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The historian Marc Bloch criticized his colleagues for engaging in an "idol of origins," the obsession with finding the alleged first, the original, the beginning. This exhibition celebrating the centennial of Times Square will not fall into that trap. But the show will reveal that in the area centered on the "bowtie," where Broadway and Seventh Avenue cross, much of what makes up modern American culture has been invented and reinvented, tested, exploited, and displayed.

Many of these "inventions" will be familiar to visitors—modern theater as well as musicals, vaudeville, and burlesque; the big movie openings; New Year's Eve ball drop; neon and electronic advertising signs. But the exhibition will go much further than this. It will show how Times Square has been at the cutting edge of modern architecture (bringing, in essence, European modernism to America in the 1920s), the development of American slang (the product of the merging of immigrants in the textile industry, rodeos in the old Madison Square Garden, theater impresarios, and reporters recording it all); and modern journalism. Times Square also came to symbolize the worst in urban decline in the 1960s and 1970s, even as now it has come to symbolize as nowhere else for many people the rebirth of urban America. Throughout the century, Times Square has been one of the most intensively bought, sold, developed plots of land in the world. In the process, it has pioneered new forms of real estate speculation. And in recent years, with the "renovation" of Times Square, we have seen some of the most far-reaching governmental urban renewal efforts of the last quarter century. Times Square pioneered the public-private partnerships that have rejuvenated—or sold out, depending on your point of view—American cities.

Perhaps most influentially, Times Square has served as stage set for the transformation of American notions of morality, of sex, of gender roles, and the nature of public display. Indeed, it is not too much to say that while Fifth Avenue and Herald Square may have dominated the worlds of shopping, it is Times Square that was the true land of desire. Times Square and its salesmen, dancers, actors, workers, and investors have profitably delivered what Americans desired, or would soon desire, for the past century. While Times Square, in its latest reinvention, has been radically changed, it is still manufacturing desire, now more overtly on a national and international scale.