Less of a square and more like two triangles located at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York City, Times Square has been associated over the years with a series of seemingly opposite combinations: both high and low culture, glitz and grime, and exciting bright lights and seedy dark corners. The history of Times Square is a direct reflection of the history of Americans' relationship with their cities.
The origin of Times Square can be traced to the 1811 New York Commissioner of Streets and Roads' plan, which laid out the Manhattan grid above Fourteenth Street. The significance of this plan, and many others like it across the United States prior to and after 1811, is that the future growth of the American city was partitioned off and predetermined as easy-to-develop slices of land. This not only assured efficient exploitation, but also brought about a sort of "democratization" of the city, which the older cities of Europe with their main squares, large cathedrals, and prominent town halls did not possess. By virtue of this new grid, every building was just as important as the next, at least in terms of location on the grid. And so, the nineteenth-century American city gradually filled up its preplanned grid, creating uniform streets between often not-so-uniform buildings. American city-dwellers of this time lived in cities because they wanted to; that is, because they preferred the orderly and paved conditions of the city over the often irregular and muddy conditions of the rural areas, the only other option at this time (just before the suburbanization of America).
As New York expanded north from 14th Street, the diagonal path of the former Indian trail known as "the Bloomingdale Road" (later Broadway) was so strong that it ignored the 1811 grid plan and cut right through it. As a result, at every intersection of Broadway with a north-south avenue, a "square" came into being: Union Square at Fourth (Park) Avenue, Madison Square at Fifth Avenue, Herald Square at Sixth Avenue, and Long Acre (Times) Square at Seventh Avenue.
In the 1890s, live-performance theatres (or "legitimate thea-tres") began to locate themselves in and around Long Acre Square: Oscar Hammerstein's 1895 Olympia Theatre on Broadway between 44th and 45th streets was one of the first and most famous. Others soon followed from their former locations below 23rd Street, and the area soon became known as a "theatre district." At its peak in 1925, there were approximately 80 legitimate theatres within the vicinity of Times Square.
The story goes that because the City of New York had not yet installed street-lighting as far north as Long Acre Square, theatre owners took it upon themselves. Exploiting the new technology of electric lighting, the fronts of the new theatres became giant advertisements, spelling out the play on offer and sometimes also the main players. Later, multiple-story-high advertisements for chewing gum, soft drinks, and other products appeared. The result was that by about 1910, Broadway was dazzlingly lit up at night and became known as "The Great White Way."
In 1904, Long Acre Square changed its name to Times Square after the completion of the New York Times tower at 42nd Street and Broadway. The newspaper decided to celebrate the opening of its new building by counting down the last minutes of 1904 from the top of it. Two years later, the festivities grew to include the lowering of a ball at midnight. This event soon grew into the enormous annual party held every year in Times Square.
Also in 1904, a subway shuttle was opened which linked Times Square with Grand Central Station at 42nd and Park Avenue. This was followed by an IRT line (1918) and a BMT line (1923), both with stops at 42nd Street—and thus another aspect of Times Square was born: a transportation hub, an interchange, a "Crossroads of the World." This nickname later was strengthened by an IND line stop (1932) and the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal (1950) at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and the first Lincoln Tunnel entrance/exit (1937) at 42nd and Tenth Avenue.
The theatres (and their accompanying restaurants, bars, and hotels), the fantastic lights, and the busy transportation interchanges were all direct reflections of how the concept of "city" was portrayed in the mind of an American at the turn of the twentieth century. The city at that time was a place of energy, excitement, and culture. It was the place to be, the place where anything could happen and where most things did. The theatre represented high culture, and those who attended the performances were the elite. The lights, however, could be enjoyed by anyone, and Broadway, Times Square, and 42nd Street (it is difficult to separate them) at the turn of the twentieth century was a place to see and be seen.
With the arrival of talking movies in the late 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s, the character of the Times Square area began to change. It still remained a center for entertainment, but at that time both high and low culture were represented: live performance and musical comedy theatres on one side, and burlesque houses and "movie palaces" on the other. In addition, in that time before plane travel became commonplace, New York City was a port of call for anyone traveling between Europe and America, especially during World War II when most every American soldier passed through and spent some time at Times Square. It was a crowded and popular place, as exemplified by the estimated two million people who thronged Times Square on August 14, 1945, to read the official announcement of Japanese surrender on the Times building's "zipper" (news bulletin board).
In the years following World War II, the rise of television (which brought entertainment into the home, no need to go out) and city suburbs (which were clean, spacious, and safe) further strengthened the decline of Times Square and also the American city. The area began to take on vulgar associations, and its large-scale advertisements reflected this with block-long flashing neon gin bottles and 30-foot-high heads which puffed cigarettes boasting real smoke. The 42nd Street corridor became known not only for pornographic movies, but also its easy access to prostitution, and by extension, it also became a place for illegal drug trading and street gambling.
