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The year was 1992. David Dinkins was mayor, Kriss Kross made you jump and Times Square was in trouble. Five buildings were in bankruptcy. Adult video stores and XXX theaters were behind every doorway. Strippers were upstairs, sex shows in the basements and dope pushers were on the corners.
Enter the Times Square Alliance, the organization set up to clean up the world’s most famous square — which on Monday held a gala to celebrate the three-decade long transformation that has been achieved.
At the gala, held at The Rooftop at Edison Ballroom, the Alliance marked three decades that have reimagined midtown, from new skyscrapers with big-name tenants, to pedestrianization, public art and even regular outdoor yoga.
It honored two people who have been central to the changes, artist Jane Dickson, who has documented and celebrated Times Square since the 1970s, and the Alliance’s former chair, Eric Rudin, whose family property company owns 3 Times Square, the Thomson Reuters building. And it paid a special tribute to Community First, the non-profit which helps those in need of vital services, including housing and mental health support — a need that has not gone away since 1992.
The Alliance’s trajectory has not always been universally lauded. Critics called the clean-up “Disneyfication,” rents for residents went up and up and up again and the removal of cars faced bitter opposition from some quarters.
But the transition called from “gritty to gaudy” by the New York Times in 2010 got a very warm reception among attendees at the Edison Hotel reception.
There were performances, curated by Broadway Sings, from Lena Hall, the Tony Award Winner from Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Mykal Kilgore of Motown: The Musical and The Wiz Live!; and Taylor Iman Jones, from The Devil Wears Prada Musical and Head Over Heels.
Also entertaining guests were performance artist and recent NPR Tiny Desk star Joseph Keckler and two-time Grammy-nominated trumpeter Alphonso Horne and the Gotham Kings jazz band. the event was emceed by Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.
In a special short film premiered at the event, the Alliance’s first president, Gretchen Dykstra, spoke of the challenges faced when she took on the job on January 1, 1992, riding in on a sanitation truck as the clean-up from the Ball Drop got into action. “There were five buildings in bankruptcy. There were none of these big retail stores. So we were in deep trouble,” Dykstra said.
There were years of work ahead, wooing big developers, convincing retailers the area was safe, securing zoning changes and enhanced police resources, and famously persuading MTV to open their studio in 1997. That imprinted Times Square as the world capital of pop culture to Gen Xers and early millennials who flocked to look up from the sidewalk at Carson Daly with idols like Britney Spears and the boys of *NSYNC.
And for Dykstra, the efforts paid off, with some very surprising proof. “My greatest moment by the way, was when one of my board members came to me and said, ‘Gretchen, guess what I saw on the streets of Times Square today,’ and I said, ‘What?,'” Dykstra said. “And he said, ‘A baby carriage!’ I thought hot-diggity-dog, it’s better! And now look at it.”
The Alliance’s responsibilities are not just the original Times Square, formed by the “bowtie” junction of Broadway, 7th Avenue, and 42nd Street, but almost all the space from 40th Street to 53rd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues, Restaurant Row and the Hell’s Kitchen block of W46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue.
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It provides public safety officers to help reassure visitors, sanitation associates to keep the streets clean — even down to cleaning off gum, co-ordinates the biggest Times Square events including the Ball Drop and puts on a year-round effort to encourage visitors and make residents and business feel good, including public art and concerts.
None of it is cheap: in 2020, a year of crisis for Times Square as businesses shut down for COVID, expenditure was $20.26 million, its accounts show, most of that drawn from a special assessment levied on real estate in the district.
The gala highlighted the work of artist Dickson, whose work far predates the Alliance and who has become synonymous with Times Square. She has been part of the area since the late 1970s, helping curate the Times Square Show of 1980 which showcased the city’s young art scene in a shuttered massage parlor, then organizing Messages to the Public, which showed contemporary art on the screen of One Times Square from 1982 to 1990. (To learn more about the amazing history of One Times Square, read this fascinating feature by Sarah Beling.)
Dickson brought up her children on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues and has created show after show in the area. Back in 1978 she worked on the first and only digital moving screen at that time. Then, 10 years ago she was the inspiration behind the Midnight Moment, which nowadays uses the square’s 90 moving screens to showcase art. Back then it was on a smaller scale, with several screens coordinated — now all can be deployed together, to dramatic effect.
“It’s important to the general public to be given a break now and then from solid advertising,” Dickson told the mini-documentary. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity for any artist.”
The Alliance also looked to the future, using the gala to praise the dedication of its uniformed workers who were in Times Square during the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020 — and predicted that better days are on the way.
Rubin, the former chair who was honored, told the documentary: “I think there are actually a lot of things that make Times Square unique. The energy, the signage, all the people: the tourists, the people who work here, the people who live here.
“It’s a unique part of town and perhaps unique in the entire world. My hope is that it continues to be a melting pot for the world. Really, it’s an amazing place where people can express themselves in ways that are really heartfelt, sincere and bring a lot of joy to many people. The best is yet to come.”
This month’s Midnight Moment in Times Square is American Gurl by artist and performer Kilo Kish. Take a look from 11.57pm to midnight every night on Broadway and 7th Avenue from W42nd Street. Details at arts.timessquarenyc.org. Follow the Times Square Alliance on Instagram @timessquarenyc