Image via WikipediaTraveling through Times Square on the subway the other day reminded me of my first trip to New York, back in 1995. Traveling to Stamford, Connecticut I passed through New York on my return leg. Living and working in Barbados I’d never been further north than Miami, and as we all know Miami isn’t America, it’s a suburb of Cuba, but with money. So this was a big adventure. From the plane window it was quite amazing to see the city cast a distant glow of light in the night sky. My work complete, I arrived at New York’s Grand Central railway station. Grand Central is a terminus, as overland trains from the Hudson River, Harlem River and Connecticut lines hurtle underground at 97th Street and Park Avenue all the way down to 42nd street and then have to stop, either that or hit the buffers. There are no through trains apart from the subway lines.
Booked into the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, and being a complete rube I told the cabbie that I wanted to go to the Marriott. Of course he said “which one?” How was I supposed to know there was more than one, do I look like a big city hospitality expert? Eventually remembering its Times Square address we were soon on our way. It was then I realized that I was travelling in a transportation torture device. I don’t know if you recall but about 15 years ago, the ubiquitous Big Apple yellow-cabs weren’t exactly spacious in the back seat department. With the security shield twixt you and the driver, there was literally no room, especially for a six-footer like myself. It felt claustrophobic and quite unpleasant.
I checked in, and boy was I impressed, this was a very large hotel and you checked in on the 8th floor and it had those pod-like elevators inside the atrium. Just like those in the Towering Inferno, without the flames. Awesome, I thought. I unpacked and decided to brave the city streets and find this Times Square I’ve heard so much about, and get a bite to eat. I know what you’re thinking but just bear with me. Outside I’m all goggle-eyed at the miles and miles of flashing lights, the gigantic elevated advertising of pulsating electro-neon messages. It’s incredible really, which by the way makes London’s Piccadilly Circus look like a 40 watt candle by comparison. Broadway is sometimes still called the Great White Way, a legacy of the early days when only white lights illuminated the marquees of the newly opened theaters.
I then realized that the hotel address wasn’t quite right. Undeterred, and not wanting to be seen as a country hick, I set off looking for the Square itself. Of course there was no way I was going to ask, and reveal myself a tourist, I don’t think so.
I took all the standard precautions required when traveling in dangerous and exotic cities. Yes, in those days New York did qualify. You know the drill; leave your watch and camera in the room for the housekeeping thieves to steal, hands in pockets, act confident and look like you know where you are going. And if anyone jostles you, check your wallet. I wasn’t a complete fool; I’d seen all the movies, Taxi-Driver, Service, all determined to show New York as some sort of Dante’s Inferno.
Masses of people milling around in that directionless, shuffling manner that defines the tourist. Is this it you can almost hear them saying. Times Square was sordid, XXX rated movie stores and peep shows for the lonely hand-jobbers daring to buy a few lurid videos. Yes sir, tantric sex with a one-eyed lesbian, certainly at the back under T. Will there be anything else? The sex-trade was eventually kicked out, to meander away to another avenue and the big-box stores were persuaded to open up shop, introducing more wholesomeness to the Square. But I digress.
I walked around for a while up and down the avenues, along the cross streets, looking for the “Square”. Alas, no luck, so eventually I asked one of New York’s finest, and boy did he laugh. You’re in it he said, it’s the name of the whole area, and there is no “square” as such. Ah, the ignominy of it all. Feeling very small, which is quite difficult for a tall chap like me and even harder when I say that some New York policemen are no bigger than fireplugs these days (how did that happen?), I consider my options. It’s time to eat, but a quick look around tells me that all the restaurants are full, and there’s no way I’m going to go ask for a table for one, after all there’s nothing worse than seeing someone eating on their own. Or worse, eating solo and reading a book. You might as well hold up a sign that says “loser”. So back to the Marriott, order room service, eat, turn out the lights.
My alarm awakens me early; I have a flight to catch. I dress, pack, and exiting the lobby there are hotel guests coming back in at 4.30 in the morning! OK, so it was early Saturday morning perhaps after a rocking Friday night out. What a place, so vibrant, so alive. However after arriving at the airport I realized, after some consternation, that I must have set the alarm by mistake. Either that or the room’s previous occupant thought it amusing to fiddle with the alarm clock. Very funny. So it had been 3.30 when I left the hotel, and not 4.30.
Today, Times Square is very crowded and certainly cleaner, but is it’s fighting a losing battle against the inexorable tide of humanity, tourists, office workers, yellow cabs, delivery trucks, motor coaches, cross- town traffic. It’s all too much, something has to give. To continue to be a tourist destination New Yorkers have to embrace it with arms open and accept that change is inevitable. So far there have been half-hearted attempts to close off certain lanes to benefit foot traffic, installing tables and chairs, to make it feel like a public area. And the flying wedge atop the TKTS theater discount box is a great idea and long overdue. But traffic has got to be rerouted, stop all non-MTA (buses) traffic, yellow-cabs, and delivery related traffic from entering the area except at certain permitted times of day or night.
Office tenants suffer the most, as they wade through shoals of sluggish tourists meandering around, stopping on a dime, taking pictures. Perhaps there should be some sort of HOT lanes, High Occupancy Tenants, so that they can have quick access to the lunch spots, and give the tourists a wide berth, or is it gives the wide tourists a berth? Bit tricky that one. Pity the poor workers at the Ernst &Young accounting office. Identified by its full name spelled out running down the corner of the building, is actually relatively tasteful for the area but not the type of identification one expects from a professional services company. After all at one time such advertising wasn’t allowed. Professional chaps didn’t advertise a chaps business. Providing a convenient reference point, they thoughtfully installed a gargantuan neon-lit Red Lobster sign on the bottom corner of the building. Picture this; it’s lunchtime everyone, let’s go and eat. Order for me, I’ll just pop upstairs and get my taxes done, good job I brought my files with me. Or not.
Formerly Longacre Square (after the Long Acre of London’s carriage-making district), it was renamed Times Square in 1904 at the behest of the New York Times owner and publisher whose printing presses occupied a building at the southern end of the square.