When asked whether they prefer the new or old Times Square, many locals immediately respond: neither. Thousands of tourists swarm the area, while New Yorkers tend to stay as far away from the crowds as possible. But the spots that now house cheesy souvenir stores used to be home to a much darker scene.
In 1904, The New York Times moved into what was called Longacre Square, at the intersections of 42nd Street, Seventh Avenue and Bloomingdale Road (now known as Broadway). A grand opening party for the Gray Lady doubled as a holiday celebration in 1904. The Times moved out less than a decade later, but the name stuck. And although high-class amusements like Broadway shows were popular with New Yorkers, after the start of the Great Depression, the area was overtaken by seedier elements, such as prostitution and peep shows. The longest-lasting was Peep-O-Rama, which was open from 1950 to 2002; its bright red signage can be found at the Times Square Museum & Visitor Center (1560 Broadway between 46th and 47th Sts, timessquarenyc.org).
That didn’t stop the spread of the neighborhood’s trademark neon beacons. Both legitimate theaters and adult cinemas favored large-scale flashing lights to draw customers. Thanks to those glowing emblems, Times Square is the most visible spot in the city when viewed from the air. Current zoning laws even require that businesses post illuminated signs measuring at least 1,000 square feet for every 50 feet of sidewalk real estate.
In the 1990s, when Mayor Giuliani swept in determined to clean up Times Square, the porn shops and lowlifes were cleared out in favor of massive chain stores and restaurants. Crime rates dropped as tourists once again packed the area. (The Midtown South precinct reported 2,899 felony crimes last year, compared with 22,843 in 1990.) In its transformation from low-class spot to tourist destination, the neighborhood has never fallen short on entertainment. But proof of Times Square’s grittier, glittery past is still there—you just have to look harder to find it.
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