Times Square History: The Weird Story Of The Evolution Of New York's Tourist Mecca

By | December 28, 2020

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(Byron Company/Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who visits New York City is bound to make their way to Times Square, the mecca of tourism in the Big Apple. Once the scene of unbridled debauchery, the hot spot has since been sanitized in more ways than one, but Times Square hasn't always been a collection of blocks teeming with tourists and lit by massive LED screens.

Started From The Bottom (Of A Horse)

Originally nothing more than a farm, the area initially played host to the Manhattan manor of John Morin Scott, a general fighting under George Washington. Scott used the area for breeding horses, a fate that stuck with it long after the land was sold off to various real estate concerns by John Jacob Astor.

What was left of Scott's farm came to be known as Longacre Square even though it was shaped more like a bow tie or two intersecting triangles than anything else. As late as 1872, the area was known as the hub of the horse carriage industry, but the horses—and their smell—remained into the early 20th century. Manure and all manner of animal waste lined the streets, but German businessman Oscar Hammerstein I saw something in Longacre that nobody else did, if only because they couldn't bear to look for too long.

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(Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Paving The Great White Way

In 1895, Hammerstein brought a new kind of business to this world of horses and carriages: theater. He developed the Olympia, a huge entertainment complex meant to light a fire in the hearts of the opera lovers of the city. His ingenuity inspired more patrons of the arts to move in, and they took up every spot for a block on 42nd Street.

At the same time that theaters were moving into the area, so were brownstone buyers, bordellos, and small-time crooks. It wasn't yet "Slime Square," but as the horsing industry moved out and the entertainment industry moved in, a cast of seedy characters holed up in the middle of the city that never sleeps.