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New York, I Love You

It’s easy to recognise the tourists in Times Square. They’re the people who tuck away their New York City subway maps as they haul themselves out of the 42nd Street subway station onto 8th Avenue, let their jaws drop, and then go batshit crazy with their cameras.

brunch Updated: Dec 21, 2015 19:09 IST
Pranav Dixit
Pranav Dixit
Hindustan Times
New York,travel,USA

“Such an introduction to New York - to land in a pile of dirt in the Times Square subway station. Tsk, tsk, tsk.” – Tucker Mouse to Chester the Cricket in The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

It’s easy to recognise the tourists in Times Square. They’re the people who tuck away their New York City subway maps as they haul themselves out of the 42nd Street subway station onto 8th Avenue, let their jaws drop, and then go batshit crazy with their cameras.

New Yorkers are easy to spot too. They’re the ones who charge at the tourists like raging bulls as they rush to their next appointment and cause them to scatter on the sidewalk. The only thing New Yorkers hate more than mistakenly boarding an express train going in the wrong direction is tourists, and Times Square is Tourist Central.

Frankly, the name is misleading. Times Square isn’t even a square. The Crossroads of the World, the Great White Way or the Tenderloin as it was called once upon a time (more on that in a minute) is the part of Manhattan that stretches between West 42nd to 47th Streets and is shaped more like a bowtie if you look at it from a helicopter (or Google Maps – probably simpler) because Broadway cuts diagonally across.

You only need to remember a few things about it:

1. A third of a million people pass through Times Square on an average day. If you want to stand out, take inspiration from The Naked Cowboy (right).
2. It’s one of the most expensive shopping districts in the world – rents average $1,350 per square foot, according to data from Cushman & Wakefield.
3. Don’t mess with any of the 52 costumed characters. A few months ago, Weed Man (a panhandler holding a giant ‘I Need Money For Weed’ sign) stabbed Beer Man (same, just beer); Cookie Monster shoved a 2-year-old; Super Mario groped a woman; and Elmo hurled anti-Semitic abuse at everyone.

This is a crazy place with crazy crowds, crazy colours and crazy people. My friend, Morgan, who is a server at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a popular seafood chain restaurant bang in the middle of Times Square, can tell endless stories about the loonies who often walk in. “Once this girl ordered a full meal for herself and her boyfriend,” she says. “She ate half of it and just sat there in the chair for a couple of hours. When I asked her if she was done, she said no, her boyfriend was sitting in the chair across.” And there’s never any shortage of homeless people who order beer after beer and then try to run out, she says.

Times Square isn’t just another place in New York. It’s a thought, an idea, a force, a goddamn whirlpool of blinding lights and flashing adverts; of diverse cultures and unabashed consumerism; of lofty dreams and unchecked emotions; an electric vortex where the tides of uptown and downtown Manhattan flow along the subway lines and crash into each other.

It has served as the site of everything from major protests (against Deep Throat after its 1972 release, and George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder trial in July) to flashy product launches (Richard Branson famously rode a tank into Times Square for the US launch of Virgin Cola in 1998).

It’s the brightly illuminated heart of the Broadway Theater District, home to over 40 theatres that stage some of the world’s legendary musicals – Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Kinky Boots and the evergreen Lion King. James Traub, the writer of The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, calls it “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.”

It’s easy – even tempting – to think of Times Square as always having been the Disneyfied, power-guzzling hub that it now is. The truth is that its current avatar is a relatively recent creation. In the first half of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor, the first American multi-millionaire and one of the richest people in the world at the time, sold land to hotels and other commercial establishments that were springing up in this area as New York City, which originated at the southern tip of Manhattan and rapidly spread uptown. Astor sank with the Titanic in 1912 but not before making a fortune on this real estate. He was the richest man on the ship.

In 1872, the area became the centre of New York’s carriage industry and was called Longacre Square after Long Acre street in London, home to the coach-making industry in that city. Then, in 1904, Adolph S Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, moved the paper’s operations to a skyscraper on 42nd Street at Longacre Square and persuaded the mayor to build a subway station there. Since Longacre Square station was quite a mouthful, the area, in what must be the greatest branding coup in history, was named Times Square after the Grey Lady. More than 3,44,000 passengers pass through the Times Square station today, making it the busiest subway station in New York. Don’t dawdle at the turnstiles – you’ll get dirty looks from impatient New Yorkers.

