By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — While some might miss Times Square's grittier days of old, Bill Clinton does not. Not even the hookers.
The former president spoke to reporters as the city released a new health study that showed the air quality in the once-seedy square has improved since a controversial pedestrian plaza was installed there.
"My view is it's way better now," Clinton told reporters Wednesday at Gracie Mansion. "When you just walk around it's so obvious."
Clinton told the story of his first visit to Times Square back in 1964, when he was 18 and a freshman at Georgetown University.
"I bough a steak at Tad's Steakhouse, I heard a guy ream his mother out — poor workin' woman — because she'd given him a Hi-Fi instead of a stereo speaker. I remember everything about it," he reminisced.
"I saw a hooker approach a man in a gray flannel suit. That's pretty heavy stuff for a guy from Arkansas," he laughed.
And while Times Square then may have been a "romantic, fascinating" place, he said it was also dangerous for pedestrians, with high crime and unclean air.
"Now you can be my age and walk in Times Square and not get knocked down," he said. "That's pretty cool, too."
The new Health Department study showed that traffic-related pollutants — which can worsen conditions including asthma and emphysema — have decreased significantly in Times Square since the plazas were opened in 2009.
The readings, taken on Broadway between West 46th and West 47th streets, show that nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels — both associated with car exhaust — dropped by 63 percent and 41 percent respectively after the change.
Overall particulate matter, which officials said comes primarily from buildings' fumes, did not drop significantly with the switch.
Air pollution is responsible for 3,000 deaths and about 6,000 asthma-related emergency visits in the a year, according to Health Department numbers, and improving air quality even a bit could "significantly reduce" early deaths and hospital visits, it says.
"Creating even a little space between people and cars can have a big reduction in the amount of pollutants that people are exposed to," Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.
"That cleaner air... makes a huge difference to the health of more than a quarter million pedestrians who pass through Times Square everyday," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg, of course, sided with Clinton when it came to the benefits of the plazas, which he praised for making streets safer for pedestrians, creating more jobs for merchants and serving as a bigger draw for tourists.
He, too, dismissed the allure of the square of old.
"Well, you know, if you like crime, they had it," Bloomberg quipped. "I suppose it's not what it was before, but the nostalgia for the 'good old days' when the good old days, most of us would say aren't good, I find strange."