NEW YORK -- Every New Year's Eve, as millions watch in person and on television, a descending red ball atop the Allied Chemical Building in Times Square counts off the seconds remaining in the old year.
At times of great national joy, such as the end of World Wars I and II, hordes of celebrants have gathered in this famous square. And every day of the year, at least a half million New York City visitors find their way to Times Square, drawn as irresistibly to this urban caldron of humanity as a hummingbird is drawn to a flower.
They come to this midtown square -- actually a huge asphalt "X" formed by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue at 44th Street -- to go to the theater and the movies, to gawk at the huge electric signs and to dine out. Times Square is in the center of the theater district, which extends from 42nd to 52nd streets and from Sixth to Eighth avenues, and within easy walking distance of Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue's tony shops. The Times Square subway station is the busiest in the city; several lines meet there.
During the past two decades, however, the bloom has faded. Times Square went to seed. Raunch, dirtiness and crime so cheapened the square that even street-savvy residents avoided it.
Now a turnaround is in the making. Times Square has a long way to go, but New York City's most popular gathering spot may be on the road to new greatness.
Four new hotels have opened in the Times Square/theater district in the past few months, and another has been completely renovated. Two others have just begun construction. These will bring thousands more tourists to the Square.
New office buildings have opened in the area in the past year and others are nearing completion, including two directly on Times Square, swelling the work force in the square. Prestigious companies like the Kravath, Swaine and Moore law firm and Ogilvy and Mather advertising have taken space in sleek new West Side skyscrapers, prompting an accelerating move of businesses to the Times Square area.
An entire block that contains some of Times Square's worst excesses -- sleazy movie houses, crack dealing, cheap stores -- has been condemned by the state. Already, several X-rated movie houses on 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway have been closed, and the city and state have unveiled a $2.5 billion plan to restore nine magnificent old theaters, raze derelict buildings and build four new office buildings, a merchandise mart and a hotel in their place.
At the same time, a $135 million reconstruction of the huge but decrepit Times Square subway station will be undertaken.
All these developments will put new life into Times Square, but the tawdriness and crime that infest the area will not easily disappear. Crime is so prevalent in parts of the square that even the city's sanitation workers are leery about doing their job there.
"It's getting worse," Granville Arizmendi, supervisor of the Times Square cleanup squad, said of crime in his district. "We used to send our men down 42nd Street. No more.
"Once I saw a guy with a cap of crack on 42nd Street with another guy taking money, and there was a line to buy the stuff. A line! I said, 'Where are the police?' "
Robberies and street scams like three-card monte (a card version of the pea-in-the-shell game) also are a seamy part of Times Square life.
Gangs of youthful robbers roam the area -- "dip teams," the police call them. One gang lifted the wallet of a tourist as he was entering the revolving door of his hotel a few steps from Times Square. In the seconds it took for him to revolve back out onto the sidewalk, the youths were halfway down the block and out of reach of police.
But as serious as the situation may seem, it can't compare to the mid-1970s, when Times Square sleaze was so pervasive that a creative police captain once put up wooden barriers to separate the milling prostitutes from people walking on the sidewalks.
"We were ringed with peep shows, whorehouses, streetwalkers and drug dealers," said Lee Silver, executive director of the Shubert Theater Organization.
In cooperation with the mayor's office, theater people organized a committee to work on the problem. That group, now known as the Office of Midtown Enforcement, proved effective in driving away the prostitutes and closing up the massage parlors. Their efforts helped to revive the theater district and encourage new development -- particularly the key construction in 1986 of Times Square's first new hotel in years, the Marriott Marquis.
Given the number of people who visit the area, the percentage of crime is not great. Thousands of people dine in the area and attend the theater every evening without problem, avoiding 42nd Street, which has little of interest to visitors.
The most exciting part of Times Square's prospective rejuvenation is the 42nd Street Development Project, which will be the largest urban renewal project in the state's history.