admiration, though its recent makeover has some concerned about its future.
Beginning as Longacre Square, the area running from 42nd Street and Broadway up to 48th Street was the earliest theater district. At the time, Times Square was accosted with the current ad du jour: the billboard. Sometimes stacked as high as fifty feet, the square served as a major marketing cornerstone for the blooming commercial district.
In 1904, famed New York Times publisher Adolf Ochs began plans to build his business' new headquarters on the square. Christened Times Tower, the new building (located at W. 43rd between Seventh & Eighth Avenue) stood at an impressive 23 stories, then the largest building in the area. On New Years' Eve, 1904, a huge party was held atop the tower, and the mayor of the city, former Civil War general George McLellan, attended. After all, it was he who in April 18 of that year had officially renamed the square and its surrounding area "Times Square."
With the building of the major subway station in Times Square as well as the other stops throughout the area, Times Square became a major hub connecting uptown and downtown Manhattan in the early 1900s. Men returning from their day jobs on Wall Street would stop in the stores of the area to buy their wives a gift, and at night thousands would flock to the area to see the newest Broadway sensation. The advent of electricity saw that Times Square was crowded with electric signs far above the crowd. Ads for Macy's, Coca-Cola, and Ever-Ready Safety Razors lit up the main promenade, where Broadway and Seventh intersected. Trolley cars roared through the area, along with the rather novel automobile, cruising alongside the still popular horse and carriage method of travel. Before radio and television, these electric signs were a predominant form of advertising in America, and particularly in New York, the "sign capital of the world."
However, with the rise of movies and Prohibition, the tourist-y night of drinking and playgoing at Times Square saw an early demise in the late 1920s. Coupled with the direct effect of the stock market crash and the Great Depression, Times Square became a seedier and less desirable place to visit, with bread lines instead of theater lines and water instead of wine. By 1945, Times Square had slightly returned to form, although now it was merely a place for sailors on leave to go, parades to meander through, and the occasional main event (such as the famous bobbysoxer riot on Columbus Day, 1944, for a Frank Sinatra concert.) It was on August 14, 1945, that Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous picture of the sailor and girl in a sweeping embrace was taken. At the same time, over 1.5 million people had gathered in Times Square, the largest public gathering in American history, to celebrated V-J Day, the day Japan had surrendered and thus ended World War II.
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Times Square was defined by the one aspect of it that had never truly changed: Broadway. Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Irving Berlin, and many others helped shape Times Square for years to come with their inventive music, lively characters, and broad stories of emotion. At the same time, Times Square also saw a rise in many such entertaining venues as Hubert's Flea Circus on 42nd street, and the first peep show on 49th and Seventh.
For three days in November 1965, Times Square experienced its first major blackout since the war. At the same time, petty crime and the Mob were on the rise in New York City, the old theaters were losing competition to the homegrown theater that was television, and race riots across America were beginning to seep into the tensions of the city. This was the start of a major decline for Times Square, one where prostitution and drugs took over the area. By the early 1970s, the once vibrant place of business was all but overrun by crime and the slums. At the time, however, America was suffering through one of its worst recessions, and there was little the community could do to revive the fallen grandstand.
The 1980s saw a Times Square fallen on hard times indeed. Movies such as the appropriately-titled Times Square, Ghostbusters, and even the farcical Muppets Take Manhattan all showed a place badly in need of repair. Every night, David Letterman would crack a joke or two about the hookers on Times Square, just blocks from the theater he was performing in. The cult classic Escape from New York summed up the situation nicely: New York City needed saving. That salvation, of course, had its price: the corporate tax break.
Beginning in 1990 with the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, a large number of high rise corporate offices were born in the Times Square area. Tough district attorney (and future mayor) Rudy Giuliani began cracking down on the prostitution, drugs, and sex that dominated Times Square. Many people called this censorship, fascism, and racism, but those with the almighty dollar won out. In 1994, almost all of the property on 42nd Street was condemned by the city, and the marquees of the area were given over to a Harlem collective poetry project. Finally, the theaters were completely reborn with the help of New York City tax dollars, and by the mid 1990s, Times Square was once again the vibrant, slick ad machine and commercial district it had been in the past.
On September 11, 2001, of course, the entire city of New York City was devastated, but in particular, its tourism industry was particularly hammered by security concerns and travel restrictions. Times Square has since revived itself, but critics complain it doesn't have the personable and hand-made feel of yesteryear, subjugating its originality for a bit of homogeny. Still, when visiting Times Square, one can't help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the entire magnitude of the area. It truly is one of the most spectacular places in the whole world.
Times Square Today
Times Square today is home to 46 theatres, 50 hotels, and over 5,000 businesses. It draws in 37 million tourists annually, and over $16 billion in revenue.
While visiting Times Square, there are numerous places to visit, including the largest Toys 'R Us in the world (44th & Broadway), Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum (42nd & Seventh), and of course, all of the theatres, each providing a distinct backdrop and facade for the famed New York City area.
I know the ultimate badass is working on a definitive NYC node, and I'm hoping that some intrepid E2 Yankee will come around and give us a good walking tour of Times Square for potential visitors. I've been there twice, but wouldn't even know where to begin in describing all of the things to do there. New York City is a huge place, with lots to do besides Times Square, but the square itself is an adventure that would take days to really discover. Go check it out yourself sometime!
- A panorama of today's Times Square can be seen at www.panoramas.dk/fullscreen/fullscreen41.html
- A pictorial history of Times Square provided the bulk of this information. It can be viewed (with audio commentary) at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4614660/
- The official Times Square Visitor's Bureau website can be found at http://www.timessquarebid.org/