Peep Shows, Sex, And Crack: 27 Photos Of Times Square At Its Lowest
By Alec | Edited By John Kuroski
Published June 29, 2021
Updated August 3, 2021
Before Times Square was a global attraction, it was home to sex shops and drug dealers, earning a reputation as the sketchiest part of New York City.
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:
Twenty-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.National Archives and Records Administration
As 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."National Archives and Records Administration
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.Maggie Hopp
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.
A group of prostitutes walk through the side streets of Broadway and Times Square in New York in the summer of 1971.Bettmann / Getty
A 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.Maggie Hopp
Sex 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.Allan Tannenbaum / Getty
Crime 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.Bettmann / Getty
The 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.National Archives and Records Administration
A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk in front of the McAuley Cremorne Mission in 1985.The New York Historical Society
In 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.Allan Tannenbaum / Getty
The 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.Wikimedia Commons
Actor Bill Murray poses in front of the famous 25-cent peep shows of Times Square in the mid-1970s.
In 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." Frederic Lewis / Getty
Not 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.Barbara Alper / Getty
A man stands outside of a strip club on 42nd Street in the late 1970s.Maggie Hopp
People pass unperturbed by the offerings of Taboo II.National Archives and Records Administration
A Christian proselytizer walks in front of an adult theater on 8th Avenue.Steven Siegel
Exotic 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.Spencer Platt / Getty
Women working in the private viewing booths in Times Square in 1997.Allan Tannenbaum / Getty
People converse in front of the infamous "House of Paradise."Leland Bobbé
The 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.National Archives and Records Administration
An advertisement for the musical Oh Calcutta dominates the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street in 1981.Rainer Halama / Wikimedia Commons
Singer Neil Diamond awaits the arrival of the 7 train in 1975.Waring Abbott / Getty
Artists KRS-One and D-Nice pose for a photograph in Times Square in 1988.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty
A graffiti covered 7 train passes through the subway station at Times Square.National Archives and Records Administration
By 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.National Archives and Records Administration
For more of Times Square, watch this gripping 40-minute video, "Doin' Time In Times Square," dubbed "the home video from hell," shot by director and artist Charlie Ahearn from his Times Square apartment in the 1980s:
Alexander is a Brooklyn-based cofounder of All That's Interesting with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in History and Economics and an MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Economics. He specializes in American history, the Cold War, and true crime.