Times Square: Past and Present
Times Square in New York City has about 330,000 pedestrians passing through its sidewalks daily and attracts nearly a million visitors every year to watch the famous New Year’s Eve ball drop. It is also the beating heart of the entertainment industry of NYC, perched next to and promoting the Theater District. Those visiting NYC for the first time almost always find themselves at the Times Square address: the junction between Broadway and 7th Ave., stretching from West 42nd to West 47th streets. Funnily enough, this “Crossroads of the World” is not geometrically a square at all but two triangles in a bow-tie shape, which is oddly apt for such a dapper, glitzy place. One can’t imagine visiting the Big Apple without at least stopping by Times Square, NYC’s most family-friendly, entertainment-focused area full of fun characters and performers, but Times Square’s history shows that it wasn’t always that way.
A Brief Timeline of Times Square History
Over more than a century of Times Square history, facts show us that this part of the city has waxed and waned between extremes. The Times Square timeline is certainly a varied one: It’s gone from being a place where you could find carriage riders to top-hat-wearing gentlemen to shady 1970s adult theaters to entertainers dressed as children’s characters, but one thing this area has always been is bustling.
1872: City authorities decide to name this hub of the horse carriage industry Longacre Square after Long Acre in London. Longacre is later unofficially dubbed “Thieves Lair” by locals due to the area’s reputation for crime.
Caption: Longacre Square, now Times Square, in 1900
Attribution: Byron Company. Longacre Square (Now Times Square), Broadway and 42nd Street, 1900. Museum of the City of New York. 220.127.116.1132
1904: Longacre Square is renamed to Times Square. The New York Times, as it turns out, is why Times Square is called Times Square: The New York Times newspaper’s publisher, Adolph S. Ochs, moved its headquarters to One Times Square, a new skyscraper built at West 42nd Street, and cunningly convinced the mayor to construct a new subway station and name it “Times Square” in August of 1904.
Caption: This shows the construction of One Times Square, circa 1903.
Attribution: Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress) - no. 033385.
Caption: Here is the finished One Times Square building, circa 1905.
Attribution: Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress) – no. 4a06899
1907: The first Times Square ball drop in history happens outside of the new One Times Square building.
1913: The Lincoln Highway is created as the first transcontinental highway in the U.S., and the eastern terminus of this 3,389-mile road is at West 42nd Street and Broadway.
1920s: Advertising revenue generated in Times Square grows from $25 million to $85 million in a decade, filling the area with electric lights, like that of the Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum sign.
Caption: You can see the Wrigley’s gum sign at top left.
Source: NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b17540211
1923: After seeing the advertising in Times Square, director Fritz Lang uses it as an inspiration for his dystopian sci-fi silent film Metropolis.
Caption: Director Fritz Lang was inspired by the bright lights of Times Square when making his groundbreaking sci-fi film Metropolis.
Source: German Federal Archives, Bild 102-08538
1930s: Times Square becomes home to vaudeville theaters and burlesque halls and gains a reputation among locals for being a seedy neighborhood once again.
1937: The northern triangle of Times Square is dubbed Duffy Square as a memorial to Father Francis P. Duffy.
1942: Times Square goes dark as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia announces a mandatory dim-out of the exterior and interior lighting of Times Square to protect the citizens from potential enemy submarines along the coast.
1942-43: The yearly New Year’s Eve ball-drop party is put on hiatus due to La Guardia’s lighting restrictions.
1945: The famous V-J Day in Times Square, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, is snapped on Aug. 14. It’s one of America’s most famous historical photos.
Caption: Kissing the War Goodbye is another angle of the famous shot of the sailor and nurse on V-J Day by Lt. Victor Jorgensen.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration: NAID 520697
1959: Another sculpture is erected in Times Square, this time of actor George M. Cohan, of Over There fame. He’s also known for the song Give My Regards to Broadway, which includes the lyric, “Tell all the gang at 42nd Street that I will soon be there.”
