Proclaiming itself “The Crossroads of the World,” New York City’s Times Square is a hub of activity situated in the heart of Manhattan and known for its crowded streets, tourists, and theaters. It lies at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue and stretches from West 42nd to West 47th Street. The rich history of Times Square reflects the momentous changes of the past century, including battles over First Amendment freedoms.
Times Square became a major transportation hub
Times Square was originally known as Longacre Square, but its name was changed in 1904 to honor the relocation of the New York Times to the building it still occupies on West 43rd Street. To celebrate its move into the new building, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs put on a New Year’s Eve celebration in the newly renamed square (an event that continues to this day). Soon thereafter, Times Square, already a hub for traffic, became a major transfer point for subway riders with the convergence of several lines in the area.
Times Square became known for its entertainment
Times Square had always been a busy commercial center, but by World War I it had become known for the entertainment it offered as well. Theaters, music stores, dance halls, and other such venues relocated from the Bowery to Times Square and the surrounding streets.
The 1920s brought large-scale tourism to the area. But after the stock market crash of 1929, many theaters were converted into emporiums for burlesque and adult films and other entertainment. The interruption in Broadway theater productions during World War II paved the way for Times Square’s ultimate decline into a seedy area known for its adult entertainment. Eventually, these establishments were at the heart of a struggle over First Amendment rights.
Times Square adult entertainment was at center of First Amendment struggle
In the 1990s, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced his intention to “clean up” Times Square by, among other things, controlling the noise and relocating the area’s booming sex shop business. The city passed laws regulating how much of a store’s capacity could be devoted to “adult material” and where such shops could be located. Although the rules applied throughout the city, Times Square served as the battleground.
In Hickerson v. City of New York (S.D.N.Y. 1998), First Amendment advocates were stymied in their efforts to defend the expressive rights of the adult entertainment shops. A U.S. appellate court upheld the district court decision ruling that the Constitution’s full faith and credit clause prevented the relitigation of zoning issues that the state court had already decided in the city’s favor. Ultimately, the cleaning up of Times Square paved the way for a more family-friendly area.
This article was originally published in 2009. Howard Leib is an intellectual property and entertainment attorney, an educator and a consultant with his own practice in both New York City and Ithaca, NY. He offers a full range of legal services, with specialties in entertainment, corporate, trademark and copyright law, including litigation. Leib also teaches both Entertainment Law and Music Law at Cornell’s College of Law.