On Broadway

I sometimes regret I moved to New York long after certain urban traditions had fallen out of fashion, some forgotten altogether. I don’t mean the tradition of living in affordable lofts in my downtown neighborhood, though that would have been nice. I’m talking about older things still: eighteenth- and ninteenth-century annual events like Moving Day, May 1, when everyone whose lease was up would throw all their belongings into an old wheelbarrow and head out in search of a new flat. Or Evacuation Day, November 25, which wasn’t a celebration of laxatives, mind you, but of the anniversary of the British army’s departure from the occupied city at the end of the Revolutionary War. More than these, though, I wish I had been around for the venerable tradition of the Sunday promenade on Broadway, when such a stroll meant something more than simply donning oversized sunglasses and a fur trapper hat bigger than your neighbor’s and heading for the nearest subway entrance on your way to Williamsburg. No, I’m talking about promenading on Broadway when you really got dressed up for it, perhaps, but not necessarily, on your way to services at Trinity or St. Paul’s. It’s a tradition that predates The Great White Way, but it was pure theater nonetheless—it was about stepping out to be seen, and to see others who were out just to be seen too.

Broadway 1805

In New York at the end of the eighteenth century, for a good time you’d gather the beaux, call on some ladies, and head down to the Battery, “one of the most delightful walks, perhaps in the world,” a newspaper called the Diary boasted in 1793. There was more on display, though, than the rows of new trees lining the extra-wide street that had once been an old Indian path. For a couple hundred years, the walk down Broadway was about nothing less than the city’s cultural politics: not just who was seen with whom, but who was allowed to make the walk at all.

For one thing, the walk down Broadway was a sexual display. One of the earliest New York plays to put the city on stage, Royall Tyler’s 1787 drama The Contrast begins with a flighty young coquette’s description of her performance on the Battery:

It would have delighted you to have seen me the last evening, my charming girl! I was dangling o’er the battery with Billy Dimple; a knot of young fellows were upon the platform; as I passed them I faultered with one of the most bewitching false steps you ever saw, and then recovered myself with such a pretty confusion, flirting my hoop to discover a jet black shoe and brilliant buckle. Gad! how my little heart thrilled to hear the confused raptures of— ‘Demme, Jack, what a delicate foot!’ ‘Ha! General, what a well-turned—’

Her friend interrupts: “Fie! fie! Charlotte [stopping her mouth], I protest you are quite a libertine.” Here we see not just the city on stage, but the city as a stage for its citizens, especially for those who were conditioned to feign weakness and offer themselves up as commodities in a marriage market.

The Broadway stroll involved displaying goods other than sexual ones, to be sure. The neighborhood at the bottom of Broadway was, into the nineteenth century, home to some of Manhattan’s wealthiest families. And so the promenade around the Battery was also often a display of class or class ambitions. In 1808, James Kirk Paulding, a collaborator on Washington Irving’s earliest literary projects, tried to explain the walk’s particular appeal, in part by satirizing the class pretensions the neighborhood seemed to call out:

[A] man who resides in Pearl-street or Chatham-row, derives no kind of dignity from his domicil, but place him in a certain part of Broadway … any where between the battery and Wall-street, and he straightaway becomes entitled to figure in the beau-monde, and strut as a person of prodigious consequence! … Quere, whether there is a degree of purity in the air of that quarter which changes the gross particular of vulgarity, into gems of refinement and polish?

A few decades later, newspaper writers debated whether African American families had the right to promenade with white families, or whether they should be allowed to walk on the inner lane of the sidewalk, protected from the curb. Controversies broke out as well when an African Theatre Company tried to locate itself next to the fashionable Park Theatre, just off Broadway on Park Row, near City Hall. The debate about who belonged on Broadway extended to unaccompanied women, too, since women without male escorts were assumed by many to be prostitutes. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when urban growth had made lower Manhattan a much less desirable place for the middle classes to call home, walking down Broadway had connotations more associated with commercialism and entertainment—and the possibility of moral depravity—than with bourgeois family life, walks to church, or courtship rituals.

These were the years in which the city walker was often figured as a flâneur, a gentleman stroller, related, among other things, to the “mysteries of the city” novels so popular at mid-century. The flâneur was often a Virgilian voyeur, a narrator with special knowledge of the city’s darkest corners. Such a narrator could extend these voyeuristic privileges to readers who wouldn’t dare to venture into dark neighborhoods alone. The nineteenth-century flâneur suggested an aesthetic of detachment and the authority of distance; this figure came into existence, significantly, right at the moment when the city, due to extraordinary growth, had become impossible to bring under the view of any single observer. The figure of the flâneur fulfilled fantasies of slumming, sex, and secret knowledge all at once.

