Time Squared

The calm before the storm on New Year’s Eve

“Hey there, where to?”

“Times Square. We want to see the Lego store, M & M World, and the Toys R Us there. Do you know where they are?”

“Of course I do, I’m a cabdriver.”

“Great. Our son’s never been to those before and he wants to see them.”

“Well, he’ll have lots of company. I can guarantee you that.”

There is probably not an part of the city that draws more people to it than the area around the convergence of Broadway and 7 Ave., more commonly known as Times Square. Named after the newspaper that was formerly headquartered in the building in the center of the above image, it has undergone more change than any other neighborhood in the city over the course of the 20th Century. When the original Times Building first opened, it was the tallest structure in the vicinity and nowhere near where the other newspapers were based since those were all clustered around City Hall. The IRT changed all of that by beginning the first waves of growth and dispersal of Manhattan’s population but what many don’t realize was that the original Times Square station was a local only stop and didn’t become an express station until the completion of the dual contracts station over a decade later.

Over the following years, the fortune of the neighborhood mirrored that of the City as a whole. Hotels and theaters popped up in the roaring 20’s, V-E and V-J days were celebrated by tens of thousands there during World War II, movie premieres on the east coast took place there in front of throngs of onlooking fans, and as white flight drained the city of vitality and tax revenue, few areas took a worse blow than the neighborhood that was built on performances that were staged indoors and spontaneous outdoors. All one has to do is watch Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, or the opening scene of Shaft to see how far Times Square had fallen into disrepair. When I was growing up, it was something to avoid and I can still remember my Mom forcing me to look straight ahead as we walked back toward the Bus Terminal to head home.

It was around that time where the State and City moved in to take over many of the dilapidated properties and turn the area into a redevelopment zone. The first phase saw such projects as the Marriot Marquis, 750 7 Ave., and 1585 Broadway transform the northern half of the “bowtie” into a corporate canyon and the dot-com boom and growth of new media fueled the construction of the headquarters for Conde Nast and the North American base for Reuters,  among the new towers in the southern half of the Square. Even the New York Times got in on the act, as they moved out of their 43 St. offices and into a brand-new Renzo Piano skyscraper on 8 Ave. in the middle of the last decade. For all of the clamor to clean out the smut and restore it to it’s former glory, a funny thing happened once crime declined and families were able to trek through the area unscathed:

Some locals missed the old Times Square.

Times Towers (clockwise from upper left) –  Ernst & Young, Times Square Tower, Conde Nast, and Reuters

One of the great debates among New Yorkers now is whether they like the 24-hour three ring circus that the crossroads of the world has become. Many are nostalgic for the grime and grit that can no longer be found there. The three-card monte players are a thing of the past, Howard Johnson’s and Nathan’s  are no longer in the neighborhood, and the only women of ill repute can be found coming out of Lace and Flashdancers. Even the video arcades are long gone, as kids like the one who came into my cab last week now have commercials masquerading as stores to separate them from their money.

What New Yorkers complain about the most isn’t the three-dimensional reconstruction that took place over waves of economic booms, but the two-dimensional one whose tentacles have quietly overtaken the city during the great recession. Of course, I’m referring to the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

It’s not the first time the traffic flow has been altered on the streets of Times Square, as any pre-195o’s picture will attest to. It’s hard to imagine now but at one time, the avenues of New York had *two* way traffic. Think it’s bad on 5 Ave. now? Try having oncoming vehicles make a left turn as you cross a busy midtown intersection. In the mid 1950’s, the avenues were converted to one way and even today, I still groan when I have to take 3 Ave. in the East Village and have half of the vehicles in front of me attempt to make a left turn.

The new changes in the flow of people have riled so many because it’s the most visible example of the “us vs. them” battle that has emerged in recent years. Planners vs. users, Bloomberg vs. commonfolk, bicyclists vs. cars, locals vs. tourists. All of them have an agenda and as the neighborhood became more crowded throughout more of the day, space became more of a premium. As more buses hauled more tourists in and the pedicab industry grew, they had to compete with record volumes of traffic in a smaller amount of space, since Broadway was now cut off between 47 and 42 Streets. Locals may have opted for alternate ways to get around but as skyscraping hotels and flagship stores opened up, more people from out of town had more reasons to decamp in Times Square when visiting the Big Apple.

Because so many people eat, shop, and seek entertainment there, it’s only natural that the square is one of the moss-photographed sections of the city. Of course, it also means that I pass through it more than just about any other neighborhood during a typical shift. What was crowded early may thin out a few hours later and then crowd up again later in the night if a demonstration or roadwork clog up 7 Ave. during an off-peak time of the night. There are few other parts of the city where the difference of 20 or 30 minutes can be like night and day, even if the stars in the sky are perpetually blotted out by the bright lights of the signage. The turn restrictions and closing off of Broadway make Times Square nearly impossible to escape from during a jam and with so many people hailing cabs there throughout the night, keeping up with the traffic there is always a game that the driver can’t afford to lose.

The drama still takes place there as it has throughout much of the neighborhood’s history but like so much on TV today, it all seems scripted. The same tourists from the same parts of America will come and see the same Broadway plays that their parents saw or their kids will see in a movie theater. They’ll eat at the same chain restaurants and visit the same stores that they can find near a mall back home. Everyone will want his/her picture taken with the Naked Cowboy and the women who dresses up as the Statue of Liberty and they’ll spend their money on the street”artists” selling the same variations of 10 pictures and cheap t-shirts made overseas. They’ll even comment on the camera store that’s “Going out of Business”, just as it was 20 years ago.

Only the astute cabdriver will be fortunate enough to pass through the same streets and not have the same experience. The people in his cab will be from all corners of the globe, no two of them will want the same take on the homogenized experience as the last person who wanted to go there, and every passage through the Square will be different than the one before it, just as no two boards on Frogger are quite alike. A few sharp-eyed people will notice that the ball that’s dropped on New Year’s Eve is permanently on displayed on top of the old Times Tower, ready for it’s close-up on New Year’s. None of them will think that Groundhog Day (a la the Bill Murray movie) would be more appropriate to celebrate there, since the entire effect of Times Square is that of a shopping mall set in the urban fabric of New York. For a part of the city that many consider to be its heart, the Big Apple deserves more than the pacemaker that it ended up with after all the redevelopment.

No wonder they hate us – Times Square

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