To many city-dwellers, the new burlesque houses, movie palaces, and general gawking crowds were an insult to the city but were part of a growing trend; it was changing from being a special place where special things happened to being an ordinary, common place associated with dirt and grime, overcrowded conditions, degeneracy, and crime, and, as a result, neglect and dereliction. After World War II, the American city was not seen as a place to live. Instead, it wasseen as a place to get away from—hence the growth of suburban communities which, however, paradoxically still depended upon the city as the "place to work."
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, as foreshadowed by the 1967 replacement of the 1904 Times building's original facade with blank marble panels, the Times Square area again dramatically changed. This time it was a physical, not social change: from a mixture of different-sized theatres and commercial buildings into a wasteland of overscaled and faceless skyscrapers. Many famous turn-of-the-century theatres were demolished to make way for new developments, which were carried out with the promise that they would "revitalize" Times Square, but all they really did was add to its density.
One of the reactions to this change of Times Square was the 1987 city ordinance that required new buildings to include "super" signage several stories high and with varying degrees of animation. In addition, a 1988 ruling gave "landmark" status to most remaining theatres in the area, following the general trend in New York and other American cities of building preservation by government intervention. At the same time, large-scale musical productions with hummable tunes and easy lyrics catering to a simpler audience than live theatre became successful at Times Square theatres.
Various urban planning development studies and inquiries were undertaken to ascertain if anything could be done for the area, but no consensus was reached. In 1992, the private Times Square Business Improvement District, composed of area property owners and residents, was established. This organization, similar to others set up across the United States at this time, was privately funded to undertake those duties normally associated with the city government: public safety, sanitation, community services, economic strategy, and tourism promotion.
The city ordinances concerning the aesthetics of future development, the listing of "historic" buildings, and the creation of private entities to do the city's job all had the goal of retaining a sort of street-life status quo, but at the expense of turning Times Square into a regulated and controlled public amusement park. This last stage reflects the state of the American city at the turn of the twenty-first century: the city as a place to visit, as one might visit an amusement park. As Americans began to not only live and work in the suburbs, they also began to realize that while the suburbs might be cleaner, more spacious, and safer than the city, they were also more boring. The city, at this point, became that preserved exciting piece of the past whose purpose was to be used when one wanted that "urban experience."
In 1996, the next logical step along this road was taken as The Disney Corporation renovated the Amsterdam Theatre (1903), once home to the Ziegfeld Follies, for its own use in staging offerings such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Dick Clark's Rock 'n Roll New Year's Eve celebration of 1998 (his twenty-seventh), complete with its ever youthful and tanned host, was reportedly attended by half a million people and watched on television by an estimated 300 million. At that point, the only things missing were crying kids and the long lines for the rides.
—Christopher S. Wilson
Dunlap, David W. On Broadway: A Journey Uptown over Time. New York, Rizzoli International, 1990.
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. New York, Kondansha International, 1966.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Rencoret, Francisco Javier. New York City: The Edge of Enigma. Princeton Architectural Press, 1991.
Stern, Robert A. M., Gregory Gilmartin, and John Massengale. New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915. New York, Rizzoli International, 1983.
Stern, Robert A. M., Gregory Gilmartin, and Thomas Mellins. New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism between the Two World Wars. New York, Rizzoli International, 1987.
Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York, The Monacelli Press, 1995.
TIMES SQUARE in New York City, formerly Longacre Square and often referred to as the "Great White Way" because of the Broadway theaters' lights that illuminate the district, is formed by the intersection of three streets—Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and Forty-second Street. It was renamed for the New York Times building erected at the opening of the twentieth century. By the 1920s the neighborhood became a concentrated entertainment district of theaters, vaudeville, cabarets, bars, and restaurants. The 1929 stock market crash took its toll on the area and many businesses that once attracted a well-heeled clientele turned to seamier forms of entertainment. In particular, pornographic movie houses, "peep shows," and the flesh trade gradually infested the district. By the 1960s the drug trade added an additional element of danger to the neighborhood. However, the area was never totally deserted by legitimate forms of entertainment and Broadway shows always guaranteed the retention of a certain flow of legitimate commercial traffic into the area. During the 1990s, New York City began a slow but steady push for its revitalization. In the early 2000s that process, sometimes referred to as "Disneyfication," was nearly complete and the district was a mecca for family-oriented tourism and entertainment.
Rogers, W. G. Carnival Crossroads: The Story of Times Square. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.
Stone, Jill. Times Square: A Pictorial History. New York: Collier, 1982.
Taylor, William, ed. Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1991.
See alsoBroadway .
Times Square ★½ 1980 (R)
A 13-year-old girl learns about life on her own when she teams up with a defiant, antisocial child of the streets. Unappealing and unrealistic, the film features a New Wave music score. 111m/C VHS, DVD . Tim Curry, Trini Alvarado, Robin Johnson, Peter Coffield, Elizabeth Pena, Anna Maria Horsford; D: Allan Moyle; W: Jacob Brackman; C: James A. Contner.