Peep Shows, Sex, And Crack: 27 Photos Of Times Square At Its Lowest

Today’s Times Square is known as the iconic tourist destination of New York, becoming the most visited place on the globe and attracting over 131 million visitors a year.

But before it became home to Broadway shows, chain restaurants, and television studios, it spent the latter half of the 20th century as the symbol of New York’s decay.

Initially arising as a cultural center of theaters, music halls, and boutique hotels, Times Square fell into disrepair during the Great Depression. Adult theaters and sex shops then took over while the neighborhood became an open market for prostitution and drugs.

By 1984, Times Square was one of the most dangerous areas of the city, with over 2,300 crimes committed every year in a one-block radius. We look at this Times Square of yesteryear, where chaos and seediness reigned supreme:

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Peep

National Archives and Records AdministrationTwenty-five-cent peep shows were the first adult stores to arrive in Times Square beginning in 1966. Enormously profitable, they opened the door for adult movie theaters, strip clubs, and sex stores.

Times Square Movie Theaters

National Archives and Records AdministrationAs Times Square took on a new feel, the businesses of the previous generation fled. As the Guardian describes, "Times Square’s venerable old theatres and spectacular movie palaces were torn down for office buildings or allowed to slowly rot away, showing scratchy prints of cheesy second-run films or pornography, which any casual visitor might have thought was the city’s leading industry."

Capri

Maggie Hopp By the late 1970s, adult stores and theaters dominated Times Square, with Rolling Stone referring to it as the “sleaziest block in America" in 1981.

Times Square Prostitute

The sex trade arrived shortly after adult stores. With its proximity to highways and subways (and thus an unhindered flow of people), prostitution flourished without interference from law enforcement. In the photograph above, a prostitute rests on the hood of a police car in 1985.

Times Square Prostitutes

Bettmann / GettyA group of prostitutes walk through the side streets of Broadway and Times Square in New York in the summer of 1971.

Real Sizzlers

Maggie HoppA man looks at the offerings of a peep show store adjacent to a "sensitive meeting place" with "lovely girls." Brothels, typically operated by organized crime, ran in the open without any legal repercussions.

Arrested For Selling Crack Times Square

Allan Tannenbaum / GettySex wasn't the only trade of Times Square: the rise of crack-cocaine and the ability to operate on the street made the area a haven for drugs. In the above photograph, an undercover cop leads a man who's been arrested for selling crack in 1986.

Guardian Angels

Bettmann / GettyCrime also became a chronic issue for the subway stations at Times Square. Above, a team of the Guardian Angels -- a volunteer patrol group dedicated to making New York's subway system safe -- get ready to go on patrol in 1980.

Times Square Trash Can

National Archives and Records AdministrationThe homeless populations of Times Square and neighboring Port Authority skyrocketed during the 1970s and 1980s. Combined with the pervasiveness of the drug and sex enterprises, this proved to be a chaotic brew of ingredients for the area.

Jesus Saves

The New York Historical SocietyA homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk in front of the McAuley Cremorne Mission in 1985.

Hare Krishna

Allan Tannenbaum / GettyIn 1976, a group of Hare Krishna followers sing and play instruments in Times Square under the marquee of an adult theater advertising the film Sweet Cakes.

Marlboro Man 1980

Wikimedia CommonsThe neighborhood also became home to non-traditional street acts. A man adorning only a leather hat and thong scales a Marlboro billboard on 44th Street in 1980.

Bill Murray

Actor Bill Murray poses in front of the famous 25-cent peep shows of Times Square in the mid-1970s.

Filthiest Show In Town

Frederic Lewis / GettyIn 1975, tourists look into the windows of Times Square as they pass under the marquee for the Globe theater advertising the "filthiest show in town."

Women Against Pornography

Barbara Alper / GettyNot everyone was happy about Times Square's transition into a center of adult entertainment, including Women Against Pornography (WAP), which marched through the neighborhood in 1979.

