And The Ferris Wheel Stopped
The closing of the Times Square Toys “R” Us and my ever-changing New York
I remember stepping into the Toys “R” Us in Times Square on my first trip to the big city. I was ten years old and I stood there in awe.
That was my New York.
My first New York, at least, was the rambunctious tourist experience on the heels of the September 11th attacks. With that in the back of my head, I remember the lights — they were so bright — and the mesmerizing animation. The store was an experience. The palpable energy flowed through the toy shelves and around the iconic revolving indoor ferris wheel.
Out in Times Square, my father held my hand, with my sibling on his shoulders, as we walked through the sidewalks lining the crossroads of the world. There were so many people and I felt them shoulder to shoulder. I can’t exactly pinpoint where my mother was when we were walking. That’s probably because I kept looking up.
That’s what they say about all first-timers in Times Square: They all look up.
In a way, people still look up today. But it’s different.
I was so excited to go to the Big Apple. I drew out a small scrappy itinerary for our trip that included a showing of the Christmas Spectacular by the Rockettes at Radio City. My parents tried to make sure they didn’t lose us, just as other families struggled to rein in their kids at Toys “R” Us.
The city made such an impression, I still remember the devastating disappointment of knowing I had to leave when I was stuck in the now-closed sports-entertainment-television-network ESPN Zone restaurant and gaming attraction. My new fascination wanted me to skip dinner and to suck in all the life I could take from the air of Times Square.
I excitedly went back home to our rural town in Massachusetts and told my grandmother I was going to, one way or another, move to New York sometime in my life. The city was calling me, ferris wheel and all.
She thought I was crazy. It eventually happened.
Years and years later, I chose to go to college in Manhattan. It wasn’t too long before friends and I would go to the Cold Stone in Times Square late at night — hey, it’s difficult to resist an ice cream craving when it’s open until three in the morning — fetch some cheap Broadway tickets, meet out-of-town friends to ride the ferris wheel, wait outside the Good Morning America studio for a free music performance, and stand on the now-iconic red steps. At the end of my freshman year, some of my closest friends and I all strolled through to take photos of ourselves laughing sitting at the tables and chairs in the new pedestrian plazas of Times Square installed under the Bloomberg era.
That’s when we saw the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue completely change. I ignored it, not really realizing how my New York was evolving right in front of us. Friends and I gawked over the newly open space, picnic tables and chairs, which both let people look up in Times Square even more so.
One year, I rang in the new year in Times Square. (Yes, I was one of those people.) I just had to be able to say I was there on New Year’s Eve once in my life. Through a snow squall and dealing with antsy crowds, it was the hardest few minutes of excitement I’ve ever worked for.
Only, during those thirteen-somewhat hours in barricaded zones, I realized how much of a brainwashing commercial wasteland Times Square is today. The plastered billboards became video screens of screamy and flashy commercials. And they kept playing non-stop for hours, all morning, all afternoon, and all night.
Another night, while in a cab later that year, it became apparent how I transitioned from loving Times Square to despising it with all the pieces of my newly identified cold New Yorker heart.
I jokingly sent a Snapchat video to all my friends gagging at the sight of Times Square. They saw me pretending to have a violent reaction to the annoying and ridiculous commercial district in New York. (I later woke up in the morning with friends concerned, thinking I actually threw up in the cab.)
Still avoiding Times Square at all costs these days, I tried to remember the last time I was there. It was an oddly quiet, cold weeknight in December. Covering a spirited Black Lives Matter protest aimed at shutting down the city over the death of Eric Garner, of a seemingly illegal and fatal police officer chokehold, brought me back to the most avoided neighborhood by New Yorkers.
And we went deep into Times Square — Toys “R” Us was a stop.
Also a stop that night was Disney.
We passed by a massive H&M, another massive Aeropostale, among a plethora of massive clothing chains. And they’re not only places to shop. Forever 21 has a huge electronic screen outside where people can see themselves standing in Times Square. American Eagle lets anyone take a photo with a message in a photo booth to be on a billboard. Tourists eat that up and love that bragging right. (Yes, I’ve done it.) There are even candy chains — Hershey’s Chocolate and M&M Chocolate — with stores of multiple floors. The Disney location is open until 1AM if one feels so inclined to relive their childhood late after work.
Toys “R” Us, along with Virgin Megastore and others, made Times Square an attraction. Before then, the district was always a destination with theater productions and peepshows, along with its historic dark grime.
But Toys “R” Us brought upon a new kind of attraction: The bright, clean, perfectly primed family-friendly commercial borderline amusement-park attraction. Think a ferris wheel, walls and walls of candy, clothes and stuffed animals, and your face on billboards. (Add in empty wallets.)
Times Square is a completely different place today. Toys “R” Us has closed.
The “crossroads of the world” are no longer — and New Yorkers cannot ignore the impact of now-permanent pedestrian spaces over what used to be bustling avenues.
I went to New York knowing of its tough rat-race for success and survival with its grimy underground and dive bars. Of course, the new subway cars (and train arrival time clocks) and nice rooftop lounges are welcome. A great city has the best of both worlds. Perhaps, it’s about balance.
Gentrification is always going to occur. It’s happening today and it was happening ten years ago. After the next hit coffee shop takes over the country, there will be locations on every street corner of Manhattan. After 432 Park fills up, there’s going to be something taller and better. After this Brooklyn neighborhood gets a Starbucks or that Queens neighborhood gets trendy, there’ll be another one young New Yorkers and national businesses will want to move into.
It goes on. Prices are going up, the rent is too damn high, MTA fares may hit three dollars, and there are reportedly about 95 empty storefronts in SoHo. Herald Square is almost an extension of Times Square today. National Guard officers stand with massive guns at major hot spots, New York University and Columbia University seem to be taking over their home neighborhoods, and gone are the nights where people can sneak onto rooftops for an clandestine drink or smoke.
Sometimes I look at the changes New York is going through and wonder if this is the New York I want to live in. Then again, the love for this city never dies.
I looked at the Toys “R” Us ferris wheel, as an eleven-year old, thinking it represented the city I wanted to live in — but it instead challenged that notion in the only way New York City would, bringing in waves of change and obstacles making one question its existence. Welcome to the (new) New York.