One more tip: if you plan to stray from the tourist track (mostly 7th Avenue), leave the kids behind. While there’s nothing in Times Square itself, the neighborhood is choc-a-bloc with stores selling everything from life-sized blow-up dolls accurate to the last anatomical detail to edible lingerie (there’s a TON of other items in every shape and form that I can’t possibly list here, though my email address is at the end of the story if you’re dying to know). This is not a coincidence. It’s a fact rooted in history – at the beginning of the 20th century, Times Square was New York’s notorious red-light district, its ‘tenderloin’.

Peepshow booths shared walls with theaters showing hardcore pornography, while prostitutes rubbed shoulders with sleazy drug addicts. From the Great Depression in the late 1920s till as recently as the early 1990s, Times Square was one of New York’s seediest neighborhoods. William J Stern, former chairman and chief executive of New York State’s Urban Development Corporation wrote in a 2009 essay that the Times Square of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was “sleazy, crime-ridden and so physically and economically blighted that it represented a threat to public safety.”

“The block between 7th and 8th Avenues in Times Square had the most pickpockets in New York City,” remembers Robert Redmond, a former employee of the New York City Parks Department, who has been living in Manhattan for over 32 years. “It was definitely not a safe neighbourhood, despite the crowds.”

It wasn’t till Mayor Rudy Giuliani spearheaded a major Times Square clean-up initiative in the early 90s – increasing security, closing adult theaters and pressuring the sex shops to relocate – that Times Square finally became the glitzy, sought-after destination it is today. “Of course, that move sort of backfired, because they moved out of Times Square into the residential neighborhoods,” laughs Redmond. Real estate boomed; businesses poured in; and Broadway thrived and grew by leaps and bounds, netting almost $1.1 billion in revenue in 2012 alone.

Even after 32 years in Manhattan, Redmond still gets excited when he walks through Times Square. “The crowds are amazing,” he says. “And all those ads… it looks like Las Vegas in Manhattan!” The real reason behind all that signage is actually quite simple – according to a New York city zoning law, you are required to have a certain area of the façade of any building you own in Times Square covered by hoardings (why there is a law that enforces this is unclear. The advertisement real estate in Times Square is among the most expensive in the world – if you own a building, you would have to be a lunatic to not put up ads!). In fact, One Times Square, which housed The New York Times for less than ten years before it moved out in 1913, and which carries the world-famous, 5.5 kg, LED-lit crystal ball that is ‘dropped’ in an annual tradition on New Year’s Eve, is THE most expensive place to advertise in the world (current advertisers include Toshiba, Dunkin’ Donuts and Sony).

“In Times Square, you never really know what the time is unless you look at your watch,” says Morgan, “because it’s so bright.” During Hurricane Sandy last year, even as downtown Manhattan was plunged into darkness for a week, the lights still burnt brightly in Times Square. Those who saw it describe the experience as “chilling” and “surreal”, akin to being in one of the many post-apocalyptic and sci-fi movies and video games set in it – Times Square, a ghost town with brightly flashing signs and no people at all.

Last year, I found myself right at the centre of a sea of a million people in Times Square. We stood in one place for over 12 hours, rank strangers, glad for the warmth of each other’s bodies in the freezing December air, even as our stiff muscles screamed in agony. On the top of the One Times Square building, a digital clock counted down the seconds till 2013.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the crystal ball descended down its pole. The sky exploded with a thousand fireworks. We danced, clapped, cheered. Strangers hugged and kissed each other; and time ground to a halt as we laughed and loved at The Crossroads of the World.

The Times They Are A-changin’: Times Square was called Longacre Square (here in 1880), before it was renamed in honour of the The New York Times in 1904

Pranav is a magazine writing student at New York University and lives in New York City. Follow @PranavDixit

From HT Brunch, September 8

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First Published: Sep 06, 2013 18:36 IST