What a photo of 1970s Union Square reveals

Is this really the south side of Union Square a mere 40 years ago? Instead of Whole Foods and glass condos, it’s a crumbling stretch of discount stores.


This photo couldn’t be older than 1979; that was the year Sugar Babies debuted on Broadway. The bus ad for this musical references “Fun City,” a slogan dating back to Mayor Lindsay’s terms in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mays, a big box cheapo department store, occupied the enormous space between University Place and Broadway. Except for a couple of Woolworth stores on opposing ends of 14th Street, they didn’t have much competition.

One thing has stayed the same: the 14th Street crosstown bus continues to lumber along.

Here’s another view of Union Square in the 1970s—and the 19th century.

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31 Responses to “What a photo of 1970s Union Square reveals”

  1. Pat Regan Says:

    There was indeed competition. Just behind where the photographer is standing was a big S. Klein’s Department Store. It was there well into the 70’s.

  2. wack60585 Says:

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  3. Gretta (@lee_gretta) Says:

    Sweet memories, I bought costume jewelry for this store in the 70’s. My office was at main store in Brooklyn!

  4. Szarjonarra Says:

    Pardon me but Mays wasn’t any more “cheap” than Forever 21, DSW shoes or even Filene’s. I should know because I worked there! And can you believe it? Nothing was made outside the US except for some fabulous clothing made in Italy that was sold in their “boutique” shop. It wasn’t pretentious as a lot of today’s “upscale” crap is.

  5. Gee Says:

    I remember going to mays with my mom when I was little. That’s was 1988-90. We bought a skipper doll there

  6. Nicole Says:

    I vaguely remember this. Sometime in the 80’s, we had cousins visiting, on their last day in town, we went shopping in Union Square. We did May’s which was full of bins & dust. I also remember having cheeseburgers, while the cousins had Fillet-o-Fish from the McDonald’s that’s still there. My last memory of that day is heading down into the subway, looking behind me & May’s looming very large in the background. Funny how the memory works. I can remember what we ate, but not which cousins they were.

  7. onyxpnina Says:

    Huh. I remember Mays. It was huge and inexpensive (S. Klein’s, on the east side of the park, was cheap) and right up University Ave. from NYU. It closed sometime late ’70s, early ’80s and sat empty for years.

  8. Daniel P Says:

    I worked at Lafayette Radio which was located on the west side of the park on the corner of 15th st. I purchased my first good camera at Mays, also a 100% polyester tuxedo. Many years later I worked on Broadway and 13th St…..great memories.

  9. peter Says:

    That’s how everything looked back then, when this was real…
    you ass-tard. The fake polished veneer of all the discount stores that are there now, sell cheaply made crap, compared to what discounted clothes we bought back then.
    My mom would bring my brother and I down here from the Bronx to go shopping, both at Mays and S.Kleins, back in the 70’s. This was a special day out.

  10. David George Says:

    I agree with those that maintain that it’s inaccurate (and I think harsh) to refer to Mays as “a big box cheapo department store.” It was a lower-rung department store, but it had some great elements. They had a great record department and a lot my vinyl came from one of their locations.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Point well taken. I guess I didn’t communicate my deep fondness for the class of department store I called cheapo. Discount stores back then were terrific. I remember they had record depts, cafeterias, pet areas, everything.

  11. Bella Stander Says:

    I have fond memories of shopping for my first vacuum cleaner at May’s–and not-so-fond memories of schlepping it home to Mott Street and up 6 flights of stairs.

  12. pinball29 Says:

    Then Mays then became ‘Ames’ which was also a huge discount store.

  13. Mary Says:

    It was also a Bradlees Dept store .

  14. Andrew Porter Says:

    To the left was an office building and an entrance to the subway. Around the corner was the office of the Village Voice, relocated from Sheridan Square.

  15. Tom Hakala Says:

    Thanks to Pat Regan for the picture of Union Square in what appears to be the early 1950s. This is more like I remember the Square – dominated by S. Klein’s. I learned something from the photo – Ohrbach’s original store, appearing in this photo, was originally on Union Square. My mother worked at Ohrbach’s for many years in the 1960s and 1970s (’64 to ’78 if memory serves) at the 34th Street location, which I thought had always been their flagship store. After seeing this picture I checked Wikipedia and learned that the original Ohrbach’s store was on Union Square.

  16. gregoire alessandrini Says:

    Here’s a view in the mid-nineties when room was made for the Virgin Megastore and the movie theater on the corner of Broadway:


    And more on my NY 1990’s site : nyc90s.com

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, thanks for sending that Gregoire, your 90s NYC photos are so wonderfully eerie. I actually miss Virgin; they were open until midnight and it was great to wander in there.

  17. J Says:

    I remember May’s and S. Klein’s very clearly. My father who was born and raised on the lower east side referred to Klein’s as “Cousin Klein”. The nickname referred to my father’s enthusiasm for thier low prices. According to him, if you couldn’t find it at “Cousin Klein’s” you either didn’t need or could not afford it.

  18. Jaze Says:

    I recall shopping here with my mom as a child. I believe there was anothers Mays on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn.

    • David George Says:

      Yes, there was. And there was another in Massapequa, just west of the future site of what became Sunrise Mall. I learned to drive in the Mays parking lot. 🙂

  19. When S. Klein’s store dominated Union Square | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] few weeks ago, a post of a 1970s-era photo of Mays discount department store on 14th Street at Union Square brought in many comments about the old S. Klein store that once stood across the […]

  20. G Hawkes Says:

    went there a lot as a kid- I remember 2 big baskets of probably a hundred converse all -stars sneakers tied together by the laces – price: $5 dollars a pair! I live in Europe now and they go for$100 out here. Loved mays and the Woolworth on 14th street- great diner inside- 50′ style great burgers and shakes. new york was a completely different city then. really the best, no one will ever understand who want there..

  21. Rickety Rock Says:

    Just saw this site while searching for 14th street photos. I also have good memories of Mays department store as well as S. Klein. I remember going to both of these stores with my mother and with my friends, too. I purchased a cassette deck in S. Klein and at Mays my mother would search the boys husky dept. for clothes to fit me. I had such a good time walking to and from my home past all the stores on 14th street. Good times in the 1970’s, lots of fun.

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