The same year that Times Square became Times Square, the Astor Hotel opened for business. It was 1904, and The New York Times had just arrived in the neighborhood, erecting its headquarters on West 43rd Street. Like the paper of record of that day, The New York Herald, The Times wanted to paste its name on a piece of Manhattan. If not the respectable midtown square that bore its rival’s flag, then The Times would settle for the next best thing: a patch of cramped factories and whorehouses rubbing up against the steadily encroaching theater district. That year also marked the long-awaited completion of the subway’s first line, and with it, the masses came reeling through the Times Square turnstiles. By 1910, the square had undergone its first unlikely metamorphosis, transforming itself into an incandescent spectacle of acrobats and escape acts, vaudeville and ragtime—an electric Milky Way of gleaming signs.
With its ornate rooftop gardens and banquet halls, its unabashed gilded fervor, the Astor Hotel on Broadway became a point of congregation for the city’s society crowd—mayors, industrial tycoons, socialites, ex-royalty. But the hotel was known best for its bar, a place where Times Square’s true royalty, its showbiz luminaries, gathered to gossip and flirt, where Cole Porter could sip absinthe, kiss Monty Woolley and sing, “Have you heard that Mimsie Starr just got pinched in the Astor Bar?”
It was almost a century later that Times Square emerged from an even unlikelier transformation, but in many ways, the block between 44th and 45th streets stayed true to the spirit of Mr. Porter’s swell party.
By 1999, at 3:30 on weekday afternoons, close to a million viewers nationwide would tune their televisions to MTV. Mostly aged 12 to 17, they were the very demographic Viacom executives were congratulating themselves for sinking Sumner Redstone’s wizened teeth into. But it was the teenagers right outside Viacom’s corporate offices that would turn out to have the far more lasting impact.
The throngs assembled beneath MTV’s glass studio for the taping of Total Request Live endowed the show with the fervid pitch of religious hysteria. Mostly teenage girls, some of them held handmade signs, and all of them screamed. They’d made the pilgrimage to Times Square on the believer’s gamble that they’d catch a glimpse of Britney Spears or 98 Degrees, or maybe even be among the chosen few ushered up to the second-floor studio. It took a few decades, a few revolutions in the saga of Times Square’s reincarnation, but at the building that sprung from the ruins of the Astor Hotel, the cult of celebrity was alive and well.
At least, it was until recently. Total Request Live, the countdown music video show, made its final run in 2008, though it had ceased being live sometime before. Then, at the end of 2009, MTV shuttered the famous studio altogether. (Tween mall staple Aeropostale will take the retail space below it, though the studio remains empty.) While Viacom, which rents about 95 percent of 1515 Broadway, renewed its lease for roughly 1.27 million square feet of office space in 2008, the era of screaming teenagers on the street was over.
What happened, of course, was bigger than MTV, bigger than Viacom, bigger even then Times Square. But 1515 Broadway had a front seat to the glimmering spectacle.
When the Astor was razed in 1967 to make way for 1515 Broadway, a cry went up for the passing of a long-gone era’s opulent relic. It didn’t help that the tower that supplanted it was a glass-and-steel monolith so tall you had to be down the street to see its sole defining feature: concrete fins sprouting from the roof with all the manic zeal of a tinfoil cap.
The Astor may have helped launch Times Square’s first glitz-bedazzled reincarnation, but the leviathan that replaced it presaged the next. The first tower to take advantage of the city’s Times Square redevelopment subsidies, 1515 Broadway commenced the spasm of high-rise construction that enveloped the area in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, the district was filled with historic, derelict theaters, and it consistently placed both first and second in city felony rates (the area runs the fault line of two police precincts). In the name of redevelopment, city officials allowed unusually large office buildings to be built atop leveled theaters, with the one provision that a new theater be incorporated into the space.
In 1967, the developer Sam Minskoff & Sons acquired the Astor for $10.6 million. To design its successor, Minskoff commissioned Ely Jaques Kahn, a man whose architectural legacy is perhaps upstaged by his fictional one. In 1937, a budding, blocked novelist known as Ayn Rand spent six months in Mr. Kahn’s office, volunteering as a file clerk while she worked out the elusive gaps in what would become The Fountainhead. Guy Francon, the social-climbing, mediocre architect, was inspired by her boss. By 1972, the 2 million-square-foot 1515 Broadway, with its conciliatory Minskoff Theater, stood in the Astor’s place—a 54-story ode to moneymaking that would have done Rand proud.
As Times Square became the subject of a several-decades-long public debate, a site for the city to hash out its ideas about urbanism and development, 1515 Broadway embodied the district’s fevered oscillations between entertainment and enterprise. In the 1980s, Alvin Ailey made its home in the building, but a change in ownership (Tishman Speyer purchased the building for $190 million-18 times what Minskoff paid for the Astor) pushed the dance company out to make way for more lucrative office space. The building also housed the below-ground Loews Astor Plaza, the largest single-screen movie theater in the country. In 2004, when the building was again bought and sold, this time to SL Green, the age of the multiplex had rendered the theater unprofitable.
Where once Times Square vaudeville acts had given way to the silver screen, in a curious inversion of history, it was a live concert hall, the Nokia, that replaced the Astor Plaza.
