From Brothels to Broadway: A Short History of Times Square

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Imagine an area full of horse stables and carriages. Now picture an area full of peep shows, with pickpockets and drug dealers lurking around every corner. And finally, imagine an area illuminated by flashing neon signs, with crowded streets full of awestruck tourists and life-sized cartoon characters. It’s obvious that the last place is Times Square, but did you know at one point those other two places were once Times Square too? That’s right, Times Square wasn’t always the technicolor wonderland we know and love (or love to hate). Let’s explore the area’s past lives.

History of Times Square, Part 1: Brownstones and Broncos

Longacre Square in 1898. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Longacre Square in 1898. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Before the area at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue was known as Times Square, it was first called Longacre Square. Unless you were a horse and carriage enthusiast, there wasn’t much to draw you to the area. Horses, brothels, and brownstones were all this place had going for it. But that would change in the early 1900s as the city started to develop further northward. First, a few theaters like Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia moved to Longacre Square. But the real development began when the city announced that public transportation would extend to the area and that the New York Times would be building a new headquarters at the 42nd Street intersection. In honor of the neighborhood’s new centerpiece, which at the time was the second tallest building in the city, Longacre Square was renamed Times Square.

History of Times Square, Part 2: An Entertainment District

The early 1900s. Image via Library of Congress.
Times Square in the early 1900s. Image via Library of Congress.

The New York Times didn’t stay long in their new home, outgrowing the space by 1913. But by then several more theaters had put down roots in Times Square, along with high class hotels and kitschy themed restaurants. But it wasn’t only the Broadway shows attracting thousands of locals and tourists; people flocked to the area to see the spectacle of lights created by the buildings’ neon advertisements. As technology improved, these signs became more and more outlandish, partly because the advertisers were trying to outdo each other. Little did they know, things were going to get a lot darker for “The Great White Way.”

History of Times Square, Part 3: From Broadway to Bawdy

Times Square in the seedy '70s. Image via National Archives and Records Administration.
Times Square in the seedy ’70s. Image via National Archives and Records Administration.

Like elsewhere in the country, the onset of the Great Depression meant lean times for the theaters of Times Square. It was the final curtain call for many of the area’s theaters, and the ones that remained began specializing in more lowbrow forms of entertainment such as burlesque shows and peep shows. Some theaters were so desperate to stay in business that they started showing straight up porn. The seediness that was always somewhat present in the area now became much more visible. In fact, during World War II, Times Square was a popular destination for enlisted soldiers because it was an easy place to have a “good time” before they went off to die in war.

This decline of Times Square only continued in the decades following World War II. Tourists still came to the area to see the Broadway shows and bright lights, but they would also get an eyeful of prostitution, sex shops, and drug dens. By the late 1970s, Times Square topped the city’s list for criminal activity. Variety magazine nicknamed the area “Slime Square,” while the New York Times minced no words by calling it “the worst area in town.”

History of Times Square, 4: The Era of Disneyfication

Times Square today. Image by Wallula from Pixabay.
Times Square today. Image by Wallula from Pixabay.

By the 1990s, Times Square was long overdue for revitalization. The governments of New York City and New York State teamed up for a project they called “42nd Street Now!” They renovated decaying theaters and enticed corporations like Disney with tax breaks if they moved into the area. Today you don’t have to worry about accidentally walking into a drug den when you visit Times Square. Now you only have to worry about whether or not you’ll make it through the massive, slow-moving crowd without being scammed by a grown man in an Elmo costume. The next time you’re in the area, think about how far Times Square has come from its dark and dirty beginnings.

If you want to read more about the history of Times Square and its seedy past check out these sources:
Museum of the City of New York
The New York Public Library
The Bowery Boys

If you liked this article on the history of Times Square and you want weekly articles on NYC history, culture, and things to do, sign up for the Shiloh in the City email list and show some love for me on social media. Thanks for reading!

7 responses to “From Brothels to Broadway: A Short History of Times Square”

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  6. Menty Avatar

    Very interesting! I always love this kind of read with an inspiration of travel destination and also the history of it!
    So, I’m thinking, Broadway…the entertaining one, the name has anything relationship to the old Time Square history ?

  7. O. Lamothe Avatar
    O. Lamothe

    As usual ,this blog is most informative. From Brothels to Broadway is great information/history. I for one just accepted Time Square and its grandeur ,not knowing anything of its history. Time Square is a more fitting name to Longacre Thank you Shiloh in the city. Thanks also for the recommended readings.

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