The Streets that Made the Century: Broadway, New York

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Were there a competition to find the most sung-about street, New York's Broadway would be a strong contender. From the Drifters to the Bee Gees, Broadway leaves 42nd Street, the 59th Street Bridge and Second Avenue in the shade. Quite right, too. Broadway is the longest and most significant street in Manhattan. It is also the most interesting, disrupting the dull grid pattern imposed on much of the island.

Were there a competition to find the most sung-about street, New York's Broadway would be a strong contender. From the Drifters to the Bee Gees, Broadway leaves 42nd Street, the 59th Street Bridge and Second Avenue in the shade. Quite right, too. Broadway is the longest and most significant street in Manhattan. It is also the most interesting, disrupting the dull grid pattern imposed on much of the island.

Navigating its 15-mile length is tricky, since Broadway wobbles. Initially, it wends north from the southern tip of Manhattan, the ferry port in Battery Park where you can pick up the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But just where the grid system gets into its stride, at Eighth Street, Broadway suddenly swerves left and cuts across street after avenue at an acute angle.

The reason is that Broadway predates the gloomy grid plan. It was already a path across the island when Peter Stuyvesant bought Manhattan for the Dutch and christened it New Amsterdam. Broadway became the main north-south cart track between New York Bay and the Bronx - the line it follows today. But only in the 20th century has it achieved greatness.

Try this: when next you go to New York, remain locked to Broadway. Take the Subway to South Ferry and walk north. Everything you need is there. Initially, you skirt past the Gothamesque footprints of the World Trade Center and pick your way through the financial district. The 20th century really began at 233 Broadway, location of the Woolworth Building, the skyscraper that, at 792 feet, was the tallest in the world when it opened in 1913. Breeze past the cumbersome City Hall, and between the gaucheness of SoHo on your left, and the rectitude of Chinatown to the right. At number 575, the SoHo outpost of the Guggenheim Museum is more manageable than the uptown version. The world's biggest department store, Macy's at 34th Street, will solve your gift problems.

Broadway's nickname, the Great White Way, stems from the frenzy of lights illuminating its theatres betwen 41st and 53rd. The epicentre is Times Square, where Broadway widens into 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. A decade ago it was easier to score some crack than to find an appealing bar or restaurant, but it has cleaned up its act and ends the century with some of the sparkle with which it began.

At 64th Street is the Lincoln Center, the city's cultural heart, embracing the Metropolitan Opera House and half-a-dozen other venues. The fountain outside is a celebrated pick-up location - as is the nearby Barnes & Noble bookshop.

Real shoppers continue north past a cute cottage at 72nd Street - part of the Subway system - and stop at 81st Street for Zabar's. This store is part-delicatessen and part-household goods, and solid entertainment. When I told the shop assistant in Zabar's I planned to walk the length of Broadway, she was horrified: "Don't go north of 125th Street".

The arithmetic of crime in New York has changed, luckily, and in daylight the biggest scare is the dismal poverty of parts of Harlem, rather than the imminent threat of robbery.

Manhattanites scorn the suggestion that suburbia encroaches on their island, but the further north you go along Broadway the more you feel you have stumbled into small-town America. Broadway finally unravels at the point where the East River joins the Hudson, and a gaunt steel bridge leads across to the Bronx. Now there's a dangerous place.

Comments