Times Square celebrates its 100th

New York's mayor signed a proclamation in 1904 to rename Longacre Square

April 08, 2004|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,HARTFORD COURANT

NEW YORK - The sidewalks of Times Square are paved with gold. Well, fake gold: Rolex, Tag Heuer, Breitling and Cartier timepieces whose gleaming casings are as authentic as the inside mechanism is reliable.

Myriad street vendors choking this "crossroads of the world" are hawking more than watches, though. The gilt dreams of tourists pouring into Times Square are also fed with enticements of faux Louis Vuitton purses, Montblanc pens, Tiffany bracelets and pashmina scarves.

Not all of Times Square's street vendors sell knockoffs. Some sell the real Manhattan, black-and-white photographs of the city's most beloved structures: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Plaza Hotel. But rare in these photographic collections is the very neighborhood of Times Square. The decrepit Howard Johnson's, the brooding Marriott Marquis Hotel or the hulking Port Authority bus terminal are nowhere near as photogenic as, say, Central Park.

Or maybe it's just that tourists aren't very interested in portraits of vintage Times Square because Times Square is such a stunning visual anachronism, a jarring, loud, incongruous mess of antique dust and laser light glow.

But it is that very mess - the naughty, bawdy, gaudy hurly-burly known as Times Square - that will be celebrated today. Give your regards to Broadway, for Times Square turns 100.

It was on April 8, 1904, that Mayor George B. McClellan proclaimed that the area surrounding 42nd Street and Broadway would drop the moniker Longacre Square and bear the name Times Square (after The New York Times, then at the triangular point where Seventh Avenue and Broadway scissor at 42nd Street). Times owner and publisher Adolph Ochs understood that the new subway system would make the area the city's epicenter (it was also Ochs who, years later, devised dropping an electric ball from the top of the building on New Year's Eve).

"Times Square quickly became New York's agora, a place to gather both to await great tidings and to celebrate them, whether a World Series or a presidential election," writes James Traub in The Devil's Playground: a Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square. "In the minds of New Yorkers, Americans and the people all over the world, Times Square became associated with a particular kind of crowd - a happy crowd, made up of merrymakers rather than troublemakers."

Oh, the troublemakers would eventually come in droves: hustlers, shysters, pornographers and assorted wisenheimers who (along with shooting galleries, pinball arcades, grind houses and peep shows) would drag it into squalor.

But, as Traub's book charts, Times Square evolved from grandeur to decrepitude and back. Traub suggests that Times Square's very meaning evolves with the popular culture.

"Times Square was the place that an awful lot of American culture arose," he said. "Going back to the origins - ragtime music, all that Irving Berlin stuff - that was Times Square. The dance crazes, cabaret was invented there, and theater was the great national artistic medium. So from the very beginning, you could make the case that Times Square was the engine driving popular culture. Why? Because it was an incredibly democratic entertainment place: All the varying influences whose incongruous coming together made American culture possible."

"It matters to tourists much more than it does to New Yorkers. For New Yorkers, Times Square is a place you go for a specific purpose, but it doesn't have anything like the kind of resonance it did once upon a time," Traub said.

Still, he acknowledges that for many people, Times Square remains a special place.

"People of a certain age are deeply sentimental about it," he said. "You talk to any lifetime New Yorker in their 50s or 60s, they always have memories of going to theaters, movies, restaurants. There's a vast store of memories. Yes, it still lives on very strongly in people's memories and their imaginations."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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