From Great Kill to Center of the Universe
Times Square, the five-block section of central Manhattan in which Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue, calls itself “the crossroads of New York” and “the center of the universe”. It is clearly the most-visited tourist attraction in the United States and perhaps in the world; on average, half a million people pass through Times Square every day, and on special occasions like V-J day at the end of World War II or the changing of the millennium on New Year’s Eve in 1999 as many as two million people have filled the two connected triangles that form Times Square.
This section of midtown Manhattan was a low-lying valley in ancient times, and Dutch settlers found fish and waterfowl where three small streams joined to form a large channel (Groote Kill), which then emptied into a deep bay in the large river they named after explorer Henry Hudson. This area became the settlement of Great Kill, an outlying area of New Amsterdam, which was in turn taken over by the British and became New York. After the American Revolution, the land was bought by a lieutenant of George Washington, General John Scott, and came in time to be owned by the family of John Jacob Astor.
As the first settlement of New York grew northward and became an increasingly large city, a more-or-less orderly pattern of numbered streets going east to west and avenues running south to north was built. The lands owned by the Astors and the family of William Vanderbilt came to be centered around 42nd Street and Seventh and Eighth Avenues. This area also became the center of carriage manufacturing and stables, and was eventually named Longacre Square, after Long Acre in London, where stables and the carriage trade were located.
The section just to the south, between 23rd and 42nd Streets, had at one time been very desirable real estate and was by analogy to beef called the Tenderloin district. By the early 19th century, this area was the center of the theater and entertainment district, and also included saloons and houses of prostitution. The theaters, saloons and houses of “ill repute” were gradually pushed northward by more profitable business and commercial development, and by the end of the American Civil War the area around Longacre Square was a rollicking center for adult entertainment, attended by a considerable amount of crime, which was known as “Thieve’s Lair”.
The first of many attempts to “clean up” the area around 42nd Street was led by businessmen who attempted to establish institutions of culture and “legitimate” theater there. The Metropolitan Opera House was built on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets in 1882, and in 1889 the German-born cigar manufacturer and aspiring producer and opera composer Oscar Hammerstein began to build theatres in the area, including the Olympia, the Republic and the Manhattan Opera House. With the aid of city officials Hammerstein and his partners were able to drive out most of the saloons and “fancy houses”, and with the introduction of electric lighting the theaters, restaurants and cafés they built blazed with light and that stretch of Broadway became known as “The Great White Way”.
Longacre Square was renamed in 1904, when Adolph Ochs moved the offices of The New York Times to the intersection of Seventh Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street. A station of the new subway system then under construction was built there and called “Times Square”. The name stuck, although the newspaper outgrew its premises and moved a block west and a block south in 1913. The Times began to mark the coming of the New Year with a fireworks display, but in 1907 decided to drop an illuminated ball from the flagpole on top of its building because of concern about starting a fire; this tradition has continued every year since except in wartime.
More than 40 theaters were opened in the several blocks around Times Square, and the Times erected illuminated signs which reported the latest news. It became the custom for crowds to gather in the square for special events, such as the World Series and presidential elections. The Thanksgiving parade instituted by Macy’s department store passed through the square, and the famous 1945 picture of a sailor kissing a girl amid cheering crowds became the symbol of America’s victory in the Second World War.
Times Square began to deteriorate a little in the Great Depression, and the decay was serious by the 1960s. Movies of the 1970s and 1980s epitomize the increasingly gritty and dangerous atmosphere of the time. Famous luxury hotels like the Astor and the Knickerbocker closed, theaters began to show pornography and the prostitutes returned along with drug dealers. In 1984 there were 2,600 crimes recorded on the block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, and 460 of them were violent felonies such as rape and murder. Most buildings became vacant and many derelict; in that same year, the total property tax receipts for the Times Square area were $6 million, which is about what a single building would pay in property tax today.
The turnaround of Times Square began around 1990, when the state of New York took over the empty historic theaters and began to demolish or rebuild them. The Times Square Business Improvement District was organized in 1992, a partnership between the city and businesses to improve the safety and cleanliness of the area. Most importantly, closure of “adult” entertainment businesses, aggressive enforcement of laws against such offenses as vagrancy, begging and window-breaking and a marked increase in police presence drove criminals and the sex and drug trade out of the area. The sometimes faded neon lights were replaced by large illuminated billboards called “spectaculars’ and huge ones called “jumbotrons”.
In fact, all businesses were required to have illuminated signs, and while many cities specify the maximum amount of lighted signage that businesses can have, in the Times Square area a minimum amount was specified. Particularly congested areas of Broadway were closed to vehicles and made into pedestrian malls; this was initially opposed by some businessmen, but has resulted in about 25 cents of every tourist dollar spent in New York City being spent in Times Square. This development was also helped by the involvement of giant consumer and entertainment businesses such as Disney, since in recent years slightly more people have visited Times Square than all of the Disney parks combined.
What to do in Times Square
Almost all of the “adult” entertainment is gone, but there is an enormous variety of more sedate entertainment in the area. This is still the Theater District, with most “Broadway” theaters, defined as those having 500 or more seats whether or not they are actually located on Broadway, and many “Off-Broadway” houses, which have between 100 and 500 seats, in the blocks between Sixth and Eighth Avenues from 41st to 52nd Streets.
There is another cluster of theaters, called Theater Row, on 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue, and several new theatres such as the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the June Allison Theater are located in the upper 30s between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. Tickets to Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-off-Broadway (very small venues, often with fewer than 100 seats, that often present new plays) theaters are sold at half price at the TKTS windows in a large red triangular structure in the northern triangle of the area, known as Duffy Square after Father Francis Duffy, highly-decorated military chaplain and longtime pastor of Holy Cross Church in Times Square.
