Herbert Huncke and the Old Times Square
“Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact. The man was small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow, and pancake make-up had been heavily applied in an attempt to conceal a skin eruption. His mouth was drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance.” — William Burroughs
Herbert Huncke was born on January 9, 1915 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He died August 8, 1996 in New York City. “The rare blend of sub-culture icon, writer, homosexual pioneer (he participated in Alfred Kinsey’s studies), drug addict, [and] common criminal.” Huncke grew up in Chicago, the son of a businessman, where he learned his way around the streets. Drawn to crime and the mystique of theft and city life, he was known to have hopped a few trains in his time. In 1939, he moved to New York City, where he quickly bonded with Burroughs over a drug deal, and met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They admired him for his “honest criminal ethic.” Known as the “Mayor of 42nd Street,” Huncke’s reputation preceded him in the community. He was inspired by the life and grit of Times Square. It was Huncke who allegedly introduced Jack Kerouac to the term “beat” that he used to describe their generation. Dabbled in writing with “The Evening Sun Turned Crimson” and “Huncke’s Journal,” his most famous published story being “Elsie John,” which appeared in The Beat Reader. “His true function in the Beat Generation was to act as a muse to those such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, [men] with more sophisticated talents but far less knowledge of the below-street-level ‘beat’ world.”
After WWI, Times Square garnered the nickname “The Tenderloin” because it was the most desirable part of town. This desire led to high crime rates and corruption, and once the Great Depression hit, Times Square became one of the worst places to be in Manhattan. After WWII and the rush to the suburbs, the only people left in Times Square were the criminals. There was no room for a white picket fence and a four bedroom house between 42nd and 47th. During the late fifties and sixties, Times Square was the hotspot for gambling, drugs, prostitution, and the leaders of the Beat Generation. Times Square became the symbol of the city’s decline, and in the eighties, corporations vowed to shift this attitude, creating the tourist trap we all know and love/hate today.