INVENTING TIMES SQUARE: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World, edited by William Taylor ( Russell Sage Foundation: $39.95; 500 pp. ). As New York’s legendary Times Square gets what promises to be an extensive (and already controversial) face lift, a daunting array of scholars takes a look, in this collection of essays, at what was once called the “center of the universe” by a publicist who opened an office there after World War I. The Times Square Conferences, sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University in 1988-89, led to this study of Times Square as something more than a piece of real estate. The authors present a cultural history of the neighborhood, and contend that it both engendered and reflected changes in our national culture.
Times Square represents an invented arena for popular culture; the New York Times, which gave its name to the area in 1905, envisioned it more as a public gathering place, but it soon turned into a center for entertainment and the promotion of entertainment. This is a rather astonishing effort--the collective brainpower focused on the subject fairly guarantees that every little corner of the square’s history will be illuminated for the reader.