When Broadway Was a Country Road

Creators
Allison Cloyd and Gianna Romano

E.B. White wrote about New York in 1949:
“Broadway has changed in aspect. It used to have a discernible bony structure … but the signs are so enormous now, the buildings and shops and hotels have largely disappeared under the neon lights and letters …”

An earlier poem by Charles Coleman Stoddard entitled, “When Broadway Was a Country Road” reflects a nostalgia for the avenue as it once was in years past:

No tailored dandies, trim and neat;
No damsels of the latest craze
Of form and fashion; no conceit
To catch the fancy or amaze
No buildings met the skyward gaze;
Nor myriad lights that nightly glowed
To set the midnight hours ablaze-
When Broadway was a country road.

Stoddard gives us an old Broadway- perhaps imagining it as it was in New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that later became New York. The name of the road was Anglicized to “Broadway” in 1899. It originates at the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan, and runs 21 and a half miles north through the Bronx to Yonkers at 262nd Street and beyond. It runs against the grid system laid out by the city commissioner Casimier Goerck in the 1790s. In 1811, when the grid system was officially implemented, Broadway was the only street to remain on the diagonal throughout the entirety of Manhattan.

However, that’s the only consistent thing about Broadway. Largely residential until the early 19th century, Broadway has had multiple names for its many roles: “Ladies Mile” for the 19th century shopping district; the theater district, with theaters gradually moving north until settling at 42nd street in the early 20th century, the “Canyon of Heroes,” so known for the ticker tape parades that happen in Lower Manhattan; and today, “Silicon Alley,” for the numerous Internet and New Media start-up companies that have established themselves between SoHo and 23rd street.

In 1829 a visitor from Liverpool commented on the irregularities of the buildings on Broadway; not one hundred years later visitors no longer noticed the buildings, but were instead drawn to the lights of the “Great White Way,” describing them as “fabulous glow-worms” and “zigzag lightning strikes.”

Broadway is no longer a country road; but it continues to change. In 2009 the New York City Department of Transportation implemented a new program called Green Light for Midtown, which closed off Broadway at Herald Square and Times Square to auto traffic, creating safer intersections and more attractive public spaces.

Broadway will no doubt continue to transform but its same boney structure will remain the avenue that carries the spirit of New York.

Bibliography and credits
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Inspiration
P. 48-49 “To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing…Broadway has changed in aspect. It used to have a discernible bony structure beneath its loud bright surface; but the signs are so enormous now, the buildings and shops and hotels have largely disappeared under the neon lights and letters and the frozen-custard facade.”

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