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A brief history of Times Square

From 1899 to 1902, the north side of 42nd Street, between 7th Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan, was occupied by the Pabst Hotel. At the time, this neighborhood was called Longacre Square.

Owned by the Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee, the building was part of a growing network of hotels and restaurants that the company used to promote its beer. Note the cool rooftop sign.

The portico you see in the above picture was highly controversial. I guess some things never change. City officials were criticized for allowing such a structure to encroach over a public right-of-way. Curiously, the Times was one of its biggest critics. A judge ultimately ordered for it to be removed in 1901.

The building also came down not long after. The introduction of New York City’s first subway — operated by the private Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company — began to spur new investment in the area. The first IRT line ran right through Longacre Square.

Adolph S. Ochs was the owner of the The New York Times during this period and he believed that the new subway line would increase foot traffic in the area. Betting on transit is clearly not a new phenomenon. So in January 1905, the newspaper moved into a new headquarters on the site of the former Pabst Hotel; a building that it developed for itself.

Today this building is known as One Times Square. Here is a photo of it under construction in 1903:

And here is a photo of the completed building in 1919 (at this point, it was no longer occupied by the paper):

At the time of its completion, it was one of the tallest buildings in New York City. And eventually, perhaps as a result of some encouragement on the part of Ochs, Longacre Square was renamed to commemorate this new building and the paper. It became known as Times Square.

By 1913, the Times had outgrown the building and would move down the street. But not before it would introduce a now famous New Year’s Eve celebration in the Square. The Times would continue to own the building up until 1961.

The area continued to evolve into an important theater district and transit hub. Everything connected through Times Square. Sadly, the Great Depression was not kind to the area and, either because of it or alongside it, Times Square declined into an area of vice filled with everything from burlesque shows to prostitution. This would come to define the area for almost the balance of the 20th century.

It would take many attempts starting in the 1980s to try and redirect Times Square’s now entrenched reputation. In 1982, the Department of City Planning created the Special Midtown Zoning District, which attempted to attract developers with tax breaks and other subsidies. It didn’t really work.

The City eventually looked to eminent domain to try and tidy up the area. But property owners — many of whom owned the adult businesses in the district — objected via a group known as the Coalition for Free Expression.

It would take a few other mayors, many legal battles, and interim ordinances such as the 60/40 rule — which allowed adult businesses to continue operating as long as no more than 40% of their floor area were allocated to sex — before things would really change.

Today, or at least as of 2015-2016, Times Square represents 15% of New York City’s total economic output. And it does this via 0.1% of the city’s total land area and 7% of its total employment.

Real estate in the district is estimated to be worth over $7 billion, with the Square generating about $2.5 billion in municipal tax revenue and about $2.3 billion in state revenue. A lot has changed in more than a century. But perhaps most importantly, the portico came down.

For more on Times Square, check out the Times Square Alliance.

Archive Photos: Wikipedia

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