Broadway, the most famous street in New York City, running fifteen miles through Manhattan and the Bronx, was once an Indian trail and then, with the coming of the Dutch, the main thoroughfare in the settlement of New Amsterdam. The Dutch named it the Heere Straat (the Gentlemen's Street or High Street) or Breede Weg, and when the English took over, they translated the latter as "Broadway." It still runs the length of Manhattan crazily at an angle, defying the gridlock pattern of the city's streets decreed by the city fathers in 1811.
In New Amsterdam the Heere Straat went from the fort that gives the Battery its name up to a gate in the wall that gives Wall Street its name. Right from the first, it teemed with a mix of peoples: Dutch, English (including refugees from the rigors of Puritan New England), Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Frenchmen, Bavarians, Poles, Italians, Walloons, Bohemians, Jews, Africans both slave and free, and Munsees, Montauks, and Mohawks, most of them coming in hopes of a freer, fuller life. One visitor reported eighteen different languages in the settlement, and they would all have been heard on Broadway.
|New Amsterdam in 1660. The Heere Straat is clearly shown, as is the fort at the Battery.|
In the eighteenth century Broadway witnessed one of the most significant events in our history: Washington's triumphal entry into the city on November 25, 1783, following the evacuation of the last British troops and, with them, some 28,000 Loyalist refugees and many former slaves whom the British had liberated. The city was the scene of Washington's worst defeat in 1776, following which it had been occupied by the British. Washington and his officers entered from the north and proceeded down Broadway to the Battery, to the cheers and applause and waving hats and handkerchiefs of onlookers. Though ticker tape was absent, it could be considered the first of many parades of heroes on Broadway. For years afterward, November 25 was celebrated as Evacuation Day.
|An 1879 lithograph of Washington's entry.|
Now we'll fast-forward to the nineteenth century, the period I know best. The city of circa 1830 was still small enough that the gentry knew, or knew of, almost everyone who mattered; for all its ongoing changes, their world was ordered and safe. Few people kept carriages, and those who did were known to everyone. One of these was Dandy Marx, a dashing young blade whose clothing defied the somber colors of the day as he drove four handsome chestnuts down Broadway, bearing with perfect nonchalance the sneers and jealousies of others. Another familiar sight was Dandy Cox, a mulatto driving a spirited horse to a light wagon where he sat perched high on his seat, his well-brushed beaver cocked at an angle, his green jockey coat displaying polished brass buttons, his leather gloves spotless, imitating -- if not mocking -- the fashionables of the day.
But in those days almost all the men worked, so that the fashionable promenade of Broadway, which went from the Battery to Canal Street, was mostly given over to belles and their mamas for shopping. One of the few male interlopers was Gentleman George, a neat, trim, tastefully dressed young man who drove a stately gray with aplomb. Where does his money come from? the men of the town wondered, while mothers eyed him with suspicion, well aware that their daughters were casting furtive glances his way, intrigued by this timid but respectful young man whom they so often met on their morning strolls. Gossip about him saved many a tea party from dullness. George was seen and puzzled over for years, until at last he disappeared into the city's rapid growth and expansion, a mystery to the end.
|Broadway and Canal Street, 1834. Busy, but not jammed.|
The sidewalks of Broadway also offered a few eccentrics who stood out and occasioned comment. The mad poet McDonald Clarke was seen there in a tattered cloak, his unbuttoned "Byronic" shirt collar a sharp contrast to the primly buttoned shirts of most males, his melancholy gaze always fixed on the pavement, another mystery figure whom women found strangely appealing. Also familiar was the Gingerbread Man, a harmless lunatic in a swallowtail coat who jog-trotted up and down the avenue as if on a pressing errand, his only sustenance a seemingly endless supply of gingerbread stuffed in his pockets that he was constantly consuming. One day he failed to appear, was never seen again. Another regular on Broadway was the Lime-Kiln Man, a tall, gaunt figure, his unkempt hair and thin face smeared with lime, who took no notice of the looks of pity he garnered, another mystery man about whom nothing was known. In time he was found dead in a lime kiln where he had slept at night for years.
