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Secrets of Times Square in NYC

Category General

|by Mike Dunphy |


The “crossroads of the world” harbors more secrets than you think, a few of them underground

More than 300,000 daily pedestrians pass through the most famous square in the world, but few realize how many hidden treasures exist beyond the pulsating lights and giggling Elmos. From tucked-away art installations to historical sleaze to flickering facades, or what lies behind them all, this legendary intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, between 42nd and 47th Streets, is ripe for discovery. On your next visit, abandon your frenetic New York pace to savor these 10 secrets of Times Square.

Times Square (Photo: iStock)

Times Square (Photo: iStock)

Times Square is bright enough to be seen from outer space
“The Great White Way” of Broadway earned its nickname when the advent of electric light flooded the area around Times Square at the end of the 19th century. Since then, the lights have only grown brighter (apart from the blackouts of World War II) and so intense that supposedly astronauts can pinpoint Times Square from outer space. On the ground, the bursting lights provide yet one more reason why New York is the city that never sleeps.

A hidden sound sculpture vibrates underground
Amid the honking horns, squeal of brakes, and footsteps of thousands, another sound emanates at the corner of Broadway and 7th Avenue for those with keen hearing and attention. Bend your ear to the subway grates at your feet and listen for the sonorous drone that sounds as if a large Tibetan bell or Aboriginal digeridoo lurks just below. It’s actually a work of art installed by percussionist Max Neuhaus in 1977, when it cast a more ominous tone among the wall-to-wall sleaze of the Square. The noise is all natural, as well, made through an amplification of the resonance in the subway tunnel junction. Originally running until 1992, it was re-installed and made permanent ten years later. Amazingly, very few New Yorkers even know it’s there, but for Neuhaus, that’s the point. “The piece isn’t meant to startle, it’s meant for people who are ready to discover.”

The famous New Year’s Eve ball drop is initiated by a laser-cooled atomic clock in Colorado
The world may watch the ball drop each year in Times Square, but the clock that triggers the descent is actually 1,676 miles away in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, the laser-cooled, cesium fountain atomic clock at NIST laboratories is the primary standard for the entire country. In a complicated process, the “master” clock measures the swing of atoms to create the most sophisticated pendulum in the world, achieving an unprecedented accuracy. However, the computerized system may not be as romantic as the one before 1995, when it took “six guys with ropes and a stopwatch” to lower the ball the 77 feet in 60 seconds. Now, it’s just one guy and a button.

There really is nothing behind the flashing advertisements
Perhaps the world’s most expensive piece of real estate — One Times Square — actually remains conspicuously empty. When Lehman Brothers purchased the building, the former home of The New York Times (hence the name of the square) in 1995, they realized that the value of the building lay far more in its façade than the 25 floors of office space inside. Retrofitting the exterior for the iconic flashing billboards, profits on advertising shot up 300% within two years. By 2012, the building was appraised at $495 Million, a massive jump from the just $27.5 million it fetched 17 years earlier. Apart from a hosting a Walgreens on the ground floor, the building remains profitably empty.

In 1981, Rolling Stone called West 42nd Street the “sleaziest block in America”
The Disney and Sesame Street characters in Times Square today have nothing on the lurkers in its infamous ‘70s and ‘80s heyday, when pimps, prostitutes, and porn ruled the district. In place of today’s Applebee’s, Bubba Gump, and M&M’s World, were places like Adulterama, Pussycat, and French Quarters, not to mention thousands of street walkers in between. It could hardly have been less safe, as well, with Times Square alone accounting for 2,300 crimes in 1984. Thankfully (or woefully, according to some), the area now looks nothing like the old days and is almost entirely cleaned up and secured, Naked Cowboy and Elmo including. It still may attract the fringe of society, but the leash is much tighter.

Times Square is not actually square
The area formed by the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue actually looks more like an elongated bow tie than an actual square, with the north side expanding up to 47th Street and the south to 42nd. Nor did it satisfy the other definition of a square, as a public plaza, until 2010, when Broadway between 47th to 42nd Streets was closed to traffic permanently and outfitted with chairs, tables, and other pedestrian-friendly amenities in a $55 million redesign. Cabbies may have other thoughts about the shutdown but the dramatically reduced traffic injuries and 71% increased revenue for local stores during an 8-month pilot project in 2009 sealed the victory for feet on the street.

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s murals decorate the Times Square subway station
In his day, Life magazine called pop artist Roy Lichtenstein “the worst artist in the U.S.” for his signature comic book style. Nearly half a century later, the estimation is much higher, with pieces gracing modern art museums around the world and fetching up to $95 million at auctions at Christie’s. Times Square boasts its own work, Times Square Mural, inside the subway station, on the mezzanine wall where the IRT and BMT trains intersect (between the N, R, Q and 1,2, 3). Created specifically for the subway in 1994, and installed in 2002, the 53’ x 6’ work of porcelain enamel on steel depicts a winged bullet train shooting through the 42nd Street station. Those with the sharpest eyes can find references to Buck Rodgers, the old City Hall station, and the New York World’s Fairs in 1939 and 1964.

The air might be most valuable part of Times Square
The most valuable piece of real estate in Times Square is not under your feet but in the air you breathe, specifically the air above the buildings. If the height of an existing building is lower than neighborhood zoning laws allow, it’s a potential goldmine, especially in Times Square, where every square centimeter is worth its weight in gold. New York City allows these “air rights” to be sold in certain circumstances to other businesses hoping to develop the area. The old Broadway theaters have especially benefited. In fact, the Times Square Marriott Edition on Seventh Avenue set a record in 2014 for purchasing “air rights” from the Schoenfeld and Booth Theatres at $409 per square foot for 44,968 square feet.

Times Square was home to the first 24-hour news cycle reporting
The news ticker, famously known as “the Zipper,” isn’t just a feature of old news reels depicting the wild celebrations in Times Square at the end of World War II (famous kiss and all) but aslo a significant technological advancement. When it debuted in 1928 at One Times Square, it was the first real-time breaking news display, told with a ribbon of 14,800 lights. Now fixed 20 feet above the ABC television studio and using LED technology, the massive digital screen continues to gather gawkers when major news hits. Turn on any 24-hour news network and its continued influence is clear in the scrolling news along the bottom of the TV screen.

One of the largest digital art displays happens every night at 11:57
New Year’s Eve is not the only night to witness a spectacle in Times Square. Every night at 11:57pm, 15 of the largest screens in Times Square drop the usual advertisements for a coordinated display of digital art lasting three minutes until midnight for a month at a time. Premiered in May 2012, the “Midnight Moment” brings a diverse group of artists to the plate, including Icelandic chanteuse Bjork, who presented Mutual Core, which combined music with technological innovation to explore themes of science and nature in March 2013, and Laurie Anderson, who adapted her acclaimed film, Heart of a Dog, for it in January 2016.

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