Monday, June 24, 2019

Then and Now: Howard Johnson's in Times Square

Howard Johnson's at Broadway and 46th in Times Square, Manhattan

Howard Johnson's in Times Square, NYC,
Howard Johnson's at Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square ca. 1970.
One of the continuing themes of this blog is the importance of neighborhood "joints." By that, I mean a local establishment that has no real status outside of its own neighborhood but still is iconic to those who live nearby. Such a joint was the Howard Johnson's in Times Square. After stumbling across the above picture, I decided to do a comparison of the Howard Johnson's location in Times Square from the 1960s to 2018.

Howard Johnson's in Times Square, NYC,
Photo of Howard Johnson's in Times Square by Bob Gruen, 1972.
A little research revealed that Howard Johnson's opened its Times Square location in 1955. It was not a particularly auspicious moment to open a family restaurant in Times Square. The area was right on the verge of descending from "crossroads of the world" to outright seediness. Times Square was always a free-wheeling place, but things changed dramatically in the 1960s. Not that there's anything particularly wrong about seediness if that is your thing, but Howard Johnson's and seediness went together about as well as a fish and a bicycle. And, Howard Johnson's knew something about fish, I really enjoyed the fried clams at the one near me. However, knowing about the other stuff - not so much. While I could go into a long dissertation about why Times Square changed from the 1950s to the 1960s and then back again in the late 1990s, that is a very tricky subject with a variety of nuanced reasons. Fortunately, in this blog, we are more concerned with what happened, not why it happened.

Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square, NYC,
The northeast of 46th Street and Broadway in Times Square in August 2014 (Google Street View).
The Howard Johnson's on Times Square was favored by photographers because of the contrasts it posed with its neighbors. Well, let's cut to the chase. The Howard Johnson's in Times Square was sold for over $100 million by longtime owner Kenneth Rubinstein to Jeff Sutton's Wharton Acquisitions in 2005. At that time, Howard Johnson's in Times Square was the oldest, continually operated business facing directly on Times Square. There actually had been three Howard Johnson's in the Times Square area right after World War II, that's how popular the chain was at that time. The one at 46th Street and Broadway survived on the tourist trade, as its homey atmosphere contrasted sharply with the increasingly decadent area surrounding it and seemed like a safe place to satisfy hunger pains. The downfall for this last Howard Johnson's was the dramatic rise in real estate prices as the seedy local enterprises were replaced by Madame Tussaud's, Disney, and other international brands. These places diverted tourist crowds to their own locales and patronage of the older places died away. The theater people who also could sustain an eatery on Times Square were never Howard Johnson's fans (aside from a few old-timers like Gene Hackman and Lily Tomlin who actually worked there at one time or another) due to its somewhat "square" image.
Hard Rock Cafe Times Square

Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square, NYC,
The northeast corner of 46th Street at Broadway in October 2018 (Google Street View).
The business above the Howard Johnson's was the “Follies Burlesk,” a campy review which had taken over the circa-1917 Orpheum Dance Palace during the 1960s. It closed in 1976 and was replaced that year by the "Gaiety Male Burlesk," advertising “six boys five times a day.” The Burlesk closed in 2005 after thirty years in business shortly before the Howard Johnson's. One can point to the building's sale as the culminating reason why the businesses there closed, but the neighborhood was changing and leaving them behind anyway. So, their demise was only a matter of time that just happened to take place in 2005. It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that there are no longer any "Burlesks" in Times Square, as the entire area has become more family-friendly. In fact, even such places over on Eighth Avenue are gone or at least completely repurposed in a very family-friendly way. The times have changed, and Times Square has changed with them.

Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square, NYC,
The northeast corner of 46th Street at Broadway in October 2018 (Google Street View).
Now, the street-level space at the northeast corner of Broadway and 46th Street is occupied by a clothing store. Above it can be seen formless modern advertising signs composed of the sorts of flashing images that now define Times Square. The area in front of the location has become a pedestrian mall. It is all very bland and tourist-friendly, inoffensive and innocuous. While the seedy businesses thrived in a turbulent era, now overwhelming commercialism has taken over. In a sense, Times Square has returned to its roots as a crossroads of the world, when the world is defined as selling people products made by global brands.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of the other pages in the series to see how neighborhoods have been transformed in large ways and small over the decades.


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