TIMES SQUARE, May 1 — Transfixed to a massive digital screen 20 feet above the ABC television studio in Times Square, the first responders of Engine 54 watch wide-eyed, like the rest of the world, as they learn of Osama Bin Laden’s death. The New York Times snaps a picture, puts it online and on its front page. Thus the world watches them watching news unfold at The Crossroads of the World.
Events like that one remind us in their own way that Times Square is not merely a gathering point, it is also a transmission point. Inevitably, at moments when something is turning or changing or shifting, people come to Times Square to see, and in turn to be seen themselves.
Each of these events reminds us in their own way that Times Square is not merely a gathering point, it is also a transmission point.
It’s been this way since the birth of Times Square in 1904. Adolph Ochs, the New York Times’ owner and the great grandfather of current publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., brilliantly saw that Times Square was a town square for New York. Ochs started it all with one of the world’s most successful and sustained PR stunts ever: a New Year’s Eve party in the new public square, which just happened to coincide with the opening of their new headquarters that year. It was a gathering intended to be covered by the media and transmitted far and wide. Ochs may have even intended what has now transpired — that Times Square would become a town square for America, if not the world.
Not long thereafter, technology became part of the show. In 1907 one hundred incandescent blubs — then the highest of high tech — adorned a wood and iron ball that was lowered 395 feet to symbolize the shift to a new year. (The idea of ball dropping signaling a passage of time reportedly began at England’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833, where a ball was dropped at 1 p.m. every afternoon, thereby enabling the captains of nearby ships to synch their navigational instruments.) At another time, a spotlight atop 1 Times Square tipped one way announced the winner of a national election. In the late 1920s a news “zipper” made of thousands of those incandescent bulbs flashed headlines to the scurrying, and occasionally stopping, crowds. The news zipper, which became the news crawl at the bottom of every cable news channel, helped establish Times Square as the place to convene in anticipation of big news and eventually even after a seminal but unexpected news event.
On Aug. 14, 1945, the news zipper flashed that Japan had surrendered and the Great War was over. Amidst the roaring crowds that teemed into the streets of Times Square, a sailor kissed a nurse. The press snapped a picture and it went global. Then as now.
So why does Times Square still call forth the crowds when people have their own personal news tickers in the form of 140 character tweets on their mobile phones? It’s not clear. Perhaps because New Yorkers, like many, find comfort in community when something big is happening, but also want to be on their own stage in the heart of the theater district. Perhaps because the only other big space in Manhattan is Central Park, and somehow nature cools everything down a notch when at key moments people want to heat things up a bit. Maybe it’s that when things are happening New Yorkers want to be where the action is, and for over a century the lights, the signs and the snapping cameras have said “action.”
But what is clear is that, at least for the foreseeable future, thus will it be. Something shifts, people come. People think something is about to change, and they, followed by the professional observing class, observe and are observed themselves, to see if something really did change. Not that it matters so much what actually happens.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Since 2002, Tim Tompkins has served as president of the Times Square Alliance, which aims to promote and improve Manhattan’s Times Square. Prior to that, he was the Founder and Director of Partnerships for Parks, which works to support New York City’s neighborhood parks.