Four hundred years in the life of a road the original Dutch settlers referred to as Brede Wegh (Broad Way).
For a thoroughfare that, in the early 1600s, had such poor drainage that “the roadbed quickly became a foul stew of mud and horse manure,” Broadway hasn’t done too badly for itself over the ensuing centuries. In this opinionated work, architect Leadon (Architecture/City Univ. of New York) tells the story of Broadway in Manhattan, from Bowling Green in the south to the Bronx in the north. The book has 13 sections, one per mile, with stories behind the development of each neighborhood. The author gives space to everyone from the architects who designed Broadway’s iron buildings to the theater world’s stars and impresarios. Leadon calls the area’s “lack of coherence” or development strategy “the urban planning equivalent of throwing dice.” This is an impressively detailed history, sometimes overly so. Leadon is fond of long lists—e.g., items for sale in Constable’s department store, “so comprehensively opulent, that it practically defined the Gilded Age”; the curios producer David Belasco kept in the studio above his theater; the diseases that killed New Yorkers in the early 19th century—and some readers may tire of repeated references to money: how much a property cost, the equivalent amount in today’s dollars, etc. Still, Leadon offers plenty of entertaining anecdotes. George M. Cohan “insisted that his dressing room be decorated floor-to-ceiling with American flags,” and Thomas Edison promoted his incandescent bulb in 1882 when he “mounted light bulbs on the heads of a contingent of militiamen and had them drag a steam engine and dynamo up Broadway.” And the author has a way with a takedown: he notes that John Jacob Astor IV, pampered member of America’s richest family in the 1890s, was known as “Jack Ass” and that his drowsy expression in photos made it seem “as if submitting to the lens was an hour of yachting lost forever.”
A lively history of one of the most famous streets in America.