Take this passage from George Foster’s New York by Gaslight (1850), one of the most famous “guidebooks” to the nineteenth-century city, which indicates that Broadway had come to mean something more than simply a place to strut with friends. It had taken on hints of upper- and lower-class decadence:

Fashionable, aristocratic Broadway! Certainly we shall find nothing here to shock our senses and make our very nerves thrill with horror. Broadway, with its gay throng and dashing lights beaming from a thousand palace-like shop-fronts, where fortunes are spread out to tempt the eye of the unwary or the extravagant, surely will not afford us material for much of the horrible. … On the contrary, we shall rather be in danger of envying the fortunate position of those we see and hear on the great fashionable promenade.

In the very next paragraph Foster describes in detail his encounter with two prostitutes who try to lure him to their dens of iniquity. Whether looking for prostitutes or window shopping, people kept walking down—and writing about—Broadway. It’s one of the first things Frederick Douglass recalls after making his escape from slavery: “The flight was a bold and perilous one; but here I am, in the great city of New York, safe and sound, without loss of blood and bone. In less than a week after leaving Baltimore, I was walking amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway.”

A young newspaper writer named Walt Whitman was so taken by people-watching downtown that he put the large windows of one of Broadway’s most famous buildings—Barnum’s American Museum—to a use their owner had not intended: “[F]eeling in an observative mood,” Whitman wrote in one sketch, “we . . . went up the stairs of the American Museum, entered the first room, took a chair, placed it in a roomy niche . . . and in that chair ensconced we ourself. Out before us was the busiest spectacle this busy city can present. One mighty rush of men, business, carts, carriages, and clang.”

Visitors and potential visitors to the city wanted to see and to read about Broadway—its extraordinary department stores, but also the theaters that had begun to cluster around Times Square by the late nineteenth century. “Before the next decade has passed,” one observer wrote in 1869, “Broadway is likely to glitter in continuous marble from the Battery to Madison Square; and ere the century is ended, it promises to be the most splendid street, architecturally, on either side of the Atlantic.” But, as Theodore Dreiser described it in his turn-of-the-century novel Sister Carrie, people still wanted to be seen there as much as they wanted to take in the sights:

The walk down Broadway, then as now, was one of the remarkable features of the city. There foregathered, before the matinée and afterwards, not only all the pretty women who love a showy parade, but the men who love to gaze upon and admire them. . . . Women appeared in their very best hats, shoes and gloves, and walked arm in arm on their way to the fine shops or theatres strung along from 14th to 34th. Equally the men paraded with the very latest they could afford. . . . [I]f a lover of fine clothes secured a new suit, it was sure to have its first airing on Broadway. So true and well understood was this fact, that several years later a popular song detailing this and other facts concerning the afternoon parade on matinée days and entitled ‘What Right has he on Broadway?’ was published and had quite a vogue in the music halls of the city.

What Right Has He on Broadway?

When did we lose this sense of Broadway being the place in New York for everyday folks to parade their new clothes, and for everyone else in the world to fantasize about parading their new clothes? Even as I ask this question I realize how much I hate to visit Times Square—or anything above 21st Street, really, downtown chauvinist that I am. Perhaps at some point the combination of the area’s decline with the theater district’s transformation from a site of local entertainment into a tourist destination made New Yorkers wish to shy away rather than continue to make it the site of such a fundamental urban ritual. Maybe the city’s population growth at some point meant that the fantasy of a unified urban “public” was no longer tenable.

Two examples from the popular culture of my childhood may suggest slightly contrasting answers to what happened to the traditional Broadway walk. The first is John Travolta’s famous strut in the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever, a perfect example of the walk down Broadway exported to an outer borough. The second example is a little more complicated. I had been in New York for a while before a friend put Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a mix for me and I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the song was yet another instance of the walk-down-Broadway motif:

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long, singin’ the same old song,
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway,
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain.

The same features are here that showed up in so many of the earlier examples: We have a coming-to-the-city narrative associated with the appeal of Broadway’s lights (which the narrator famously hopes, while the orchestration swells in the background, will soon be “shinin’ on me”). But the hopefulness that bursts through even in Frederick Douglass’s account—and Douglass was forced by slavecatchers to flee the city almost as soon as he arrived—has given away 130 years later to an overwhelming sense of despair. Broadway’s sidewalks are dirty now, not glistening. The image of a Broadway cowboy in the mid-1970s, an era of decline for the city at large, would still have called up Jon Voight’s character in Midnight Cowboy, whose appropriation of the East Village’s cowboy fashion (it was an urban frontier, after all) was a sure indicator that he’d be turning tricks sooner or later. In “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the singer has been hustlin’, too. He’s been compromisin’ a lot—a load, even—on the road to his horizon. He has no aspirations to be a real cowboy, just a Rhinestone one. Offers—for what?—will be coming in over the phone. Imagine! The album cover, with its pasteboard cacti and skyline in the background, emphasizes the pathetic phoniness of these ambitions. He’s not just all show: his greatest ambitions are to be all show. Jack and Ennis would have kicked this guy’s ass in a second.

