Times Square Makes a Comeback: a Brief History

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Longacre Square Catches up with the Times

Times Square was originally known as Longacre Square. In 1895, a local developer thought that it would be a good idea to build some residences as part of a new “uptown” neighborhood. Once the residences were built, people came in droves to Longcacre Square. However, with these new tenants came brothels, criminals and prostitutes. In a sign of things to come, the area became a veritable red light district.

In 1895, a new tenant came to the square: Oscar Hammerstein I. Mr. Hammerstein had the idea of building an opera house in the square. The complex, known as the Olympia, took up an entire city block and included three entire theaters.

The opening of the Olympia ushered in an influx of live performance theaters that made the square a hub of both vaudeville and more serious live performance plays. The theaters opened in an area called the Great White Way, which was named after the bright white lights that lined this part of the square.

In 1904, the New York Times newspaper, held a New Years’ Eve celebration to commemorate moving into the area, which now became known as Times Square. The building that the Times had moved into was the second largest building in Manhattan at that time. The New Years Eve celebration brought crowds of people, and became an annual tradition in Times Square.

Times Square during New Years’ Eve

By 1915, Times Square had become a vibrant theater district. During the 1914-1915 theater season, there were 113 productions that were staged in a 13 block area of the square. Many celebrities flocked to the area, including Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, and Irving Berlin. The lights were shining brightly now, but in a few years, many of those lights would be shut off.  

The Depression and an Age of Vice

With the coming of the depression in the 1930’s changes soon came to Times Square. The plays that had been so popular before were now closing because very few people could afford to see them. Many of the theaters soon stopped running plays altogether. These theaters chose instead to show Hollywood movies as they were becoming more popular and were much cheaper to show than a live play.

Even after World War II, the theaters failed to come back to Times Square. They were replaced with theaters that offered live nude shows, sex shops, erotic bookstores and x-rated movie theaters. These shops and theaters brought with them criminals and drug dealers. During the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Times Square gained a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in New York City.

Revival of Times Square

An aerial view of Times Square

The 1980’s brought changes for the better to Times Square. In an effort to improve safety, city officials made new laws and helped to tear down buildings in the area. By 1993, there were only 36 “adult” businesses, as opposed to 140 adult businesses in the 1970’s.

By the 1990’s Times Square had become a vibrant area for visitors to New York City. Now there are around 26 million visitors each year to the square. Some of the more popular attractions in Times Square include Rockefeller Center and Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

Times Square Fun Facts

  • The Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve is celebrated by 1 million people in person and 100 million viewers watching from around the world.
  • Times Square became smoke free in 2011.
  • Times Square is not actually a square, but rather two triangles
  • The photograph of the famous kiss between a soldier and a nurse occurred in Times Square at the end of WWII and was documented by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
  • There is a hidden bar frequented by celebrities called Bar Centrale inside an unmarked townhouse on W. 46th Street.

Sources

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