The society of those days, though quite conformist, tolerated a number of oddballs because they were familiar and posed no threat. What people were leery of was the blatant display of wealth, which was deemed vulgar. Elegance was allowed, and the women of New York were famous for dressing in the height of fashion, and even the black underclass could be surprisingly chic, but the elegance had to be quiet and discreet. All this was visible on Broadway.
And what did one see on Broadway? Red and yellow and blue-painted stages, open and closed carriages with liveried footmen, drays, wheelbarrows, hacks, milk carts with clattering cans, horsemen, lager beer wagons, express trucks stacked high with boxes labeled ASTOR HOUSE or ST. NICHOLAS HOTEL, and a wagon hauled by six straining horses conveying the towering bulk of a safe as big as a house. And all this traffic emitted a deafening roar, as it sliced through the mud of the street, until it jammed up amid shouts, curses, and whinnyings, and maybe the shriek of a coachman being beaten by a truckman for not giving way. With no stoplights or stop signs, how was a pedestrian to get from one side of Broadway to the other? Without the help of a policeman, you were risking your life. Furthermore, in wet weather the thoroughfare was ankle-deep in mire, while in dry weather it was caked with teeth-gritting, breath-choking dust. And always, in whatever weather, being embellished with garbage and manure, it stank.
What enterprises did this tumultuous thoroughfare offer? Barbershops, liquor stores, lottery offices, daguerreotype galleries, artificial teeth manufacturers, sewing machine and piano forte showrooms, plain and fancy jewelers, oyster cellars, clam chowder shops, bookstores, boots and shoes, billiard table stores, ice cream parlors, gambling dens. But there were also princely hair-dressing establishments for gentlemen, emitting whiffs of menthol, musk, and cologne; fancy dry-goods stores with uniformed doormen; palatial marble-fronted hotels; and, guaranteed to astonish visitors from the provinces, sidewalk displays of patent sarcophagi in rosewood, mahogany, and iron, satin-lined with silver mountings, featuring glass-paneled lids to display the face of the deceased. Then as now, in New York one could obtain anything and everything.
Pigs rooting in garbage on the side streets sometimes joined the throngs along Broadway where, in the morning rush to work, purposeful top-hatted merchants in starched collars rubbed elbows with dusty sideburned laborers, pallid clerks, and ginghamed working girls, while ragged newsboys hawked their papers, and workmen loaded or unloaded carts and toted boxes. Later, hordes of elegant lady shoppers would appear, as well as gangs of barefoot boys and girls mouthing obscenities, and sandwich men flaunting fore and aft in bold lettering RADICAL CURE TRUSSES, POCAHONTAS BITTERS, or PHILIPOT'S INFALLIBLE EXTRACT. For everyone went to Broadway, rich and poor, respectable and otherwise; it was the principle thoroughfare, the main artery, the commercial hub of New York.
On Broadway the kings of the road were the whip-cracking stage drivers who, mounted high on the box of their stages, drove as fast as traffic permitted, shaving lampposts and shrieking oaths at anyone or anything in the way. Their patrons grumbled about the ill-ventilated interiors with twin unpadded benches, where up to a dozen passengers sat facing one another amid smells of onion, sweat, and tobacco, as the stages lurched ungently ahead over cobblestones. Passengers were expected to drop the exact fare in a box with a slit in the top, which the driver, glancing down from his seat, could verify, and God help anyone who failed to pay, since the resulting comments from the driver would be, to put it mildly, scathing. A champion of the drivers was Walt Whitman, who, seated beside them, often rode the whole length of Broadway listening to their yarns. He described them as "largely animal -- eating, drinking, women," but esteemed their comradeship, good will, and honor, and credited Broadway Jack, Balky Bill, Pop Rice, Patsy Dee, and a host of others with influencing the gestation of Leaves of Grass.
But what did the old timers think of all this? Remembering the tranquil days of their childhood, they were dazed. The jam of people and vehicles on Broadway overwhelmed them, and if they stood at an entrance to Central Park and watched the showy equipages heading for the Drive, they had no idea who these promenaders were or where their money came from. Gone was the discretion of an earlier time; New Money paraded its wealth brazenly. Engulfed by this mass of strangers, these relics of a simpler age felt small, mere atoms lost in the city's never-ending flux.
