The Changing Face of Times Square
Before there was a Times Square, the uptown intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue was known as Longacre Square, named after London’s carriage district. Long Acre in London was known for its horse-coach industry, a business that was shared in Manhattan's Longacre Square until nightlife and theaters pushed out the more rustic trade. The city’s density and development worked its way uptown, pushing the theater district into this region in the 1880s and '90s. The Gay '90s saw it flourish, and the hourglass shaped district between 42nd and and 47th Streets would become the crux of Broadway — the industry, not just the street name — also called the Great White Way.
Many businesses bet that New York’s first subway would bring commercial success and looked to move their businesses close to it. The New York Times was one of those businesses, building what was at the time, the city’s second tallest skyscraper, in 1904 on the site of the Pabst Hotel, pictured above. The Times Corporation, together with the Interborough Rapid Transit Company also petitioned the city to rename Longacre Square to Times Square, which was granted that same year. [Incidentally, Herald Square is also named after a newspaper, one of the Times’ competitors, the New York Herald.] The Times Square station immediately became the subway system’s most important hub(1) , and remains the city’s most used transit station. Although boastful, the Times was prescient with its headline “Times Square is the Name of City’s New Center.” The New York Times launched the first New Year’s Eve Celebration in Times Square that year, to fête the opening of the brand-new Times Building.
Though Longacre Square was the official term prior to the Times Square name change, this area was at the northern end of what police of the time called The Tenderloin. Theaters abounded, as did brothels, and police of the time were known to profit from vice by collecting graft(2). The nickname “Tenderloin” did not stick as it did in San Francisco, where there is still an area with that name, but the reputation for prostitution, brothels, saloons, and nightclubs would linger.
Times Square only took a few years to transition from quaint to commercial. The 1909 view above shows a modest sign shop and toggery, but it also shows the Gaiety Theater and Churchill’s restaurant. Churchill’s was one of the area’s lobster palaces, described as the city’s first nightclubs: expensive, elegantly decorated, with orchestras, dancing and floor shows(3). Lobster palaces did serve lobster, but they also served up quite the party atmosphere. They thrived until Prohibition and were a defining characteristic of early Times Square(4). One guidebook of that era even calls out restaurants with cabaret and dancing with a star, Churchill’s among them.
The above image from 1912 shows something for which Times Square is well known: sensational and impactful advertising. The advent of neon signage would particularly alter the look of Times Square as advertisers would compete against each other for the most eye-catching display. In Times Square Spectacular, author Darcy Tell wrote, “the most popular attractions in the district were free: enormous electric advertising signs that sprouted on roofs all over Times Square. Even on Sunday evenings, when the theaters were closed, crowds came to stroll up and down Broadway at the latest dazzling spectaculars.”
Broadway earned the nickname “The Great White Way” around the time that it became (possibly) the first street in America to be fully lit by electric light. The moniker moved uptown along the avenue as the theaters did, and by the time that Times Square was named, it was already there. The electrically lit advertising boon of the square helped the term stick. Over time, advertisements would become even brighter and more grandiose, and the theaters would remain centered along Times Square. One advertiser, O.J. Gude, has been attributed as the creator of the “Great White Way.” His ads changed the landscape and had a lasting impact.
Revues, such as Ziegfield Follies, were popular in the early days of Times Square. The influx of caberet changed the ambience of the lobster palaces to what many considered less “high class.” There was also an influx movie theaters influx after 1914. The Strand theater opened in April, 1914 — a huge movie palace which sat almost 3,500. Movie palace shows dominate the scene for the next few years and they adopted the elaborate lit ad styles to draw in movie-goers.
The Wrigley’s sign seen above was in place from 1917-1924 and was a full block long. Crowds would come just to stare at this sign, and during World War I, it helped to promote war bond sales. When installed, it was the Gude Company’s largest sign ever. Advertising, movies, and tourism would dominate Times Square during the 1920s, when Prohibition’s policies and the subsequent economic depression would cause other types of Times Square businesses to fail, such as cabarets and theaters(5).
