Babylon on the Subway

In the 1890s, the bright lights of Broadway ribboned their way north through Union, Madison, and Herald Squares, illuminating ambling throngs of theater- and restaurant-goers, until reaching 42nd Street where, all at once, the Gay White Way winked out. Ahead in the gloom lay Longacre Square, lair of footpads by night, and by day the manure-redolent center of the city’s horse and livery trades. In 1895, the impresario Oscar Hammerstein I crossed the frontier and planted a theatrical complex at 44th Street, but his foray failed, victim in part of an ongoing depression. In 1899 and 1900, the economy surging again, he erected two theaters on 42nd Street, this time barely ahead of a herd of leisure-time entrepreneurs thundering up from downtown, as New York’s entertainment district whooshed into the square, bright lights and all.

Playhouses sprouted along (or shifted up to) 42nd Street and on in-to Longacre itself—forty of them by 1910. Electrified billboards and many-bulbed marquees banished the darkness. Elegant hostelries arrived—led by the Knickerbocker and Astor hotels—as did a slew of fancy “lobster palaces”—theme restaurants done up in Sun King or Roman Imperial style. And the publisher Adolph Ochs relocated his New York Times to a brand new skyscraper at Broadway and 42nd Street.

Two developments drove this transformation. In lower Manhattan, expanding corporate office and garment manufacturing districts sent land values above them soaring, forcing recreation venues to leapfrog up island in search of cheaper terrain. And those northern places had been made newly alluring by the construction of New York’s first subway (commenced 1900, completed 1904), which turned a once distant Uptown into an eminently accessible Midtown. Great crowds from around the metropolis could now flash- flood the Longacre, as they did first on December 31, 1904, when the promotionally savvy Ochs put on a New Year’s Eve fireworks display atop his Times tower, attracting 200,000 people to the square recently renamed in his paper’s honor.

That event’s centennial has occasioned two books commemorating Times Square’s initial remake and chronicling its subsequent ones. James Traub, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, highlights the district’s rich cultural history, profiling its leading showmen and journalists, while Anthony Bianco, a writer for BusinessWeek and author of a study of the Reichmann real estate clan, emphasizes the story’s entrepreneurial aspects, but each provides a full analysis of the century-long interplay between culture and commerce in these symbolically freighted blocks. Both books are well written, with Traub’s the more mellifluous and reflective (particularly about Times Square today) and Bianco’s the more solidly detailed (twenty pages on Hammerstein to Traub’s three). Both offer rise-fall-rise dramas: a glittering first act (peaking in the 1920s), followed by a 1930s–1970s decline, and a post 1980s renaissance. Yet for all the overlaps, their reviews of the square’s hundred-year run are at times distinctly different.

Since the Civil War, Gotham had been the center of …

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