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Times Square: Past and Present
On April 8, 2004, Times Square celebrated the 100th anniversary of the day in 1904 when Mayor George McLellan formally conferred that name on the area around 42nd Street and Broadway. It had been called Longacre Square, but it was renamed after the New York Times that had just constructed the Times Tower on 43rd Street for its offices. Six months later, the subway system opened. And from that moment on, Times Square became the centre of Manhattan, and the crossroads of the world.
Times Square was never a quiet residential community; from its inception, it was the city’s entertainment and popular culture centre. In the early years, brothels and gambling establishments in the area boisterously competed with vaudeville, "legit" stage shows and movies. During the Roaring '20s, theatres and restaurants filled in the area’s west edge, and jazz played to the north. And in 1927, 264 shows opened on Broadway - the largest number ever. James Traub, the author of an incisive and entertaining recent book on Times Square, The Devil’s Playground (Random House), writes that “in the twenties…Times Square became a national theatre of urbanity and wit, as well as a giddy revolt against Prohibition.” By the thirties, however, the “long slide into decrepitude” had already begun, though the decay remained invisible to the casual observer or tourist.
For even the Depression and World War II couldn't dim Times Square’s lights and nightlife. A tourist could follow world news on the headline "zipper" around the Times building, listen to a crooner sing or ogle showgirls at the Latin Quarter, and marvel at the Camel billboard with its puffs of smoke. It was the natural milieu of Broadway of famous habitués like Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell, Jack Dempsey and Toots Shor. It was also where on August 14, 1945 a crowd of two million gathered, embracing, cheering, and sobbing with joy when it was announced that the war with the Japanese had ended. Times Square was America’s site for general gatherings and celebrations like New Year’s Eve, as opposed to Union Square where unions and left political groups held their rallies.
However, by the 40s, not only were national celebrations held in Times Square, but a criminal world begun to develop in the area. Still, the streets were dominated more in Traub’s words by the “benevolent eccentricity” of shooting galleries and dime museums than by any sense of true danger. The Times Square of that period was for Traub “the last word in seedy, thrilling urbanity at a moment when urbanity was still prized.”
But the migration to the suburbs and the rise of television in the 50s began to drain Times Square of much of its social and cultural purpose. And by the mid-70s, the great movie palaces had become 24-hour porn theatres with live nude shows, and the neighborhood was left to pimps, hookers, addicts, pickpockets, teenage runaways, and the homeless. Trash–filled 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue was by far the most crime-ridden block in New York, and a rape, an armed robbery or a murder took place nearly every day within Times Square’s police precincts. Suburbanites and tourists began to avoid the area, except to attend Broadway musicals and then jump into cars, cabs, and tour buses and leave for home as quickly as possible. Consequently, the city’s political and real estate interests saw that it was imperative to clean up and transform the Square. The redevelopment process, like all of New York’s major building projects, was predictably an elongated affair. But by the late 90s, the makeover of Times Square into a much safer, cleaner, more homogenized and tourist-friendly place had taken place. And despite the dazzle of the undulating lighted signs and the shops with bright neon lights (the result of new zoning regulations promoted by the Municipal Art Society) critics saw it as losing its unique character. From the critics’ perspective, the Square had been turned into a sterile, chain store- dominated mall (e.g., Starbucks, Toys “R” Us). But this image of Times Square as sanitized and standardized seems to me simplistic. It’s true that on a walk through the area on a recent weekday afternoon, the shops that dominate are of the bland Planet Hollywood, and Applebee’s variety, though on the side streets peddlers sell fake designer watches and pocketbooks. And many of the people passing by do fit the stereotype of Middle-American tourist families in polyester or Bermuda shorts clicking their cameras, and heading for The Lion King, 42nd Street, or Madame Tussaud’s. But when I meander down the once putrescent 42nd St to 8th, Avenue, amid the multiplexes, theatres, food courts, and Hilton Hotel - I find that Times Square’s dark aspects have not been obliterated. I see leathery homeless men carrying Hefty bags overflowing with soda cans; a menacing group of Black Israelites (a cult) inveighing against the new Babylon - New York; and a young girl shouting about a bus ticket at her drugged-out, red bandana-wearing mother, who is lying on the sidewalk near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Yes, despite these residues of the old Times Square, it is no longer a neighborhood where police sirens constantly wail, and every third person looks like they could skin you alive if they were given the chance. But if most of the picturesque local shops are gone replaced by stores like the featureless Duane Reade, a vital urban dance still takes place there day and night. It’s not my kind of place, but a great many people find ease and pleasure in what it offers. I understand how seductive nostalgia for a more complex urban world can be, but there is just no way that the Times Square of the past can be resurrected.