Whirling in a chaos of dazzling light, Times Square is New York’s white-hot energy center. Hordes of people, mostly tourists, crowd it day and night to walk and gawk. It would take hours of fixed concentration to really see what’s going on here, in the confusion of lights, billboards, people, stores, and traffic. Like many New York City “squares,” it’s actually two triangles formed by the angle of Broadway slashing across 7th Avenue between West 42nd and 47th streets.
Times Square (the name also applies to the general area, beyond the intersection of these streets) has been the city’s main theater district since the turn of the century: from West 44th to 51st streets, the cross streets west of Broadway are lined with some 30 major theaters; film houses joined the fray beginning in the 1920s.
Before the turn of the 20th century, this was New York’s horse-trading center, known as Long Acre Square. Substantial change came with the arrival of the subway and the New York Times, then a less prestigious paper, which moved here in exchange for having its name grace the square. On December 31, 1904, the Times celebrated the opening of its new headquarters, at Times Tower (63 W. 42nd St. between Broadway and 7th Ave.), with a fireworks show at midnight, thereby starting a New Year’s Eve tradition. Now rehearsed in marble and called One Times Square Plaza, the building is topped with the world’s most famous rooftop pole, down which an illuminated 200-pound ball is lowered each December 31 to the wild enthusiasm of revelers below. (In the 1920s the Times moved to its present building, a green-copper roof neo-Gothic behemoth, at 229 West 43rd Street.)
Times Square is hardly more sedate on the other 364 nights of the year, mesmerizing visitors with its usual high-wattage thunder: two-story high cups of coffee that actually steam; a 42-ft-tall bottle of Coca-Cola; huge billboards of underwear models; a mammoth, superfast digital display offering world news and stock quotes; on-location network studios; and countless other technologically sophisticated allurements. Such madness often leads Times Square to be called the center of the world. For American teenagers, there can be no doubt. MTV moved its studios to the heart of the square recently, and throngs of teens gather each afternoon hoping to be chosen to be part of a show called Total Request Live. TRL, as it’s popularly known, is filmed live from the second-floor glass windows at West 44th Street and Broadway. Since such well-known acts as the Backstreet Boys, Eminem, and Britney Spears make regular rounds here, Times Square has become a mecca for youth. The cleanup of Times Square will not turn out the lights, because current zoning requires that buildings be decked out with ads, as they have been for nearly a century. The traffic island in front of the Armed Forces Recruiting Office (it, too, has been re-done, in a larger, shinier metal box with neon American flags) provides the best angles on the whole of Times Square’s helter-skelter welter.