Since the early 20th century, 42nd Street has been a world-famous icon—its bright lights, vibrant characters, and street performers have made it one of the most recognizable parts of New York City.
But at one time in the city’s storied history, Times Square and 42nd Street were more a symbol of the economic blight that descended on the city in the 1970s and 80s. The block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was a hotspot for crime, becoming infamous for peep shows and dilapidated theaters slowly crumbing into the bedrock.
It took the vision of then-Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo, along with some savvy city planners, to dream up the solution: create a plan to transform the street into a safe, family-friendly block of theaters, restaurants, retailers, and newly developed office towers.
As the illicit uses were ousted, new theaters began to reclaim the shells their predecessors had left behind. The first to open was The New Victory Theater, the city’s first-ever theater for children, which took over a space once devoted to burlesque and pornography. Its new use was a firm flag planted in the area to let others know that it was time to return to 42nd Street.
Through a long but tireless process, Disney, the Durst Organization, and many others gradually began to build and redevelop on the block, bringing it back to its former glory. The City had one condition: keep the lights that had made 42nd Street and Times Square famous burning bright.
It didn’t happen overnight, but today the block is revitalized, full of brightly lit theaters, attractions, and restaurants, constantly brimming with people from all over the world. (The famous light displays have, in fact, only gotten brighter with time.) For New York City, the rebirth of 42nd Street was a part of a dramatic turnaround. As Carl Weisbrod, former President of both the 42nd Street Development Project and NYCEDC, observed, “We've taken an area that was the symbol of the worst of the city and transformed it into the symbol of the best of the city.”
See the full story of how 42nd Street came back to life in Against All Odds: Transforming 42nd Street.