Perhaps one of the first things that come to mind when I hear the word “Broadway” is the illumination of the city lights in Times Square, Manhattan. I remember standing in the window of Minskoff Theatre during an intermission of The Lion King and overlooking the breathtaking view of Times Square at night. The sight of hundreds of people and cars moving quickly through the lighted street was nothing short of magical to me. Illuminated Marquees advertising the world’s best musicals dominated the attention of passersby. It was then that I realized why Times Square is known as “The Center of the Universe.” Walking the streets of Times Square, I heard languages from all over the world spoken by the people walking past me. I was able to appreciate the tourism pinnacle as a hub meant to bring people from across the globe together with one purpose. It is almost crazy to believe that a mere 30 years ago, Times Square was regarded as on of the most dangerous, and least tourist friendly places in New York City. Efforts by New York City officials to eliminate crime, as well as boost tourism and the economy became essential in creating an environment that would allow popularity of theatre to boom. This revitalization created an opportunity for New York City to make theatre going an essential part of the city’s tourism.
The onset of the Great Depression greatly changed Times Square from a glamorous hub of entertainment into a notoriously dangerous neighborhood filled with go-go bars, sex shops, and adult theatres. The rise of the sex industry in the area became infamous for symbolizing the decline of the city. These establishments drew the attention of a more criminal crowd. The theatres that had boomed before the depression, faltered as the economy tanked. The area became increasingly more congested and taken over by porn establishments and adult entertainment. By 1960, The New York times had called it “the worst block in the city.” Crime rates continued to rise and by 1984 Times Square had 2,300 crimes in a single block, with 20% of the crimes serious felonies like rape, and murder. Heavy criminal activity in this area was a sign that New York City needed to intervene, and work towards cleaning up the area. This was crucial in developing an area for Broadway theatre to flourish.
The effects of the great depression combined with the crime rate caused an economic collapse in the Times Square Area. No business in their right mind would choose to open doors in such a crime-invested area. By 1984, the 13-acred area only employed a total of 3,000 people, and only paid a mere $6 million in property taxes, which was the typical tax revenue of a medium-sized office building at that time. In 1984, local New York developers, who remembered the forgotten glamour of Times Square, realized the importance of restoring the infamous area. This started a nearly decade long process of creating a large business development. It wasn’t until 1990, when Viacom signed a lease on 1515 Broadway, that change started to happen. This purchase prompted other businesses to move into to the area and by
1995 Times Square had “become the focus of some of the most ambitious commercial development New York has [had] ever seen.” It was then that Disney refurbished New Amsterdam Theatre and reopened with The Lion King, which would go on to be one of the most successful musicals of all time, both critically and commercially. Theatres continued to open and by 1997, Broadway had its most successful year of in two decades. This rebuilding and economic stimulation in Times Square proved to be a crucial effort in restoring Broadway to its former glory, and confirming the impact that Broadway on Times Square has in modern theatre.
With the crime rates and economic collapse of Times Square, it was simply not functioning as the area that it was created to be. Times Square was supposed to be a pinnacle of entertainment and tourism, but had turned to something much different. In 1976, Martin Scorsese released his film Taxi Driver, starring Robert Dinero. Taxi Driver told the story of a mentally unstable Vietnam Vet (Dinero), who works as a Taxi Driver in New York City. The film depicted Times Square honestly, and emphasized the amount of violence and sex in the area. The film had a very negative effect on tourism, but also acted as a sort of caveat for change. Tourism was an incredibly important part of revitalizing the area. Tourists brought in money for economic stimulation, and provided audiences for the Theater district. The influx of travelers in the area was crucial in successfully bringing Broadway in Times Square back to its former glory.
Without the efforts of New York City in rebuilding Times Square, Broadway would not have been able to claim it’s spot in modern American culture and society. By cleaning up the downtown area, and creating a commercial space, NYC was able to shine a spotlight onto Broadway Theatre. The development allowed Broadway to snag a spot among the commercially successful side of the entertainment industry. The effect modern American theatre has had on film and television, as well as other facets of the industry is amazing. With the Times Square revitalization, New York City successfully stemmed crime, stimulated the economy, and ushered in tourism. These steps were crucial in creating an environment for Broadway to seize its spot in modern American culture and society. In 2013, the notoriety and effect of Broadway in Times Square is undeniable. The bright lights of this area continue shine bright as the national treasure that it is.
The Unexpected Lessons of Times Square’s Comeback
-William J. Stern