Change, often radical, was the rule in the Never-Finished City. By the mid-1870s buildings were rising to eight, ten, and eleven stories high, provoking mixed reviews: a new dimension to space, said some; top-heavy horrors and "Towers of Babel," said others. Broadway had been the first New York City thoroughfare to get gaslight in the mid-1820s, and now it was the first to be lit with electricity. On December 20, 1880, the whole stretch of it from 14th Street to 26th Street was suddenly bathed in brilliant light; observers gaped and raved. And in 1879 the first telephone exchange opened, with the first phone directory listing all of 252 names. Businesses rushed to adopt the new gadget, but at first it was much too costly for use in private homes.
|Broadway in 1885, looking north from Cortlandt and Maiden Lane, |
with wires crisscrossing overhead.
Telephone and telegraph wires now crossed and recrossed each other from the tops of buildings, darkening the sky over Broadway with what seemed like meshes of a net. Worse still, overburdened wires had a way of snapping and falling to the street, with potential peril to anyone in the vicinity. Then in 1889 a lineman working overhead was electrocuted on a wire gridiron in the heart of the business district; thousands watched as the body dangled for nearly an hour, its mouth spitting blue flame. The enraged public now demanded that the wires be put underground, and the corporations involved finally, after long delays, complied.
The advent of the automobile in the 1890s marked another major change for Broadway. The first recorded motor vehicle fatality in the United States, and indeed in all the Americas, occurred in New York, though not on Broadway. On September 13, 1899, Henry H. Bliss, a New York real estate salesman, was getting off a streetcar at West 74th Street and Central Park West, when an electric-powered taxi struck him and inflicted fatal injuries; he died the next day. A plaque commemorating the incident was placed at the site on the centennial of his death, a mortality that can be seen as ushering in the twentieth century. The first traffic light was not installed in New York but in London in 1868, but in 1916 New York installed the first three-color stoplight at its busiest intersection, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. That the location chosen was not Broadway shows that by now Broadway was not the single most significant thoroughfare in the city.
By the early twentieth century it was electricity that gave the midtown section of Broadway, the section from 42nd to 53rd Street also known as the Theater District, the name "The Great White Way." The streetlights alone justified it, but the advent of neon signs in Times Square confirmed it. This is still the Theater District, though most of the theaters are on side streets nearby, and Times Square today, especially at night, is more astonishing than ever. (Forty-second Street, by the way, merits its own history; once a tawdry porn center frequented by drag queens and hustlers, it has been scrubbed up and Disneyfied, a change that is praised by some and lamented by others.)
Broadway today on the Upper West Side is a wide avenue with a thin strip of park down the middle. Back in my student days I loved walking down from Columbia to some restaurant or movie theater on Broadway, and traipsing it at night always lifted my spirits. This stretch of Broadway was not constricted by tall buildings as it was downtown; it was big, open, and free -- New York at its best.
I have omitted many sections of Broadway -- Madison and Herald Square, Columbus Circle, Lincoln Center -- but if I include them, this post will become a history of the city. So I'll sign off now, acknowledging that Broadway, no longer the single jammed artery of the city, is still a vital part of it, a symbol of it, busy, colorful, exciting.
Coming soon: Next Wednesday, the first of a series on colorful New Yorkers: Battling Bella and the Queen of Mean. Older New Yorkers may pick up on these designations; younger ones and out-of-towners may not. But they are very New York, very colorful, and well worth a look. Next Sunday, Who makes money when America goes to war? (1861-65, with a glance at today, including a delicious photo of Dick Cheney). Also: the Mad Poet of Broadway and the Mephistopheles of Wall Street; Diamond Jim (who owned a mere 12,000 diamonds), and his pal Lillian ("Luscious Lillian") Russell. Why "luscious? Wait till you see her posing on her bicycle! Also: Texas ("Hiya, suckers!") Guinan, who after a night in the slammer remarked, "I like your cute little jail, and I don't know when my jewels have seemed so safe." Also the Broadway gossip columnist who imposed a reign of terror (can you guess?). And maybe I'll set foot -- just a little way -- into the hallowed precincts of the Stork Club. New York is inexhaustible.
© 2013 Clifford Browder