Times Square, the Crossroads of the World, is one of New York City’s most recognizable landmarks and definitely one of the city’s most crowded areas, recording an average of 360,000 people in and out of the square daily. But the mega advertising, shopping, and tourist hub of today represents a drastic change from what Times Square was at its start and even what it looked like just a few decades ago.
This current heart of Manhattan was originally known as Long Acre Square. In the early 19th century, the area was a largely open space that featured horse trading and entertainment. Through the 1800s, it grew in popularity as new theaters popped up, bright lights were added, and once the city’s first subway system, the Interboro Rapid Transit Company, launched in 1904 it became an even bigger attraction.
An early visionary in what the evolving Long Acre Square could be, Adolph S. Ochs, owner and publisher of the New York Times, decided to make it the location for the paper's new headquarters. In 1904, Ochs garnered the support of New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. to sign a resolution officially renaming the location Times Square.
New York Times Finds a Home
Times Tower opened in January 1905 and the area on Broadway and Seventh Avenue would continue to blossom into a favorite location for locals and tourists. But the budding square’s elevating status was short-lived after the stock market crashed and the Great Depression hit in 1929.
Times Square was hanging on by a thread, and so to adapt, cheap eateries and theaters that screened peep shows and pornography rolled in. This was the start of another transformation for the famed crossroads of the world.
Porn shops and peep shows are seen in the Times Square section of New York, Oct. 4, 1984. (AP Photo/Mario Cabrera
“Times Square goes into a pretty steep decline, such that by the 1960s and '70s, it really is associated with sex work, drugs. It’s the image of Times Square that’s captured in movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. It is just fully a district of vice and illegal activity,” Lilly Tuttle, curator at the Museum of New York, told Cheddar.
During the 1980s, crime in New York City was skyrocketing and many of the city’s most serious felonies were being committed in the historic square. Efforts to begin another transformation of the area started to take shape toward the end of the decade as more socially mainstream businesses trickled in and law enforcement cracked down on illicit activities.
Dinkins’ Disney Deal
Mayor David Dinkins is largely responsible for the tourist attraction that Times Square is today, after he convinced the Walt Disney Corporation to take over the deteriorating New Amsterdam Theater in 1993. Disney signed a nonbinding agreement with the Dinkins administration on his final day in office and went on to sign a 99-year lease to take over the theater.
Dinkins’ successor, Rudy Guiliani took clamping down on crime in New York City, and Times Square in particular, to a new level with buffed up policing tactics. By 1995, crime rates across the city — and throughout the country according to the Brennan Center for Justice — began to drop significantly, and Times Square was coming into another rebirth. Peep shows and adult theaters were slowly pushed out and replaced.
As Times Square became a more safe, family-friendly location toward the late 1990s and 2000s, tourist traffic picked up. Beginning in 2009, foot traffic would increase even more when the city started work on a temporary pedestrian plaza in Times Square, with permanent construction alongside additional plazas throughout the city being built in the years afterward.
Up until 2019, Times Square averaged 50 million tourists a year. Then the pandemic hit. Last year, foot traffic plummeted to 125,000 people daily, a far cry from its peak when 450,000 people visited the area on its busiest days.
The question now is how will tourism bounce back in Times Square in the era of COVID-19? Just a few months into 2021 the outcome looks promising as crowds have begun to return. As more people get vaccinated daily, it's possible the throngs of tourists will reach pre-pandemic levels once again.
Video produced by Christine Beldon. Article written by Lawrence Banton.
For the full story on why New York City's Times Square changed so much, click here or watch below.