1969: The Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square after the Stonewall riots, which resulted from a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Some consider this march to have been the first informal gay pride march.
Caption: The Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square in the first-ever informal gay pride march.
Source: NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b14442517
1973: The first TKTS booth opens to offer discount theater tickets.
1976: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver depicts Times Square during a more seedy and crime-ridden period. It’s changed quite a bit since Robert DeNiro played the odd and violent Times Square driver.
1978: Pornography and peep shows are big in Times Square throughout the decade; in 1978, CUNY researchers estimate a weekly profit between $74,000 and $106,000 for Times Square peep shows alone.
1981: Rolling Stone dubs West 42nd Street the “sleaziest block in America” due to the rise in porn theaters, peep shows, go-go bars, and other sexual entertainment.
Caption: The “sleaziest block in America” of the 1970s was known for its adult entertainment, featuring the types of shows rarely found on the streets of Times Square today.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration: NAID 554297
1984: Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, crime is extremely high in this area. A CUNY study from this year reports 2,300 crimes on just one block: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues.
1984: The Municipal Art Society asks artists to re-imagine crime-ridden Times Square in an art competition with interesting results.
1985-89: Crack cocaine arrives in New York City, and the drug trade and crime rates spike in the next few years.
1990s: Mayor Rudolph Giulani starts to clean up Times Square, for both better and worse, contracting big corporations like The Walt Disney Company, Madame Tussauds, Hershey’s, and AMC Theaters to open attractions in the area. While security was increased and porn theaters were closed, the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, a multi-decade project, didn’t come without consequences for the city’s citizens or criticisms of homogenization. The adult theater owners weren’t too keen on this change, either. The documentary Against All Odds: Transforming 42nd Street covers this conflict.
Caption: The traditional ball drop happens amid the Y2K panic in 1999.
Source: Paul Mannix (Flickr)
2002: A “Mind Over Madness” event fills Times Square with yoga practitioners. It has continued on the summer solstice every year since.
2009: Pedestrian malls are added to Times Square and Herald Square.
2010: Times Square becomes eerily empty when the area is evacuated after a car bomb threat on May 1. A T-shirt seller noticed smoke coming out of a Nissan Pathfinder, and a photograph-seller reported it to mounted police officer. The vehicle was full of firecrackers, gunpowder, and propane, but it did not properly detonate.
2011: A smoking ban makes Times Square officially a smoke-free zone, with a fine of $50 for violators.
2016: The work is completed for building a Times Square pedestrian plaza that gives tourists more room to explore.
Caption: The pedestrian plaza gives more space to the tourists of Times Square.
Source: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz), Wikimedia Commons
2017: On May 18, the Times Square crash happens. Navy veteran Richard Rojas jumped the sidewalk in his Honda Accord and drove into a crowd of people, killing one and wounding 11 others. It was one of the most violent events to happen in the area since 9/11.
Caption: Today’s Times Square is full of advertisements, pedestrians, and character performers.
Source: StockSnap (Pixabay)
Maps of NYC’s Most Famous Street
The history of Times Square and New York City as a whole has seen plenty of growth and change, as Times Square maps show.
Caption: The 1660 Castello Plan of New Amsterdam shows a very different NYC. It has no Times Square, obviously, but the grid layout of the city is in its beginnings.
Source: NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b13654715
Caption: This 1856 map plainly shows the grid that will essentially remain the city’s core layout.
Source: Courtesy of Murray Hudson, Halls, Tennessee
Caption: This 1899 map showing the Metropolitan Street Railway System shows that the basic shape of Manhattan and Times Square has not changed for more than a century.
Source: Library of Congress (Library of Congress Control Number: 2003630436)
Caption: Times Square is clearly pointed out as an important IRT station on this public transit map from 1904.
Source: NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b13658601
Caption: This 1911 map clearly labels Times Square and points it out as an important subway station.
Source: University of Alabama Library
Caption: A 1947 tourist attraction map for the Taft Hotel points out the important Theater District, showcasing the area’s importance among other NYC landmarks.