Live Nude Girls

Maggie HoppA man stands outside of a strip club on 42nd Street in the late 1970s.

Taboo

National Archives and Records AdministrationPeople pass unperturbed by the offerings of Taboo II.

Missionary In Times Square

Steven SiegelA Christian proselytizer walks in front of an adult theater on 8th Avenue.

Exotic Dancers

Spencer Platt / GettyExotic dancers await customers at an adult store in March 2005. Though the combined efforts of mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have removed a majority of the adult stores in Times Square, a handful still operate.

Private Viewing Window

Allan Tannenbaum / GettyWomen working in the private viewing booths in Times Square in 1997.

House Of Paradise

Leland BobbéPeople converse in front of the infamous "House of Paradise."

Follies Burlesk

National Archives and Records AdministrationThe one non-adult mainstay of Times Square during its decline was the Howard Johnson's restaurant. Opened in 1955, the restaurant and the building it occupied were demolished in 2005.

Oh Calcutta

Rainer Halama / Wikimedia CommonsAn advertisement for the musical Oh Calcutta dominates the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in 1981.

Neil Diamond 1975

Waring Abbott / GettySinger Neil Diamond awaits the arrival of the 7 train in 1975.

Krs One D Nice Times Square

Michael Ochs Archives / GettyArtists KRS-One and D-Nice pose for a photograph in Times Square in 1988.

Times Square Subway

National Archives and Records AdministrationA graffiti covered 7 train passes through the subway station at Times Square.

Peep O Rama

National Archives and Records AdministrationBy the mid 1990s, legislative efforts began to limit the density of adult stores in Times Square while actively fostering more family friendly replacements. Through zoning ordinances and business development, what dominated Times Square for so long were mostly dispatched by the conclusion of the century.

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Summer Of 1977 In New York City

On the evening of July 13, 1977, two lightning strikes just north of New York City led to a massive blackout that plunged the city into darkness.

The lights went out, elevators stalled, and subways ground to a halt. Looting and arson broke out, over a thousand fires were reported, and more than 1,600 stores were damaged or ransacked. The Mets-Cubs game at Shea Stadium ended in the bottom of the sixth inning. The light-filled city became a black pit.

Elsewhere in New York’s summer of 1977, a sweltering heat wave, financial downturn, rising poverty and inequality levels, paranoia about the Son of Sam murders, and the shining lights of Studio 54 took hold of the city.

Likewise, as fires burned down much of the Bronx, hip hop began to rise from the ashes. In fact, the looting of music stores during the blackout enabled people who couldn’t afford turntables and mixers to gather the equipment they needed to become DJs.

Check out some compelling photos from that uneasy summer in New York City:

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Avenue C

Camilo J. Vergara/ Library of Congress Young boys play in a fire hydrant in the Lower East Side's Avenue C.

New York 1977

Wikimedia Commons45th Street in Midtown.

Woman Sitting Street Summer

Camilo J. Vergara/ Library of Congress A woman sits along the streets.

Forth Of July

Allan Tannenbaum/Getty ImagesResidents of Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood sit in folding chairs, July 21, 1977.

Trash Can Fire Harlem

National Archives and Records AdministrationA child passes a blazing can in Harlem.

George Willig World Trade Center

Carmine Donofrio/NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesGeorge "Human Fly" Willig climbing the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Reggie Jackson

NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesYankees manager Billy Martin, and the team's strutting superstar, Reggie Jackson, nearly come to blows.

Dancing Studio 54

Waring Abbott/Getty ImagesA group dancing at Studio 54.

Group Singing Studio 54

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive/ Getty ImagesStevie Wonder (at piano) jams with Stephen Stills (with drum), Stephanie Mills, and Teddy Pendergrass (behind Wonder) for New York secretary Mary Ann Cummings and 300 guests on her birthday at Studio 54.