Glen Campbell, 'Rhinestone Cowboy' (1975)

But maybe there’s more to the song than that. How to explain its longstanding appeal? The other night I was hanging out in my neighborhood bar when the song came over the sound system. The place was packed with the volunteer crew of the South Street Seaport Museum’s historic schooner, The Pioneer. A rowdy crowd, true, and they’ve been known to break into song and even dance in a conga line singing about ponies, when whipped into a frenzy. But “Rhinestone Cowboy” evoked a sing-a-long like nothing else I’ve witnessed in this place. (Okay, it wasn’t that big, but a couple girls sitting at the bar sure let loose.) What is it about this pathetic “cowboy” walking down Broadway that seems to be as universally appealing to our generation as a walk through Broadway’s gay throngs was a hundred years ago? The answer seems to be that in 1975, when the song was published, you were no longer guaranteed an audience in New York at all. Who’s even around to notice this cowboy? He doesn’t seem to have the built-in audience Broadway walkers took for granted in previous generations. (Think about it: today cowboys in Times Square have to play guitar in their BVDs in order even to get a second glance.) In “Rhinestone Cowboy” it’s simply the dream, the wish to be noticed, that conveys the emotional punch. Which perhaps suggests the reason I long for an era when walking down Broadway stood for something more innocent than the compromises of adult life, career, and the desire for fame our culture so successfully instills in us. Shouldn’t dressing to the nines and parading with your friends sometimes be good enough?

    11 responses to “On Broadway”

    1. Dave says:

      Great article, Bryan. Way to contextualize Glen Campbell.

      I wonder what New York rituals fill the role of the old promenade down Broadway these days. The kids in Williamsburg still show off their outfits in displays of sexuality, taste, and class, right? But it’s so fragmented. I went to a few Chelsea galleries this weekend and as always there was a certain promenade thing going on. But it consisted of just a few subsets of New Yorkers: art collectors, bobos, artists.

      I’ve heard they still promenade like in the old days in smaller, traditional towns in Italy and elsewhere. But it seems like those are places where the ’60s never happened, at least in terms of creating a youth culture separate from the adult culture, and fragmenting all those cultures into self-chosen mini-publics.

    2. Dave says:

      It occurred to me today: If one of the quintessential Manhattan/Broadway promenades in recent years is John Travolta’s outer-borough strut in Saturday Night Fever, what does that say about the New York-ness of Manhattan these days?

    3. Bryan Waterman says:

      yeah, but the whole point of that movie is the eternal allure of manhattan: he’s got to get out of brooklyn to save his life.

    4. Lane says:

      is that the point of that movie? The disco is in BayRidge and the climax takes place on the Verrazano Bridge. I don’t remember any of it too well, because it’s a really crappy flick. But one of the biggest issues has to do with his brother being a priest. So that would put the family’s fixation on Rome rather than Manhattan.

      (Adriana says this last point is crap and in fact confirms that the point of that movie is to get out of Brooklyn – BUT THAT WAS PRE FIFTH-AVENUE-FABULOUSNESS!!)

      How fun! Our own group interbrorough rivalry!

    5. Bryan Waterman says:

      you obviously need to watch the movie again, because it’s neither crappy (it’s a terrific movie) nor is it a celebration of brooklyn. it’s not about fifth avenue fabulousness. it’s about the possibilities afforded for a new life in the city, even if you have to move into a tiny apartment to make the jump (i won’t give away the closing scene because you must not remember it and you really should watch it again). that end-note is nothing new, of course–that’s the point of most coming-to-new-york narratives. and how is interborough rivalry something new among this set of friends?

    6. Roger Leishman says:

      Interesting article Bryan — and now I finally believe your protestations that your academic field isn’t really mormon history or byu politics….

    7. Bryan Waterman says:

      2 things i really couldn’t care less about, though it feels good to work on a magazine again, even if it’s mostly for fun.