Source: W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library
The Ball Drop: How The New Year’s Eve Party Started
The history of the Times Square ball drop began with a publicity stunt arranged by New York Times publisher Ochs. A street festival outside the newspaper’s newly constructed One Times Square ended with an explosion of dynamite exactly as the clock struck midnight. It was a controlled fire, created by a pyrotechnic chemist, called “a torch to usher in the new born, a funeral pyre for the old which pierced the very heavens” in the paper the next day. It quickly became a yearly tradition, with crowds showing up the next year to see more fireworks and explosives.
Times Square New Year’s Eve parties continued for the next few years with massive fireworks displays, but the Times replaced the fireworks with a less-dangerous electrified ball in 1907. The 700-pound ball had 100 25-watt light bulbs. In 1908, people joined in the electric fun with battery-powered top hats that had “1908” written in tiny light bulbs. People loved the ball, so the tradition stuck, persisting to the present day.
Caption: The 2000 ball drop went all out.
Source: Hunter Kahn (Wikimedia Commons)
The ball has had several iterations: The 1907 ball was replaced in 1920 with a 400-pound ball made of wrought iron, in 1955 with an aluminum ball that weighed only 150 pounds, in 2000 with a new ball adorned with crystals, and 2007 with an LED and crystal ball. Today, the building’s owners have the “Big Ball,” a permanent attraction that can show any color and can be viewed at any time. It’s fitted with more than 32,000 LED lights and weighs nearly six tons.
A Timely Tradition
In the long history of New Year’s Eve in Times Square, only in 1942 and 1943 did the ball not drop. In those years, a chime was rung instead. Until 1995, the ball was lowered with a system of ropes and pulleys by a crew overseen by a man with a stopwatch. In 1995, they gave the ball computer effects and new rhinestones, but the ball was about two seconds late. But for the most part, the ball drop has been on time for the past century!
How Greater NYC Events Changed the Landscape of Times Square
The wider history of New York City has had a profound effect on its famous tourist attractions, from waves of immigration to cultural shifts, crime crackdowns, and major events. Throughout New York City history, the timeline includes many aspects that have greatly influenced Times Square.
NYC’s Yellow Journalism: If not for The New York Times, there would be no Times Square, and if not for sensationalist yellow journalism like that of the New York Journal giving people wildly inaccurate depictions of day-to-day events, there would be no New York Times, a subscription-based newspaper built on building up trust and accountability that helped to change journalism.
Public Transit and the IRT: Subway lines like that of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) system have been absolutely vital to the growth of “The Great White Way” and its environs. Times Square was introduced as one of the first 28 subway stations, and without it, the growth of this famous area may have never happened.
The Great Depression: The Great Depression affected all of the United States, but it especially affected NYC, as many people moved to cheaper neighborhoods and the flashy lights of Times Square were replaced with cheap vaudeville and burlesque. This penchant for cheap theater was associated with the area for decades to come.
The “I Love New York” Campaign: From turning the Times Square ball into an apple in the 1980s to selling T-shirts to tourists, the “I Love New York” campaign, created in 1976 to help promote tourism in New York state, has never really left Times Square.
The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: The entire world was shocked by the 9/11 attacks, but those in Times Square felt it pretty intimately, which can be seen in their reactions. Things were tense after the attacks, and they’ve never really stopped being tense, with hundreds of police officers and military personnel posted in the area ever since.
Stop-and-Frisk: This controversial police strategy for stopping crimes between 2003 and 2013, as unfortunately racially motivated as it might have been, lowered petty crimes in many areas of the city, but the anxieties around this practice never really went away.
Hurricane Sandy: Since Times Square is fairly inland on the island, the street and subway station went largely unharmed, but they were oddly quiet.
The role of Times Square in New York history is hard to overestimate, but the city’s overall culture and events elsewhere in the five boroughs have also affected this iconic part of the Big Apple, effects that are visible to visitors today.