Ask New Yorkers , and almost unanimously they’ll tell you that any visit to the City should by no means include Times Square. A gaudy, frenetic, tourist-clogged district devoted to the slavish pursuit of rampant consumerism and the wasting of money at overpriced tourist traps. This may all be true, but it’s also a vibrant, exciting and quintessentially urban place; and odds are, there’s nothing like it from wherever you’re from.
There’s probably no more appropriate place to start an exploration of Times Square than in the headquarters of the grand old institution that gave the Square its name. In 2007, The New York Times (620 8th Avenue, 1 on the map below) moved into its current headquarters, a modern, gleaming building designed by Renzo Piano, putting a 21st century face onto a very 20th century organization. Unless you have some well-connected friends, you won’t be able to tour the Times’s newsroom. But the building’s lobby is welcome to all, and worth a visit. The feature that you will immediately be drawn to is the open air garden, a serene space of birch trees and a rolling carpet of moss and fern. The wooden walkway through the gardens seems to offer such an inviting sanctuary away from the bustle of Times Square outside, but sadly, you can only experience this little oasis from the outside, looking in through the glass enclosures. Additionally, be sure to check out “Movable Type,” the permanent art installation covering two walls in the lobby. Designed by artist/statistician team of Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, this work consists of 560 screens displaying a constantly changing stream of content selected from the paper’s breaking news, archives and readers’ comments.
The Great White Way
Clearly, the most respectable reason to venture into Times Square is to catch a Broadway or off-Broadway show. With 40 Broadway theaters currently in operation, finding a show that appeals to you shouldn’t be an issue. Finding an available and affordable ticket, however, is another story. One solution is the TKTS discount booth (Duffy Square, Broadway and 47th Street, 2 on map), unmissable in the heart of Times Square, which sells discounted tickets for select musicals and plays. Of course, come prepared for what could potentially be a two hour wait. Regardless of long lines and expensive tickets, the bright red glass bleachers over the TKTS booth provide a perfect spot to soak in the whole Times Square spectacle.
For those with a flexible schedule and willing to take a risk, many shows offer heavily discounted day-of tickets, often in the front few rows, through their rush or lottery programs. So, for The Book of Mormon you can reserve your $300 tickets in advance, or stroll up a few hours before curtain, put your name in a hat, and cross your fingers for $30 tickets.
There is a performance you can be guaranteed not to miss, something that is available 24/7 and at no charge. Right across from the TKTS booth, on the traffic island on the other side of 46th street, is Max Neuhaus’s sound installation (3 on map) Times Square. There is probably no other work of art in New York City that has been experienced by more people, nor one that has been this overlooked. Emerging from the sidewalk grates as a rhythmic drone, Neuhaus’s recorded work has provided an ambient soundtrack for the neighborhood continuously since May, 2002. So amble on over to this pedestrian triangle and envelope yourself in this public art installation. You will certainly be the only person aware of this experience; any passerby will likely assume you’re just a bewildered tourist frozen amid the chaos of Times Square. But you’ll know.
For those whose interest in Broadway is perhaps a bit more aspirational, head down to the Drama Book Shop (250 W 40th Street, 4 on map). Devoted to all things theatrical, the store carries pretty much every play in existence, sheet music, and books devoted to the craft, as well as hosting workshops, talks and readings. It’s really hard to go wrong in a place that, besides having such enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, is the only bookshop to actually win a Tony award.
If your Broadway dreams don’t come true, you can always find solace at St. Malachy’s, AKA the Actor’s Chapel (239 W 49th St, 5 on map). Founded in 1902, the church has evolved to serve the unique needs of the surrounding theater community: they offer late night, post-theater services; 15 minutes before curtain time church bells sound to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”; and the church choir, not surprising considering the worshippers’ day jobs, is especially talented.
You’re certainly welcome to follow the wandering hordes into Toys R Us or M&M’s World, but sometimes it’s nice to duck into someplace unsung and untouristy. Despite both its tourist-trap name and location smack in the heart of Times Square, The Times Square Visitor Center (1560 Broadway, 6 on map) is well worth a visit. In addition to dispensing the usual tourist information, the Visitor Center also houses a free museum that, though small, displays a well-curated exhibit on the history of Times Square, covering everything from Broadway to peep shows to New Year’s Eve celebrations (including the Waterford Crystal-designed ball used in 2008). And perhaps most importantly, the Visitor Center has clean, accessible bathrooms! [ed. note: The visitor center is now closed! Apparently the powers that be have determined that Times Square is not horrible enough, so this hidden gem will now become yet another retail space.]
Unsurprisingly, insurance company offices are rarely included in travel guides, but it is definitely worth visiting the AXA Equitable Center (787 7th Avenue, 7 on map). The building’s soaring, light-strewn lobby atrium is home to pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Mural with Blue Brushstroke. The nearby Museum of Modern Art also has works by Lichtenstein in their collection, but you can avoid MoMA’s $20 entry fee and unwieldy crowds, and enjoy this immense, 70-foot painting for free, and in virtual solitude.
Eating and Drinking
In the heart of a city known for the quality, innovation, and diversity of its restaurants, Times Square is a black hole of good food. Your choices are mostly limited to overpriced, oversized theme restaurants devoted to the celebration of culinary mediocrity or the customary selection of fast food chains. It is possible, however, to find a more than decent meal by literally going underground. Sake Bar Hagi (152 W 49th Street, 8 on map) is a restaurant below street level that serves up Japanese pub food. It is a busy, buzzy place that would make a great spot to bring a group to share a late-night round of yakitori and a bottle of sake.
The state of Times Square’s drinking scene is similarly bleak. But among the generic hotel bars and touristy Irish pubs, Jimmy’s Corner (120 W 40th Street, 9 on map) stands like an oasis, a dive bar full of character that harkens back to a long gone era of Times Square. Jimmy Glenn opened the bar 1971 as a way to supplement his income as a boxing trainer, and on many nights you will find Jimmy there playing the role of gracious host. Though no longer a trainer, boxing is a big part of Jimmy’s life, and the interior of the bar is plastered with boxing memorabilia. Add a fantastic jukebox to the mix, and Jimmy’s corner is the ideal place to have a drink amid the corporate sterility of Times Square.
So yes, Times Square is perennially crowded, a place that bombards you with constant neon and advertising, a place that native New Yorkers will go out of their way to avoid. But ignore all that, Times Square is worth a visit and, despite attracting nearly 40 million tourists a year, still has little known pockets to explore.
But for the love of God, do not come here for New Year’s Eve.
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