Walking and seeing the city, part 1: Broadway

With this post I start a new category entitled “walking and seeing the city”.  It is based on a course I took in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of City and Regional Planning, taught by Professor Allan Jacobs – and subsequently turned into a book by him, entitled Looking at Cities.  Each week in that course (on a Friday afternoon), we would spend about six hours walking new neighbourhoods of San Francisco, analysing them as we walked (amazing – I don’t remember it ever raining on us!).   I dedicate this section of my blog to Professor Allan Jacobs, whose influence has lasted much longer than he knows.

Here is my current vote for the most interesting “long” street in New York City:  Broadway.  Broadway certainly deserves a number of books about it (think of course of theatre, Times Square, etc), but here I am talking about the street itself, which starts in lower Manhattan.

I lived in Manhattan for the months of September and October 2011 and during that time I estimate that I spent at least 150 hours walking the streets of New York City.  It was mostly Manhattan, although I did spend some time in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn.  I calculate that I examined every neighbourhood in Manhattan south of about 96th Street (east and west).  Because I lived on the west side, I did not do enough of the East Village, Lower East Side and Upper East Side, but I did visit.

Every weekday morning I dropped my daughter to her school in the Upper West Side and walked back to our flat on West 27th Street from Columbus Circle at 7.40am.  And every morning I took a different route, almost always cutting back and forth and often heading north through the park to come down the east side.  So here are the streets which I went down (actually in this order as it seemed logical that way):  Twelfth Avenue, Eleventh Avenue, Tenth Avenue, Ninth Avenue, Broadway, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Third Avenue, Second Avenue, First Avenue and York Avenue/Sutton Place.

I am not the first person to spend time in New York City and walk it.  Alfred Kazin’s autobiography (1969) is entitled A Walker in the City.  Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York (2007) frequently discusses his travels around the city.  Philip Lopate’s book Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan (2004) is just that: a whole book devoted to his walking the waterfronts of Manhattan, including The Battery, Battery Park City, The World Trade Center, Tribeca, Soho/Greenwich Village, Chelsea, 42nd Street to Riverside South … and on he goes (we have not even hit the East Side yet).  Lopate also edited the fabulous collection Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (  ).  In the introduction to that collection, Lopate talks of the “walking around poem” (which I had never heard of before), which “is a species of travel literature in which the writer puts himself through culture shock in his own city.”  Various peripatetic poets – including Walt Whitman – used this as a “solution to the problem of integrating the random stimuli of modern life” (p. xx).  And there is also E.B. White’s (1949) Here is New York, about his own walking the city.

And then there’s Broadway, that great street that runs all the way from The Battery downtown up through the top of Manhattan where it crosses into The Bronx, not far from Baker Field, Columbia University’s football stadium (although almost no tourist maps show Broadway above 135th Street – Columbia and City University of New York).  I cannot attest to how Broadway has fared over history, but let me describe to you the parts of Broadway which I know.  It is delightfully diverse, filled with shopping, cafes, of course, theatres and – in mid-town with street studios of major television networks (I watched ABC’s Good Morning America three times from the sidewalk at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway – just go there any weekday between 7.00am and 9.00am, a great New York tourist attraction, and it’s free.

Curiously, there is one part of Broadway which seems lagging:  just south of 42nd Street the street seems to lose all of its energy.  The street appears to narrow, the buildings get smaller, the people disappear and the shops become marginal.  It lasts that way for a few blocks and then picks up coming up to Macy’s and Herald Square (35th-34th Streets): that 34th Street shopping district (and only a block to the Empire State Building) is very dynamic.  But Broadway loses energy once again south of Herald Square until it gets close to Madison Square Park and the glorious “Flatiron Building”, which is located on a triangle block between Broadway and Fifth Avenue just south of West 23rd Street.  This building is truly one of the most fabulous which New York City has to offer.

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