Roughly 300,000 pedestrians pass through Times Square on a daily basis. Yet, despite the heavy foot traffic, visitors generally tend to overlook the New York police substation on 43rd Street, located between 7th Avenue and Broadway. The single-story building, measuring only about 1,000-square-feet, sits in front of 1 Times Square. Even with its flashy blue-and-white lights that spell out “NEW YORK POLICE DEPT” in capital letters, it has an underwhelming footprint given the sprawl of blinged out signs, oversized advertisements and costumed characters that exist around it.
Photo via Flickr/Adrian Owen
The substation is just one of the places we’ll visit on our tour of Gritty Times Square taking place on March 19th. While it’s far more decorative than other police stations you’ll find in New York City, its history ties back to a different (and far less glittery) era of Times Square’s past, when the neighborhood was filled with peepshows, adult stores, porno theaters and seedy flophouses (like the infamous Elk Hotel on 42nd and 9th Avenue).
Gritty Old Times Square
The next time you pass by the station, keep an eye out for the identical mosaic maps of New York City that decorate the sides of the building. Designed by artist Edward Meshekoff and installed in 1957, the pieces are meticulously crafted from hand-cut blue and orange glass tiles; if they look a little outdated, that’s because they are. After all, the Metropolitan Opera House, depicted as No. 15 on the map, is no longer in Midtown, and the New York Coliseum was demolished back in 2000.
New York Coliseum in 1956, demolished in 2000 to make way for the Time Warner Center. Image via wirednewyork.com
Some have also noted that the mosaics seem like an odd decorative choice for a law enforcement hub. This can be attributed to the fact that the building originally served as the Times Square Information Center, which opened in 1957. Following a period of renovation, the structure took on new life as the iconic substation in 1993. Prior to that, a previous incarnation of the station could be found on 1465 Broadway and 42nd Street; it stood at the former location of the Crossroads Bookstore, once one of the largest pornography stores and peep shows in the city.
Quite humorously, a Google search of “Crossroads Bookstore” links back to a Christian bookstore today. But forty years ago, before Times Square’s major retrofit, Crossroads was a notorious 24-hour smut shop, described by The New York Times as a “hard-core pornography operation.” Aside from picture books, it offered access to 72 movie machines, which customers could systemically feed quarters to in order to watch previews of adult films. At the time, its owner, mysteriously referred to as “M.T.” in this article, described the “best customers” as middle-aged American men, earning $15,000.
Given the nature of the business, Crossroads stood at the center of the city’s crosshairs. In a two-year effort to acquire the building and shut down the bookstore, the 42d Street Redevelopment Corporation paid its owner $81,000 to stop the court battle against his eviction. After a lengthy and heavily contested dispute, the store eventually shuttered on July 8, 1976.
Today, 1465 Broadway is surrounded by a colorful collection of retail shops: there’s a Loft, a Gap and a H&M within a minute’s walk from each other, but the location’s former life as a smut shop has nearly been erased. According to a New York Times article, published the following year, Crossroads’ owners reportedly planned to reopen the bookstore by leasing a one‐story building at “228 West 42d Street,” near Seventh Avenue. We checked into this claim, but our investigation quickly led to a dead end.
In any case, the police substation on 43rd Street still stands as one of the lasting vestiges of Times Square’s seedy past. We’ll continue to explore its history in future posts and during our upcoming tour, taking place next Sunday. Join us on March 19th as we delve into the gritty history of New York City’s most iconic commercial intersection.