The revival of Times Square has brought a great variety of other entertainment to these blocks, including costumed characters from Disney films and network television, who will mug for your camera and pose with you. Some street performers are much less fully costumed, such as the “Naked Cowboy” who has sung and played his guitar almost but not completely in the altogether for about 20 years. A trio of scantily-clad Spanish-speaking ladies known as “las Desnudas” also seek to attract the attention of people standing in Duffy Square, whether just for people-watching or while waiting in line for show tickets.
For indoor entertainment beside theater, there is the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, one of the largest cinema multiplexes in the country; tickets currently run around $16 for adults and $13 for children and seniors. Two of the last single-screen cinemas in New York are within walking distance for those who want a quieter movie experience: the Ziegfeld Theater, successor to the home of the famous Follies, is on 47th Street near Sixth Avenue, and the Paris Cinema still stands on 58th Street behind the Plaza Hotel.
The New York branches of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not are across the street from the Empire 25 cinemas, and the Discovery Times Square is on 44th Street. The Wax Museum, which opens at 9 a.m. most days and stays open until midnight on most weekends, has some attractions in common with its London parent but also focuses on New York celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga. The standard ticket is $29.60, $27.99 for locals and combinations are available with sightseeing excursions.
The same is true of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which has 500 exhibits inside and also offers free sideshows outside. Ripley’s is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., and tickets are $22.95-29.95 depending on age (but 20 per cent less when bought online). Discovery Times Square is best known for its Titanic exhibit and the long-running “Body Worlds” human anatomy displays, but also has interactive displays themed around hit movies such as The Hunger Games and The Avengers. Tickets are $27-29.50 for each exhibition, and hours are from 9 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m.
Tour buses are everywhere in Manhattan, and most of them can be boarded in Times Square or visitors can alight there and get on a subsequent bus. The Ride actually leaves from Times Square, and is a high-tech interactive experience that combines sightseeing, theater, comedy and virtual reality in the largest vehicle permitted on city streets, in which passengers sit facing the sights they are passing. The experience takes 75 minutes, costs $74.00 and runs every 30 to 60 minutes from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer and during the afternoon and evening otherwise. The Broadway Walking Tour ($30) leaves from The Actor’s Chapel on 49th Street at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and features aspiring actors and directors as guides along with an audio tour narrated by theatrical luminaries.
Iconic New York nightclubs of past decades continue to operate in or near Times Square, like the Rainbow Room a bit north at Rockefeller Center or the Rum Room at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street. Some vanished entertainment landmarks have been recreated, like the Copacabana, also on 47th Street. Several comedy clubs are in operation, Swing46 and the Iridium Club carry on the jazz tradition and the rhythm-and-blues nightclub established by the late B.B. King carries on after his recent passing. Town Hall, once the premier classical recital hall, is now a National Historical Site offering a wide range of musical performance. ABC television has returned to Times Square, and broadcasts of “Good Morning America” can be seen there each morning.
While the Astor Hotel is gone, there are 44 other hotels in the area, including the just-opened citizen, which features wall-to-wall windows and a MoodPad that controls everything in the room from lighting to wake-up alarms. Restaurant Row, a block of side-by-side restaurants on 46th Street, has long served the Theater District, but the Times Square Alliance of businesses lists approximately 300 members, not counting the ubiquitous street vendors of hot dogs and other fare. Barbetta, opened in 1906, is the oldest restaurant in New York still operated by the family that founded it, and is an Italian as well as U.S. historical landmark.
Other celebrated culinary institutions include Sardi’s, opened as a speakeasy in 1921 and famous for caricatures of its theatrical patrons, and Joe Allen, famous for its “wall of flops” featuring the posters of unsuccessful musicals. Some celebrated restaurants from other parts of the city have established branches in Times Square, such as Chinatown’s Grand Sichuan and John’s Pizza from Little Italy, and noted chefs like Daniel Boulud (DB Bistro on 44th Street), Charlie Palmer (Aureole on 42nd Street and Charlie Palmer at the Knick) and Mario Batali (Becco on 46th Street) have established a Times Square presence. Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack at 44th Street and Eighth Avenue has been voted the home of the nation’s best hamburger, and the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood that face each other across Broadway are centers of pilgrimage for fans of the chains.
There is extensive shopping of all kinds, ranging from sidewalk souvenirs and discounted merchandise to big-name retailers like H&M, American Eagle, Forever 21 and Sephora. Much of the merchandise is New York- oriented with an emphasis on theater in several Broadway establishments and official vendors of New York Yankee souvenirs. The flagship Hershey’s store is in Times Square, as is the largest outlet of Toy’s R Us, which features a number of interactive displays and a 60-foot ferris wheel that you can ride inside the store.
How to get to Times Square
Times Square is the center of New York’s transportation system. Buses to and from the city use Port Authority Terminal at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, and trains arrive at Grand Central Terminal, four blocks east on 42nd Street, or Pennsylvania Station, eight blocks south on Seventh Avenue. Almost all subway lines stop at the Times Square station, and those that do not stop at Port Authority station, which is connected. A shuttle operates from Times Square to Grand Central Terminal and the Lexington Avenue subway that serves the east side of Manhattan. Bus lines that serve Times Square include the M (for Manhattan)7, M16, M20 and M104. The basic fare for a bus and subway MetroCard is $2.75 ($1.35 for children and seniors), but there is an 11 per cent discount for two or more fares at a time. Taxis, pedicabs and car services such as Uber are more expensive but available almost everywhere