Of all the annual events in NYC, nothing is more New York Centric than New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I mean, the U.S Open is more athletic, the NY Marathon more aerobic, the Thanksgiving Day Parade more inflationary, but nothing shouts New York glitz and energy than the giant countdown around midnight. For many Americans, regardless of their time zones, their New Year starts when that fabled ball drops.
As most New Yorkers know, Times Square was named after the New York Times Newspaper when it moved up to (then-called) Long Acre Square in 1904. The Times moved into the Times Tower, aka 1 Times Square, the entirely empty building covered with LED billboards, the 24-7 News Zipper and the aforementioned New Years Flagpole. (In 2007, the NY Times moved to it’s 3rd home over on 8th Ave and 40th St. You might remember two maniacs who tried to climb the building’s facade back when it opened!)
The Times used to celebrate New Year’s Eve with fireworks, but after too many urban conflagrations, the City asked them to find an alternate means of celebration. The paper appropriately chose a Time Ball. For those non-sailors out there, a Time Ball has been used in ports around the world to tell mariners the precise moment of 1pm; essential for pre-electronics navigation. The first Time Ball was used in 1833 by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, originator of Greenwich Mean Time and the same Greenwich after which our Village is named. Our local Time Ball, at the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC, also drops at 12 noon every day.
Jacob Starr and his sign company, Artkraft Strauss built the original New Years Eve Ball, out of wrought iron and ordinary light bulbs. Artkraft Strauss has fabricated every ball since. For such a world-renowned icon, the ball’s sign-riggers still proudly lower it hand over hand to signal every new year. The current version of the ball is 12 ft in diameter and is festooned with Waterford Crystals, Phillips LED lights and the products of a dozen other manufacturers and designers.
I’ve told hundreds of tourists that celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square is a once, and only once-in-a-lifetime experience. I did it as a teenager, in 1966. But my experience on that frigid night was unique thanks to the Subway Strike of 1967. Here’s what happened: I headed down from The Bronx with my inseparable best friend Muz and our pals Doc and Gary. Buoyed by Boone’s Farm Apple Wine and swept along with the great waves of partiers, we just marched right into Times Square. Back then there were no barricades or barriers and the few beefy, drunk red-faced cops had started their personal celebrations early.
We watched the ball drop, let out a loud whoop and holler, and then the entire 750,000 strong crowd turned and raced to the nearest subway! The Transit Workers Union contract had expired at midnight and Mike Quill, the legendary TWU union leader was cagey as to when his transit operators would walk off the job. Would they walk at 12:01 and strand millions of revelrers? Or let the Times Square party go on just a wee bit more? None of us wanted to be stranded in Midtown, so we raced to the D train, bound for the Bronx, happy we’d finally did this hallowed New York rite of passage. We made it home safe and sound.
By Mark Levy