This week we’re running online for the first time six pieces from our past issues of Eye on Design magazine. This story was originally published in the “Distraction” issue and was written before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lights never turn off in Times Square, not even at 10 a.m. on a sunny day midweek. You emerge from the 42nd Street subway station and they’re right there glowing in the daylight—7,500 bulbs shimmering in sync on the marquee of the most spectacular McDonalds you’ll ever encounter. This is the border of Times Square, a district in central Manhattan that stretches from 43rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue up to 50th Street, just past a 68-foot-tall kinetic digital screen advertising Coca-Cola.
The further you edge inward from Times Square’s boundaries, the more the city seems to turn itself inside out. Its nerve center is a place of pure excess—too many people, too much light, and too much noise. Times Square has changed plenty since it first received its name, but it has always been a place defined by deliberate chaos. In the late 1800s, the underground subway first snaked its way through a stretch of land around 42nd and Broadway called Long Acre Square, bringing business development, theater, and nightlife to the once rustic area. By the early 20th century, advances in electricity and the advent of neon transformed the newly commercial area into a beacon of entertainment and advertising that has stayed alight, more or less, ever since.
Today, Times Square is a giant pop-up advertisement specifically designed to grab hold of your brain and not let go. Buildings are covered in digital screens that stretch across entire facades and display an ever shifting array of ads that cover the towers in a patchwork of technicolor blankets. It’s a garish, mind-melting display of consumerism, and it’s entirely by choice. Times Square is ugly by design.
Buried deep within city zoning documents are rules and regulations that state just how much space should be dedicated to the glowing signs (a lot), where they should be placed (as visibly as possible) and how they should be displayed (very brightly). Most of New York City abides by regulations that aim to limit the size and scope of signage. By contrast, Times Square is designated a special signage district that requires building owners to invest in over-the-top signs. “Here, you can go as big as you like,” says Tony Caruso, vice president of real estate & public affairs at Clear Channel Outdoor and treasurer of the Times Square Advertising Coalition.
The city created these regulations in 1986, a moment when Times Square was scrubbing off the tawdriness associated with the area due to the sex industry that emerged during the Great Depression and thrived through the 1970s. Developers were interested in building large office towers for white-collar workers, but they weren’t so interested in plastering advertisements to the side of their multi-million dollar investments. For some, revitalizing Times Square meant scrubbing it clean and erecting glass towers. But glitz and grime had always been the area’s calling card, and the city wasn’t going to let a few new buildings turn a tourist attraction into another staid officeland.
In a 1986 application for a zoning amendment, the city planning commission stated its case: “The proposed amendment to the Zoning Resolution is a response to accelerating changes in Times Square that could threaten its unique character, which for nearly a century has made this space symbolic of the vitality and dynamism of New York City itself.” Extinguishing Times Square’s over-the-top nature, they wrote, would be extinguishing its lifeblood. Preserving the characteristic gaudiness that made Times Square a worldwide symbol of excess turned out to be a savvy business plan: today it costs between $1.1 million and $4 million a year to buy advertising space in Times Square, with much of that going to the developers, who typically own the signs on any given building.
In the more than 30 years since the city legitimized Times Square’s claustrophobic aesthetic, it’s become the glowing heartbeat of the city, recognizable to people around the world with a single photograph. It’s a place that’s foreign to visitors and natives alike, even those who bear the brunt of its contradictions every day while walking to and from work.
“We want Times Square to look a little cheesy,” Caruso says. He tells me this on a blustery morning in early spring while standing on the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street. Above us, a 1,200-square-foot screen that his company owns is broadcasting a high-resolution advertisement for Netflix. Compared to the 17,000-square-foot sign just up the street, the screen we’re looking at is almost tasteful. It looks like a flat screen TV that’s been blown up to city scale.
Today, all of Times Square is like this. Illuminated vinyl signs stretch across entire building facades. Corners are blunted by signs that protrude in an attempt to grab the attention of passersby. The digital screens get bigger, brighter, and sharper every year, and the constant march towards technological relevance isn’t going to stop.
It’s all a bit paradoxical. In a time when targeted digital advertising rules, developers in Times Square are squeezing as much screen space as they can out of the finite physical world. The effect of this visual cacophony is that real visibility itself can be surprisingly difficult to achieve. The city estimates more than 380,000 people walk through Times Square every day. That’s 760,000 eyeballs potentially taking in the more than 230 signs that fill the district. It is impossible to measure exactly how many people linger on a sign for the seven seconds it takes to count as an “impression,” but what’s clear is that Times Square elicits a rare form of distraction that even the most internet-trained brain can barely process.