Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crossroads of the World

Times Square in New York City is one of the most famous places in the world. If you don't believe me, just try walking through there around curtain time in the theater district. 

The area, centered where 42 Street, Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect, acquired its name in 1904 when Albert Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, moved the newspaper's headquarters to a new skyscraper on what was then known as Longacre Square. The name stuck, even after The New York Times moved across Broadway in 1913. Following the area's development, people moved to the square in droves, and with them came brothels, pickpockets, and streetwalkers. Soon, in a foreshadowing of its later fate, the area turned into a veritable red-light district. In 1895, Longacre Square had a new tenant, Oscar Hammerstein, who developed a large entertainment complex in the hopes of rekindling an interest in opera. This complex, called the Olympia, occupied a full block on 42nd Street and featured three theaters.

Celebrities such as Irving BerlinFred Astaire, and Charlie Chaplin were closely associated with Times Square in the 1910s and 1920s. During this period, the area was nicknamed The Tenderloin because it was supposedly the most desirable location in Manhattan. However, it was during this period that the area was besieged by crime and corruption, in the form of gambling and prostitution. The general atmosphere changed with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Times Square acquired a reputation as a dangerous neighborhood in the following decades. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the seediness of the area, especially due its sleazy bars, sex shops and adult theaters, became an infamous symbol of the city's decline.

(Above information from Wikipedia and the Times Square Alliance websites.)

I first began going to Times Square in the 1960s. The area was bustling, but not the kind of place you wanted to find yourself after dark. Mixed in with the more adventurous tourists were hookers, panhandlers and con artists. People from Nebraska felt their jaws drop as they got a peek inside the neon porn palaces that dominated Times Square at the time. People on their way to the theater district lowered their heads and walked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the shady denizens who haunted the area. The once legitimate night clubs, restaurants and shops that thrived in better days were finding it harder and harder to make a living. Movies like Midnight Cowboy painted a grim but sadly accurate picture of what Times Square had become.

Reclamation of the area began with the commercial real estate boom in Manhattan during the 1980s. Desirable tenants like Disney began opening theaters in the area and brilliant new signage (Jumbotrons) began appearing including the Toshiba billboard directly under the New Year's Eve ball drop, the curved seven-story NASDAQ sign on 43rd Street and the Coca Cola and Samsung signs that flooded the night sky with light.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani led an effort to clean up the area, increasing security, closing sex shops, pressuring drug dealers to relocate, and opening more tourist-friendly attractions and upscale establishments. Advocates of the remodeling claimed that the neighborhood was now safer and cleaner. Detractors (idiots) countered that the changes  homogenized or "Disneyfied" the character of Times Square. In 2009 Mayor Mike Bloomberg de-mapped the streets from 42 to 47 along Broadway and closed them to automobile traffic, thus completing the transformation of the Crossroads of the World.

On December 31, 1907, a ball signifying New Year's Day was first dropped at Times Square, and the Square has held the main New Year's celebration in New York City ever since. On that night, hundreds of thousands of people congregate to watch the Waterford Crystal ball being lowered on a pole atop the building, marking the start of the new year. It replaced a lavish fireworks display from the top of the building that was held from 1904 to 1906, but stopped by city officials because of the danger of fire. The ball drop has continued except during World War II, when a minute of silence, followed by a recording of church bells pealing, replaced the ball drop because of wartime blackout restrictions. I went once as a teen to watch the ball drop, but is was less of a big deal then. Ever since I've been content to watch the event on TV along with millions of others around the world.

As a New Yorker I am always gratified when a once rundown neighborhood is reclaimed for the people. The new Times Square represents one of the best examples of what can be done when government, business and private citizens work together for the common good. I still get excited when I walk through the Square, and I'm proud that it now stands as one of the iconic places for people from around the world to gather in our great city.




  Craniofacial Association  

No comments: