The new HBO series The Deuce, which premieres Sunday (though the first episode dropped a little early for streaming), is set in 1970s Times Square. Behind the show are The Wire veterans David Simon and George Pelecano, who recreate the dark corners and bright lights of the area perfectly.
The show kicks off in 1971, the start of a rough decade for the entire city, and the worst of it was bubbling up in Times Square, where XXXs glowed, prostitution and drug use was on the rise, and the crime rate continued to rise. There was literally a pamphlet warning tourists to stay off the streets after 6 p.m.
That year, the NY Times reported that "once again, the city was moving to clear the area of prostitution and pornography." At the time, the paper noted, "about 40 prostitutes are arraigned" daily, a number that decreased to 13 after Mayor John Lindsay ordered a crackdown. The first half of that year saw "3,174 arrests for prostitution and 2,847 for loitering for the purposes of prostitution."
A year later, Variety called the area "Slime Square," and the theater district demanded a clean-up. One actress declared: "This has always been a fairly tacky area, but it's as evil as it can be now. I was propositioned by girl who looked about 17, and another actress was urinated on by a wino who sits at the stage entrance. Sometimes actresses are literally pulled into doorways. There are panhandlers who hit you if you turn them down."
In The Deuce, James Franco plays a bar owner (he also plays his own brother), and Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a prostitute. She recently suggested a preference for the seedier Times Square of yore, saying, "I can’t handle [Times Square], I’m sorry... I’m not great with crowds, and I’m not into M&Ms very much or (Bubba Gump) shrimp — I don’t know, whatever they’re selling on 42nd Street.”
The Deuce, by the way, was a nickname for West 42nd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues; here's a little look back:
More on 1970s NYC in our archives.