Curtis Mayfield

Richard E. Aaron/RedfernsCurtis Mayfield poses inside Studio 54.

New York Daily News Front Cover

NY Daily NewsFront page of the Daily News following the blackout.

Skyline

Allan Tannenbaum/Getty ImagesAt dawn on July 14, the Manhattan skyline shows no lights due to the blackout.

Walk Bridge

Underwood Archives/Getty ImagesNew Yorkers jam the Brooklyn Bridge on their way home after the blackout shut down the subway system.

NYC Blackout

Robert R. McElroy/Getty ImagesIn Brooklyn, pedestrians stand on a street corner in the wake of the blackout.

No Light But Liquor

Bryan Alpert/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesIn the midst of the blackout, a restaurant owner writes a sign to advise customers that there is no food or lights inside, but lots of liquor.

NYC Blackout brooklyn

Robert R. McElroy/Getty ImagesPolice officers and passersby stand in front of a damaged storefront, looted in the wake of the New York City blackout.

arrest

NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesCops contain suspected looters at Grand Concourse and Fordham Road in the Bronx during blackout.

fire bronx blackout

Robert R. McElroy/Getty ImagesAerial view of a building burning following the blackout in Brooklyn.

Looters

Looters young and old leave an A&P supermarket at Ogden Avenue and 166th Street in the Bronx through a broken window. Authorities arrested thousands of looters in at least three boroughs of the city.

Son Of Sam

Fred R. Conrad/New York Times Co./Getty ImagesSerial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz being taken into police custody on August 11, 1977.

1st_Son_of_Sam_letter

In the summer of 1977, the NYPD discovered a handwritten letter near the bodies of Esau and Suriani, addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli. With this letter, Berkowitz revealed the name "Son of Sam" for the first time.

The press had previously dubbed him "the .44 Caliber Killer" because of his signature weapon. The letter was initially withheld from public view, but some of its contents leaked to the press, and the name "Son of Sam" rapidly eclipsed the old name.

Son Of Sam

Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesMugshot of "Son of Sam."

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Exclusive Photos Of Post-Prohibition NYC Gang Wars

While the Rockefellers and Carnegies gallivanted around luxurious Manhattan hotspots in the early 20th century, Arthur Fellig had his eyes, and camera, on a very different New York City.

In the 1930s and ’40s, life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Fellig took many of his photos, was marked by violence, crime, and death. Fellig, who went by Weegee, documented it all. Following emergency vehicles to crime scenes and gang war shootouts, Weegee later recounted that he “had so many unsold murder pictures lying around my room…I felt as if I were renting out a wing of the City Morgue.”

Over the years, his depictions of New York’s seedy, blood-soaked reality prompted many to consider him the world’s first paparazzo — and for masters of cinematic fiction such as Stanley Kubrick to later collaborate with him.

As the following exclusive photos from National Geographic show, it’s easy to see why:

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What We Loved This Week, Jun. 5 – 11

Vintage New York photos from the 1970s and 1980s, 21 truly bizarre sex facts, a photographer shoots his own eye, what American Muslims actually look like, and the life of 21st century cowboys.

Robert Herman NYC Photos 2

Vintage Everyday

Photographer Captures Life In New York In The 1970s and 1980s

Robert Herman NYC Photos

Vintage Everyday

Photographer Robert Herman has been capturing everyday life on New York City’s streets since the late 1970s. It was then that he began cruising the city with a camera in tow and shooting people in the Lower East Side, Soho, Greenwich Village, and other neighborhoods across Manhattan.

“Through the lens of my camera,” Herman once said, “my vulnerability met theirs at the moment of exposure: a photograph of someone whose heart is open to a stranger’s camera says more about a New Yorker than I ever can in say in words.”

His astounding color photography reveals the charm of this city that was both wondrous and gritty.

View more photos at Vintage Everyday.

Robert Herman NYC Photos 3

Vintage Everyday

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