Many live performance theaters converted to movie theaters during the Great Depression. Vaudeville was especially hard hit by the advent of sound film. The Depression saw a rise to more bawdy entertainment and several burlesque shows, theaters that catered to ‘murder, mayhem, and adventure,” and post-Prohibition, the opening of several small bars(6). The Encyclopedia of New York City states “the neighborhood changed dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929. Few new theaters were built, and during the Depression many existing ones were converted into cheap ‘grinder’ houses that offered continuous showings of sexually explicit films.” This era also brought burlesque shows, peep shows, penny arcades, and dime museums to the neighborhood.
Service on the IRT Flushing Line (7 Train) subway line under 42nd Street was increased when the line expanded from Grand Central to Times Square in the 1920s. In addition, this train was part of the city’s efforts to get people to the 1939 World’s Fair (records at NYPL) location in Queens. WPA employees removed several of the existing surface streetcars tracks as subway service increased.
The glamorous reputation of Times Square remained largely intact during the Great Depression, despite the influx of more ‘bawdy’ businesses, and World War II brought renewed prosperity as well as many who catered to the entertainment of military personnel on their way overseas. Pop culture such as the Broadway play and Hollywood film On the Town demonstrate this, but the area soon became a haven for prostitution and hustlers. Attempts to thwart to growth of sex-related businesses in the 1950s mostly missed the mark. Watch footage of Times Square in the 1950s via YouTube.
By 1960, the New York Times ran an article titled “Life on W. 42nd St. A Study in Decay” in which the area is called “the ‘worst’ in town.” In this article, the reporter dwells on the elements that gave Times Square its reputation: vandalism, prostitution (hetero- and homosexual), loitering (especially in the subway arcades), shops selling knives or sexually explicit materials, grindhouse theaters, and believe it or not, loneliness and rock ‘n’ roll. In the book The Devil’s Playground, author James Traub analyzes the article, which ran front page in the Times, saying that things had not suddenly become more deviant in Times Square, just more visible.
The 1960 Times article expatiates on the homosexual presence in Times Square which had become quite visible. Several histories of the area, in particular Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Inventing Times Square, and the Times Square Alliance's website elaborate that the gay history of Times Square is quite long. Following Stonewall in 1969, the Gay Liberation Front marched in Times Square.
Additional visibility of the area came from the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy. This article by the Bowery Boys gives a comprehensive summary of the film and its relation to locations in New York, mostly along Times Square.
The 1976 film Taxi Driver “begins with a blurry surreal trip through Times Square and the surrounding blocks” [via Scouting NY], so Times Square as a setting in this era essentially tells viewers a lot about what they need to know about Robert De Niro’s lead character Travis Bickle, who works the night shift driving cabs in the epitome of 1970s seediness. The Scouting NY ‘before and after’ images really present the remarkable changes that Times Square has seen since revitalization efforts gained momentum in the 1980s and '90s.
Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins all had a hand in development plans for Times Square, but Mayor Rudy Giuliani is most often associated with the movement that brought big businesses, such as large-scale theaters, retail shops, restaurants, and hotels back into Times Square. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration brought in pedestrian plazas which allowed more free movement in the area. Sometimes referred to as “Disneyfication,” redevelopment in Times Square has been intense in the last 30 years. This interactive feature of the New York Times shows the changes. Over time, Times Square has offered both the high life and the underbelly of New York, and it seems that New Yorkers demand both aspects of their city.
Current Google Street View shows a different Times Square, the product of two dozen years of revitalization efforts. One Times Square is obscured by the electronic billboards that bring in more revenue than leasing the building to tenants would. It’s still a place of theater culture, of massive hotels, of busy subways (the busiest!), and shopping.
A Times Square History Reading List
Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World edited by William R. Taylor
Times Square Spectacular: Lighting Up Broadway by Darcy Tell
Times Square: A Pictorial History by Jill Stone
Where the Ball Drops: Days and Nights in Times Square by Daniel Makagon
On the Town : One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square by Marshall Berman
Ghosts of 42nd Street: A History of America's Most Infamous Block by Anthony Bianco
The Century in Times Square [from the archives of the New York Times]Tales of Times Square by Josh Alan Friedman