Day 810: Where Commerce Screams In Glittering Light

originally published March 20, 2014

Without question, Times Square is the center of the urban-tourist universe, and all other city cores are distant suburbs. The splashy lights and night-defying non-stop glow are mesmerizing, intoxicating… until you realize that most of the magic around you are advertisements. Even then, all those pleas for the pennies in your pockets blend together into a euphonic crescendo, a blast of visual tympani that will leave your rods and cones shimmying a jitterbug for months.

The neighborhood is also one of America’s safest – apart from the occasional terrorist threat, of course. It may be the pinnacle achievement of urban Disneyfication, but it is unparalleled as a tourist mecca. There’s nothing to do in Times Square, and therein lies its brilliance. Sure, you can shop at a couple stores, snarf back a McBurger or slurp up a margarita at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But those options pop up around any major attraction, don’t they?

In Times Square you are there to look. Not at a specific building, just at the air around you, tickled to life by neon and the hot blue breath of LED signscapes. You may be one of thousands of pedestrians (or millions if it’s New Year’s Eve), but your feet are planted at the nexus of America, where corporate cash, glitzy braggadocio and our collective self-importance collide in a glamorous display. It’s hard to believe that not long ago, the area was astoundingly natural.

Don’t let the frilly collar fool you; John Morin Scott was a certified bad-ass, one of George Washington’s generals and ballsy enough to keep his heels firmly into the mud as British forces kicked Revolutionary ass in the Battle of Brooklyn. He was the last of Washington’s top men to argue against surrendering the island of Manhattan to the British in 1776. Was it his unflinching spirit? His weep-worthy patriotism? Or (more likely) the vast amounts of land he owned in what would someday be called Midtown?

Scott’s mansion was located on what is now 43rd Street, probably not far off modern-day Times Square, maybe near where the Hard Rock Café sits today. Not long after General Scott had shuffled off the planet, the land was acquired by America’s first multi-millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Astor sold most of his land in chunks as the city flexed its muscles northward. A tiny hamlet just to the northwest curiously named Great Kill had built an economy manufacturing carriages. That industry shuffled down to Astor’s land, and the region’s first economy was born.

Gone were the fish-laden streams and the gently rolling hills that had summoned nature’s sigh off the Hudson. Astor’s dreams of creating a northern hub of New York were quickly realized, and soon the region was named Longacre Square after the Long Acre district in London, which was also known for its carriage production. And with industry came… perks. Brothels, taverns and smoke shops lined the streets, and crime was an everyday occurrence. The first theatre was cracked open by Oscar Hammerstein I in 1895. The Olympia competed with the Empire Theatre just off the Square, but more importantly it helped to establish the region as a theatre district.

And so began the Square’s inescapable duality – a century of teetering between high culture and low scummery. Downtown you’d find the city’s gyrating bustle, uptown its more affluent citizenry, basking in the relative spaciousness of the uncluttered streets. In the middle was the neighborhood of base indulgence, not quite as sketchy as the Five Points neighborhood a few decades earlier, but not somewhere you’d want to raise your kids. Then one company moved into a sparkly new skyscraper at the south end of Longacre Square and changed the game.

Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, had enough grease with Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. to persuade him to rename the area Times Square in honor of his newspaper making its home in the building. The new name was welcomed in 1904, and despite the Times finding snazzier digs a few blocks west in 1913, the moniker stuck. It took literally three weeks after the Times Square naming ceremony for the first lighted advertisement to show up in the Square, on the side of a bank on 46th and Broadway.

Times Square became the beating heart of New York’s cultural scene throughout the 1910’s and 20’s, with theatre folk like Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire sauntering from venue to venue and early movie stars like Charlie Chaplin pitching in to concoct New York’s first happening neighborhood. They called the area The Tenderloin, a 19th-century term for the seedy and corrupt urban blight that continued to creep along in the theatre district’s footsteps as it moved from the Great White Way (the electrically-lit section of Broadway between 23rd and 34th streets) up to Times Square. The big shows were playing the big theatres, but you still wouldn’t bring your kids there after dark.

In the 1930’s, the scruff on Times Square’s chin grew thicker. Tourists would still flock to the glitz for the thrill of the visceral city, but the scene became more and more dominated by gambling and prostitution. In a lavish 1937 ceremony led by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the northern slab of Times Square was dubbed ‘Duffy Square’, named for Chaplain Francis P. Duffy, a WWI hero. His statue was unveiled in a torrent of national pride. A few years later, once the US had a few more war scars on its visage, Times Square was famous again for its massive throngs of patriotic celebrants on V-J day in August, 1945, including the iconic image of a sailor kissing a woman in a white dress.

Not long after that, things turned ugly in Times Square. That wanton scruff had grown into the unkempt shag of a hiccupping hobo as sex shops, porno theatres and go-go bars speckled the landmark’s fringes. By the 1980’s, Times Square was not high on the to-do list for families visiting New York City.

Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins began the process of wringing out the greasy blemish in the guts of Manhattan, but it was Rudy Giuliani who beefed up the police presence and firmly invited the more grizzly businesses to relocate. The theatres around Times Square and along 42nd street were restored and modernized, and the so-called Disneyfication of the area took hold. The aim was to create exactly what you’ll find there today: heaps of tourists nudging past one another to bask in a 3-story M&M’s store and a tacky Planet Hollywood restaurant.

It may seem plastic and lacking the raspy-voiced character that lent a gruff but distinctive voice to Midtown throughout most of the 20th century, but it’s mostly free of street crime now. Also, the secure civility of the place has opened up other corners of New York to claim the local ‘coolness’ factor. Times Square may still be the place to go for eats after a show, but now it belongs to advertising.

To put this in context, The New York Times Building that had once heralded a new era for the gritty Longacre Square now sits completely empty, apart from a Walgreens drug store in its lower floors. Its owners decided almost 20 years ago that while the exterior was perfect as the most premium advertising space on the planet (and it is), it wasn’t cost-effective to rent out the small floors inside to tenants. And that’s Times Square today: glitz and lights on the outside, curiously vacant at its core.

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