From Peep Shows to Olive Garden: Representations of Times Square

Robert Moeller and Leila Sterman

New York City has always exhibited a propensity for reconstruction. From the Highline Park in Manhattan to the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s revitalization, spaces get defined, discussed, represented, and often given an encore after their original performance. Nowhere is this truer than the most famous, and until recently, infamous, entertainment district in the world—Times Square. Suffering an intense period of decline in the 1960s and 1970s, the transformation of this business district from a smut capital to family friendly destination is miraculous. Cultural representations of the District played a vital role in its depiction and reconfiguration in the popular psyche. The images and views presented of a place often do define its purpose, and Times Square would exhibit almost contradictory purposes throughout the 20th century.

James Traub describes how in the 1960s “Times Square sank from impudent naïveté to genuine debasement. In 1966, a vending machine operator, Martin Hodas, purchased thirteen old film machines, outfitted them with stag films showing the kind of frontal nudity then commercially unavailable in New York, and distributed them to the Times Square bookshops that specialized in risqué materials.” To give an idea of how ubiquitous these attractions were at the time “By 1968 he was reportedly depositing $15,000 in quarters in the bank per day.”

As the Great White Way shed its lights on a more insidious form of entertainment, soon the popular consciousness of America came to view Time Square as a hub of debasement. Contemporaneous real estate brochures tell the tale quite well. Whereas an ad in January 1960 states that a building is “Located in one of the city’s outstanding districts—Times Square,” a later advertisement doesn’t mention the district at all—rather, it focuses on how to get out of it as quickly as possible. The building is presented as located at the “Geographic Center of New York’s Transportation Hub ALL RIGHT AT YOUR DOORSTEP!!” When showing the region, the brokers make sure to highlight in blue arrows the routes to get the wary office workers out of the filthy district as soon as possible. By 1970, an advertisement for a building right off of the district, on 8th Avenue and 45th Street, does not mention the words “Times Square” at all, instead simply mentioning that the building is suitable for any “theatre connected organization.”

Even the government was harsh in its portrayal of Times Square. EPA photographs shot at that time show the defining features of this district in decline. A long view down 42nd street shows adult feature after adult feature, advertised on prominent marquees, with what look like sizable crowds gathered round. Cigarette and liquor ads towered over streets that now feature billboards for Broadway shows. With images and advertisements such as these, what’s even more shocking than the content of the films in Times Square in the 1970s is that this all occurred less than forty years ago. All of these portrayals and representations of Times Square, not intangible statistics such as the revenue of the business district, were what defined the area during this period. This in turn propagated the seediness of the district, creating its identity. One New York Times article from 1981 summarizes it perfectly. It explains “that periodic attacks against sex shops like those around Times Square – every New York Mayor in decades has vowed to clean up Time Square – are revolts against the openness of the shops, not against the activities themselves. ‘It’s not that people care so much about what goes on beyond closed doors,’ he said. ‘It is, rather, a revolt against the openness, the tawdriness, the visual assault.’”

However, oftentimes changing the veneer and reputation of a place can have a huge impact on the actual physical composition of any space. In the late 1980s, Times Square began to see concrete changes in both its physical reality and the depiction of its offerings to the rest of the world. A look at a historically portrayed bastion of vice and crime close to Times Square—the Port Authority Bus Terminal– shows this renovation as it happened. By physically changing the layout of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and with greater policing, reports of larceny were nearly cut in half from 1988 to 1994, and assaults plummeted by a third. By publicizing the image of the district popularized by depictions such as this photograph, Times Square worked to reshape itself and redefine its purpose. The district now hosts 77 entertainment venues, 41 hotels, and even 77 screens. Interestingly enough, this renaissance is also allowing former representations to be revisited. Comparing the description of “genuine debasement” proffered earlier with the Times Square Alliance’s description of this tumultuous phase of Times Square: “Prostitution and sex theaters defined the area for much of the post-World War II era. In a larger sense, Times Square was a place where boundaries could be pushed, and broken, and desire expressed.” Thus, it is not necessarily the profits or real estate values a district generates, but how the public views and even more importantly, remembers it, that tell the story.

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P. 33-36 “The oft-quoted thumbnail..” and ends with “…uneasy till he gets back.”


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