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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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."


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.


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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Gorillas In The Crossfire At Africa’s Oldest National Park

For more on the battle for Virunga National Park, visit National Geographic.

Virguna National Park Gorillas

Photograph by Brent Stirton, © Brent Stirton / National GeographicA silverback from the 22-member Mapuwa family emerges from the jungle to keep an eye on a ranger patrol. Virunga National Park has largely succeeded in protecting mountain gorillas, its top tourist draw, from violence. Their population is now growing.

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Then again, these men almost certainly weren’t poachers.

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What We Loved This Week, Jun. 19 – 25

Creepy vintage medical photos, Germany’s real-life fairy tale castles, famous monuments when they were under construction, iconic newspaper front pages, World War II’s most bad-ass women.

Babies Glasses

Vintage EverydayTanning babies at the Chicago Orphan Asylum to offset winter rickets in 1925.

Disturbing Medical Treatments And Gear Of Yesteryear

Girl Contraption

Vintage EverydayDr. Clark’s Spinal Apparatus, circa 1878, one of the more bizarre and least practical treatments for scoliosis.

Whether the outrageous historical medical treatments of decades and centuries past or the most bizarre practices of modern medicine, doctors have always been rather scary.

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But, thankfully, as these vintage photos show, doctors seemed to be most terrifying long ago.

See more at Vintage Everyday.

Radiation Suit

Vintage EverydayProtective gear for a radiology nurse, circa 1918.

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