Times Square In The 1970s

By | February 16, 2022

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1st April 1970: A sex shop featuring peep shows, and the McAuley missionary sit side by side at 42nd street and Dyer avenue in Times Square, New York. (Photo by Walter Leporati/Getty Images)

Times Square got its start as Longacre Square when it was the site of William H. Vanderbilt’s American Horse Exchange; at the time, the large open space was surrounded by apartments. With the introduction of electricity, and other changes, traffic began to increase, and Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times from 1896 to 1935, decided to build the Times Tower there, between Broadway and Seventh Avenue and 42nd and 43rd Streets. By World War I, Times Square was attracting most of the legitimate theaters, as well as restaurants like the Astor and the Knickerbocker. With the expansion of public transportation, Times Square grew dramatically and became the hub of the city. Unfortunately, the Great Depression changed this; theaters closed and “grinder” houses that showed sexually explicit films opened. This was followed by the opening of burlesque shows, peep shows, dance halls, and penny arcades. Prostitution proliferated the neighborhood, and it became the place for soldiers on leave to seek out erotic entertainment; conditions would only continue to deteriorate until they reached their low point in the 1970s.  

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Picture of 42nd Street from 1949, before the decay of the 1970s. Source: (Library of Congress).

By 1960, It Already Had A Bad Reputation

The 1950s and ‘60s only made things worse, although there were failed efforts in the 1950s to thwart the advance of sex-related businesses. A front-page article in The New York Times in 1960 called the area “the worst in town” in 1960, detailing the vices of Times Square: vandalism, loitering, stores selling knives and sexually explicit materials, and, of course, grindhouse theaters.

In 1966, the twenty-five-cent peep show was introduced, and this simply helped to support the seediness of the area. When the economy crashed in the early 1970s, many businesses left Times Square. Retail establishments closed and the hotels were converted into SRO (single-room occupancy) dwellings which attracted the destitute. Although the Theater District did survive, it was surrounded by strip clubs and porn cinemas