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A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles

By Fran Leadon

(NY Times)

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Broadway. Songwriters say it' where the neon lights are bright, where you can come on along and listen to its lullaby, where you can blame it all on its nights and where, of course, you must not forget to give your regards. Countless tunes have been written about this storied New York boulevard, its megawatt allure and its broken dreams. Why should lyricists be different from the rest of us? Say 'Broadway' and most people think of the dozen or so blocks that form the spine of the theater district and go far to define New York.

But Broadway is a good deal more than that dazzling patch of neon and LED. It is a long, winding ribbon extending from Lower Manhattan through the Bronx and into the Westchester suburbs north of the city. Some blocks are graceful, many others far from it. Rarely, however, are they dull. In 'Broadway,' his meticulously researched book, Fran Leadon, an architect steeped in New York’s heritage, takes us on an invigorating historical stroll along the 13 miles that are the thoroughfare's Manhattan portion. Leadon offers textured snapshots of life as it once was, and sometimes still is, dividing his walk into 13 sections, one for each mile, from Bowling Green near the lower tip of the island to Marble Hill in what looks like the Bronx on a map but is administratively part of Manhattan.

The street started out humbly in the early 17th century as a muddy path in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Brede Wegh, the Dutch came to call it, meaning Broad Way. That it was — 80 feet wide. In 1664, the British took over, and kept the street’s name in its Anglicized form. At some point, the two words became one.

Broadway developed initially along a straight north-south route, but in the early 19th century it began to angle in what is now Greenwich Village, slicing across Manhattan's street grid to circumnavigate various estates. As it stretched ever northward, it overlapped in sections with the major routes of Bloomingdale Road and The Boulevard. Eventually, it absorbed them both. (Longtime residents of the Upper West Side may recall a barbecue place on the southeast corner of Broadway and 88th Street called The Boulevard, which was succeeded by a fancier establishment called Bloomingdale Road. The restaurants were like their namesakes. Neither of them made it in the long run.)

Leadon's tale is a whirl of characters: architects and landlords, capitalists and unionists, reformers and traditionalists, visionaries and charlatans. It is a whirl, too, of events like ticker-tape parades, civic battles, financial booms and inevitable busts. Enlivening the stories are cameo appearances by the rich and famous, like the showmen David Belasco and George M. Cohan, the ever-burdened Edgar Allan Poe, the radical Emma Goldman and the rivalrous cousins of enormous wealth William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor 4th. And in this age when we've all been (Lin Manuel) Mirandized, how can one leave out Alexander Hamilton? Leadon makes sure to include him. Hamilton's farmhouse, the Grange, figures prominently in the Mile 10 section, exploring a part of town that modern real-estate developers have christened Hamilton Heights.

There is plenty here that rings familiar to 21st-century ears. "As the city expanded, and as the divide between rich and poor grew ever wider, alarming numbers of indigent men and women gathered each day on Broadway," Leadon writes. He's talking about the 1840s. Ten years later, New York had become "a city of strangers." By the 1890s, "it was noisy." The homeless, referred to as "the tramp class" in a blunter era, vexed the middle class just as they do now. After economic collapse in the Panic of 1893, The New York Tribune “complained that it had become impossible to relax on a park bench without a 'greasy, rum soaked tramp leaning against your shoulder.'

A robust act of civil disobedience in 1901 was the sort that easily could take place today. Chairs had been placed in Madison Square Park, ruled by a concessionaire who charged 5 cents to sit, equivalent to about $1.30 now. Attendants overturned the chair of anyone who dared take a seat without forking over a nickel. Many New Yorkers deemed the fee unfair, and in the collar-wilting summer of 1901, they had had enough. They ignited the "Merry Chair War," refusing to pay and tossing chairs into the street. Soon enough, the concessionaire caved, and the nickel chair became history. Thousands flocked to the park in celebration. Today, they might well go by #OccupyMadisonSquare.

This is a book best read in several sittings; there is a lot of detail to absorb. At times, it can be nearly numbing. Is it really necessary to recite practically the entire inventory of the vast Arnold Constable department store, located in 1869 at Broadway and 19th Street? But Leadon is graced with a wry wit. Flashes of it are sprinkled throughout, as when he describes Union Square's ascendance as a gathering spot for all manner of causes. At the onset of the Civil War, an immense crowd formed there. New York Sun journalists reported not seeing a single drunk or hearing a profane word. "No doubt," Leadon says dryly, "they weren’t looking very hard."

For all the diversity of its 13 miles, from financial citadels far downtown to bodegas way uptown, Broadway will always mean the theater to many people — the Great White Way. By the dawn of the 20th century "Broadway had become New York's chief cultural export," Leadon writes. To an extent, it still is. Nothing, though, can compare with the creative flow in the years before the Great Depression. In 1927 alone, 264 new Broadway shows opened.

Sustaining that kind of energy would have been nigh impossible. As Leadon says, "It is the nature of things in New York that very little lasts." True enough, and 'Broadway' the book shows that Broadway the street is no exception.

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