In honor of our Best of New York Issue, we sent our intrepid writer, Adam Bonislawski, on a daylong walk down this city’s great thoroughfare, the one and only Broadway, to see what he could see. Call it 21st-century psychogeography or 19th-century flânerie, sometimes a long walk is the best way to get a little perspective.
Broadway enters the island modestly enough, slipping from the Bronx over the Harlem River and into Inwood, just above 220th Street. A stream of commuters flow with it across the Broadway bridge heading downtown. The 1 train rolls overhead in the opposite direction, subway cars dissolving in the morning drizzle. The sidewalks are quiet still, but here and there ground-floor doors swing open and residents pop out clad in office attire — umbrella and coffee in hand — like figurines in some colossal neighborhood cuckoo clock. At 212th Street, a park employee hits a pair of passersby with a cloud of debris from her leaf blower. And a good morning to you! Small crowds are beginning to form at the bus stops.
To the right is Fort Tryon Park, dark and silent and leafy, with terraced pathways climbing up into the trees. This far north, the street still somewhat resembles the Algonquin hunting trail it once was. It follows the landscape, passively wending its way along the ridges and valleys in a manner that seems strange for a major Manhattan thoroughfare. The park is empty save for a man walking his pit bull and an elderly woman sitting on bench smoking a cigar. Down Sherman Avenue you can see the Bronx, brown and industrial across the water.
The island rises here from Broadway on both sides. To the west a wall of granite shoots up from the street and concrete stairs built into the slope lead up to apartments atop the river bluff. To the east, clusters of buildings sprout from the hillside, casually stacked one atop the other. For a few lovely blocks Manhattan could almost be an overgrown Mediterranean hill town. A narrow basketball court sits just off the street, tucked below car-level in a space carved out between a trio of apartment buildings. The smell of fresh bread drifts from the bakery next door. A man is setting up his fruit stand on 193rd Street, hauling boxes of papayas and coconuts from the back of his van. The road winds southward with an almost suburban indirectness.
The George Washington Bridge, then, arrives as something of a shock. Here, after an early morning spent wandering the sedate upper reaches of the borough, is the city. Traffic streams down the hill and across the river. A line of cars moving opposite pours out into the streets, flowing in all directions. A pair of dump trucks go grunting by on 179th, climbing uphill past the bus station toward the bridge — the elegant gray latticework hanging in the distance, from this vantage point, seemingly, supported by nothing but sky. Heading onward Broadway climbs out of the valley and up a ridge, the sidestreets now falling away toward the water. A drug store two blocks down has taken as its name the “St. Jesus Pharmacy”. This seems like something of a demotion.
Umbrellas are up outside New York Presbyterian. Middle-aged women fiddle with the sheets of plastic covering their hair. The street has widened to a boulevard here, meeting with St. Nicholas Avenue. A thin strip of trees and flowers and benches runs down the median. Hospital buildings — a benignly bland mix of sleek and stately — loom off to the sides. At 165th, Midtown’s towers come into view for the first time. The skyline is a pale silhouette far in the distance. There’s something of The Wizard of Oz in the way the buildings rise out of the plain. It’s Broadway as Yellow Brick Road.
Then downhill, out of the Heights. Nail salons, grocery stores, seafood markets, barber shops, dentists, banks, churches, bodegas. Beautiful brick buildings with elaborate cornices and bay windows protruding over the sidewalk. A cemetery to the right bounded by a wrought-iron fence. A woman in a burka arranging baseball caps on a folding table. A shopkeeper taking a break to smoke a cigarette underneath his awning. Up ahead a man in a suit guides a younger man in jeans and a t-shirt. He’s pointing up at an apartment, drawing his attention to some detail or other. Rain or no rain, the real estate business must carry on.
And besides, the sky is clearing now. And with the sun, come Columbia students. A twenty-something woman wearing a university hoodie walks by at 140th Street. The 1 train pops back above ground five blocks later. A Grayline tour bus drives by, passengers still wrapped like mummies in white plastic ponchos. The street dips downhill, bottoming out beneath the subway tracks, a shady tangle of asphalt choked with trucks, cars, grime, rust; horns honking, smoke billowing, trains clattering. Up the street a tweed-jacketed professorial sort escorts a young co-ed across an intersection. Construction workers sit against a stone wall eating their lunches. Three yellow cement trucks stand in a line, tumblers rolling. An enormous red crane reaches into the sky, menacing passing pedestrians from its perch atop a broad black scaffolding. Caps and gowns mingle on the sidewalk. Police direct traffic. Parents snap pictures. A hidden orchestra plays behind the tall metal gates.