And then there is Viacom. Sumner Redstone began his memoir, A Passion to Win, with the pronouncement: “Viacom is me.” The octogenarian mogul, whose age and ego are surpassed only by his litany of media acquisitions, likes to claim he’ll never die. Which may explain his recent erratic plunges into the spotlight: The man who owns MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, CBS, Simon & Schuster, Paramount Pictures, Showtime, Comedy Central, Blockbuster and TV Land has carried on a highly public feud with his daughter over the future dominion of his empire, and—should there remain any doubt about who’s running the show—he made a few very public firings, namely the longtime head of MTV and one Tom Cruise. When you own the media, publicity is, after all, somewhat easy to mistake for immortality. Or just as likely, Mr. Redstone’s companies each harbor a bit of his leathered soul, through which, Voldemort-style, he really will live forever.
Viacom moved to 1515 Broadway in 1993, just as the media magnate was waging his unlikely battle to buy Paramount Pictures. Mr. Redstone won, of course (he always wins-winning is his passion), solving the minor complication of cash flow by purchasing Blockbuster. As the amoeboid conglomeration expanded, so did its square feet, rising up 1515 Broadway’s glassy facade with every successive purchase.
With the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress dismantled the regulatory framework set up in the 1930s, declaring a new world order in which, as Bill Clinton called it at the time, the “information superhighway” made the old rules obsolete, stifling competition and dragging like dead weights on the soul of free enterprise. The new rules set the scene for a seismic shift in the media landscape and sparked a bout of mega-consolidations. Time Warner subsumed Turner Broadcasting and CNN. Disney merged with ABC. Then in 1999, the F.C.C. decreed that companies could own more than one station in the same local market. That was the year that TRL reached its frenzied peak, and Mr. Redstone did the only logical thing: He merged his entertainment panoply with a major news network. In the biggest broadcast merger in history, Viacom acquired CBS.
In 1980, there were 50 principle media firms; by 2000, there were six. Evidence of the new media order was everywhere in Times Square. By that time, after several civic campaigns, a development-preservationist debate-histrionic even by New York standards-and numerous rounds of building incentives, Times Square had emerged from its brazen transformation. The porn shops and sideshows were shuttered, the corner delis pushed out, the seedy theaters rolled into a few shiny multiplexes. The towers got taller to accommodate the ranks of Disney, News Corp., Reuters, Bertelsmann, Condé Nast and Clear Channel, and the street got compressed further and further below.
The street itself became a kind of corporate big top where the ecstasies engineered in the buildings above cartwheeled and spun. The Times Square of the social fringe, of pimps and hustlers, of Diane Arbus’ transvestites and dwarves, became a place of mainstream cultural convergence. In the new Times Square, safer, cleaner and less weird, electric words charged through you; ads spilled into news tickers; and the actors in sitcom promotions fixed you intently in their sights. Corporate executives could look down from their tinted towers and observe their board presentations in action, giddily refracted in the kaleidoscope of consumer desire.
But something else was happening, too. The crowds outside 1515 Broadway, crowds that had once been known to stop traffic, that bespoke a generational standstill for a handful of formula-sprung pop stars, suddenly and abruptly departed. People stopped waiting for Carson Daly or one of his equally awkward stand-ins to count down to their video; now they watched online. But instead of just watching, they were making things as well. Consumers were becoming producers, and the consuming and producing were becoming difficult to distinguish, remixing and mutating and deconstructing. Things were happening in the margins. It was weird and messy and shocking and banal and voyeuristic and tacky. It was often derivative, occasionally brilliant, and all of it human. It was a little like Times Square.
New York is a vertical city that leaves little room for the people on the street below. Only occasionally—say, when clamoring teenagers stop traffic for a glimpse of Beyoncé in the tower above—do the two spheres collide. But the new street is a virtual one, and the Sumner Redstones and Rupert Murdochs are already staking out their real estate. It’s always been the invisible few that shape mass culture. Celebrities may be royalty, now as in the days of the Astor bar, but it’s the figurehead sort, distracting us with its pomp and jewels while the driving forces mostly stay out of glass boxes. (Which is what makes it such an odd and fantastic spectacle when the invisible few come out to fire the figureheads.) Just as the Astors left their influence and family feuds imprinted across the city (the Waldorf and the Astoria, for instance, were originally two hotels, split between family factions), Mr. Redstone’s feuds and whims are stamped across our mediascape.
Of course, no one really knows to what extent the endless weird conversation of the Internet can be commodified. If Times Square has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t buy weird; you can only supplant it.
Maybe that’s why we’re so nostalgic for Times Square, even Times Squares we’ve never known, why we argue and wring our hands over each metamorphosis: With its bizarre mutations and unending reinventions, Times Square has always been our way of talking about ourselves.
Even New York, a city that tears itself down and reconstructs itself at near lightning speeds, is made out of concrete and brick and glass. It’s comprised of buildings that are hard and unyielding and leave little room for improvisation. A building can’t contradict itself. A building can’t be a conversation. Which leaves us with Times Square and its blaze of screaming signs. Never quite the square anyone wanted, always the runner-up and always truer just one incarnation ago, it will always, we can be certain, transform into something else. And when it does, we will wonder what it says about our city and what we’ve become.