In the 90s the high-rises begin. A few glassy condo towers signaling the arrival of a more typical Manhattan landscape. There’s a certain faded glory to this stretch of the city. Lovely old apartment buildings line the street, grand block-long structures with sprawling courtyards stretching out behind massive stone entranceways. At a glance, they seem the very embodiment of old-monied comfort. Look up to the windows, however, and there will be cardboard taped here and there to plug holes in the glass, old air conditioners resting haphazardly atop ledges, an ancient, dirty pair of red velvet curtains blotting out the sun. There’s an air about these of an old WASP family fallen on hard times — out of cash and getting by on good bones and past reputations. And the new money is definitely coming — everywhere you look there’s another blue construction fence. Cranes, men, tape, trucks. A foundation being laid on every sidestreet.
What Broadway brings the West Side is a bit of texture. After running more or less with the grid for several dozen blocks, the street breaks out at 79th and begins slanting eastward, cutting across the avenues. It interrupts Amsterdam at 72nd, then Columbus at 65th, and Central Park West at Columbus Circle. At each such intersection the streets open up into broad knots of space, the delightful geometry of their convergence making way for tree-lined parks on triangular islands and long, low-slung subway stations done up in pale brick and copper trim. It breaks up the city, these plazas like calm pools between rapids on a river. A gang of teenage girls with big duffel bags and water bottles walks by outside Juilliard. The off-white cubes of Lincoln Center look like birch trees along the Taconic.
And now we’re into it for real. The afternoon rush is gearing up at Columbus Circle. An older woman rides past in her Rascal with a velvet equestrian helmet atop her head. Buses battle cars battle cabs battle bikers battle pedestrians around the round-about. Columbus himself stands high on his pedestal, looking a touch lost and forlorn amidst the glassy towers that surround him. Across the street Central Park is pregnant with mystery.
A shoplifter caught on 58th Street — the security guard stripped down to his undershirt, the thief a well-groomed young man in a sports coat and loafers, a pair of sunglasses pushed back on his head. Letterman fans press against the doors of the Ed Sullivan Theater. The sun is soft above Times Square. Looking downhill the street disappears, washed away in the neon tide. A sea of heads covers the sidewalk. A pair of tourists pick at an overpriced meal in the window of an overcrowded restaurant. Ticket salesmen yell into the passing crowds. Then across 42nd — shot back out into the city. The masses dissipate, the lights fade. People have gathered after work at café tables in Herald Square. Cars stream past heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Street vendors are pulling their carts off corners. Cabs cruise by with “off-duty” lights on. The city never stops, but it does pause for the occasional costume change. From six blocks north, the Flatiron Building is perhaps the most elegant-looking thing on earth.
The line at the Shake Shack is about 100 people deep. Bicyclists and police are chatting at the northern end of Union Square. At the south of the park four guys are playing volleyball — surprisingly competitive given that they don’t have a net. To the west, the sun is turning orange over Jersey. The streets are fully in shadow now. At 10th Street the Woolworth Building appears, a few squares of yellow light glowing in the top half of the building. A parade of drag queens passes by on 9th — whooping, singing, beating on drums. Thirty seconds later a procession of Hare Krishnas marches past in the opposite direction.
Soho is dark, and lovely, of course — tall, willowy ensembles of legs and cheek bones stepping in and out of spare white boutiques. Music drifts over the cobblestones. At Lispenard, just below Canal, some two-dozen vendors wait beneath a street lamp for rides to take them home. They’ve packed their wares into giant rolling suitcases. A few kneel on prayer mats spread out over the sidewalk. Two city workers sit eating hamburgers on a bench nearby. It’s quiet this far south. Broadway is empty save for the occasional jogger or dog walker or straggling tourist making their way uptown. Taxis honk in the distance. City Hall appears between the trees. Fireflies float above the blue-green lawn. A quarter mile south Ground Zero glows beneath untold rigs of bright white sodium light. From a street over, it looks like a football stadium, or perhaps some sort of alien landing pad.
And then, a few blocks later, it’s done. There is the Canyon of Heroes (a plaque to one Lt. General Withers A. Burgess kicking off the procession) and from there the street slopes downhill toward the harbor, curves left of the Wall Street bull at Bowling Green, and then, without further ado, becomes Whitehall. After having walked the length of it, the anti-climax is rather unforeseen. Which is, perhaps, perfectly appropriate. More than anything, what Broadway has to recommend it is an ability to surprise. A structural feature, essentially — the happy result of its frequent twists and turns, of the drunken, open-field style of its run down Manhattan’s otherwise orderly grid. Look along a typical Manhattan avenue and you can see for miles before the pavement eventually narrows to a point and disappears over the horizon in a wash of pink. Look down Broadway, on the other hand, and most likely you’ll see for just a few blocks before the street bends out of sight, leaving you to wonder what might lie ahead. And so it draws you, on and on.