    8. Kasa Mi says:

      Yes, interesting article…and I wonder if people still do that today–get really dressed up and flaunt their existence without having any real destination. Is it still about cultural politics? Maybe it’s more about economics and social politics these days–the market playing off the need for people’s materiality and materiality of self. Just think of what it does to the psyche: You have your newest fashionable risk, and you’re desiring to see how people might take it in (for example those big bear feet boots or an outlandish dress). You get dressed, throw on your “oversized glasses”, perhaps a hat. You put on your earphones…probably the white ones signifying you have an IPOD which you are sure to make visible. And you make your way onto a populated street. Sure enough you get a few stares, some comments. Maybe it’s not so much about cultural politics like the old days–since anyone can walk on the streets of Broadway these days, and since even if you wore the craziest outfit, it’s not like you would be banned from Broadway. Perhaps it more about economics and social politics–the judgments others pass on you, and the image you portray about what you have and what others don’t or what others want. Maybe you don’t care about what others say, but it’s the fact that they are taking notice that creates more self-awareness (good or bad). And what do you (and when I say “you” I mean universal)? You walk along as if this is your movie…as if you are the star in your own film, listening to your IPOD that is the soundtrack of your promenading existence. Are we are pretentious asses?

    9. Daniel G says:

      At the expense of possibly admitting that I don’t “get it”, I honestly don’t understand how difference in fashion or attitude truly changes the core desire. I’m forever amazed at the consistency of human emotions and desires, regardless of the pretense. I remember when I was a child, I was walking with my father, and we passed a guy with a 12″ green mohawk. My father, noticing my awe, turned to me and said, “He doesn’t look like that when he wakes up in the morning. That takes some work.”
      What difference does it make if we’re wearing big sunglasses or green mohawks, both of which carry an attitude of, “don’t look at me.” Isn’t painfully obvious these are our own peacock displays? And what’s the difference? Speaking of best hats, do you think those rabbit trooper hats are cheap?
      Isn’t it the same human emotion, to perform and put on a display? Is it not just as grand a display? I’ve never felt like the “stage” of the street has suffered in the slightest, nor the performance. regardless of whether the sparkle of Braodway has been replaced with dirty black gum spots. The display goes on all the same. I feel that the tradition of promenading has been present my entire life, before I was even conscious of it. The tradition seemed as alive on Gran Via in Madrid as it does on Elizabeth outside Cafe Habana on any given Sunday afternoon, as long as the sun’s out.
      Just because people are, or pretend to be, in denial about their motives, does it really change the underlying emotion? I feel like I’m entering stage left every time I walk out my front door, regardless of whether or not I’m up for it. Maybe I just don’t get it…. Either way, I enjoy the discussion, and I’m enjoying your class. See you Monday.
      Daniel

    10. Bryan Waterman says:

      WNY represents! Thanks for the comments.

      RE: The question about the difference between then and now: I think the observations about an ongoing performance-orientation in our culture are spot on. Of course we preen and strut like peacocks–at least a certain segment of the population does (those who have time and money to worry about what they wear). I see two differences between the older literary descriptions of Broadway and what happens now, both of which you’ve already hit on: First, social space has democratized to the point that the divisions between performers and audiences–clearer distinctions in the 18th-century city–are not as readily recognizable as they once were. Is this a bad thing? Of course I don’t really long for the day when only the wealthiest of New Yorkers had a right to promenade on Broadway. And maybe today’s fashionistas sneer the way the fashionable have always sneered, so the division still exists, at least in their minds. I was thinking more about the unique situation, in these descriptions, that there was a specific street for all this to happen on. It’s interesting to me that a single street was designated, at least as a literary trope, as the place where such politics played out. (Of course the Bowery offered a counter-promenade, but that’s another story.) This leads to the second point your comments bring out: the way the fantasy of being watched has been both geographically universalized (insert Daniel’s comment about “entering stage left every time I walk out my front door”) and also largely internalized, probably in the face of population growth, diversity, and the semi-democratization of social space. (“Semi-” because I have to remind myself that since the Giuliani regime, certain people have been deemed unworthy to take up space on Broadway, especially in Disney’s Times Square, and are shuttled out of view whenever necessary.) Kasa Mi’s point about iPods and the cinematic nature of our fantasy lives while we walk around listening to our own personal soundtracks is spot on. But the ubiquity of that performance itself says something about the problems of the celebrity fantasy, doesn’t it? It’s not just about being seen walking down a street; it’s about being somebody recognizable, and if the only validation we’re willing to give ourselves is available at the very exclusive level of mass celebrity, what does that really say about the quality of the rest of our lives? It’s why, for me, the “Rhinestone Cowboy” personality is both compelling and really, really sad.

      And then there’s the connection a friend made offline about promenading as a metaphor for blogging. Not sure I want to go there in the first week of The Great Whatsit’s reincarnation …

    11. […] I had other reasons too. More than ever since moving here, my life this year has synched up with my seaport surroundings. The neighborhood bar I frequent is often filled with what our group of regulars refers to fondly as “the boat people”: the crew of the South Street Seaport Museum’s historic schooner, the Pioneer, whose conga-line bar-singing antics I’ve mentioned here before. Their beards started creeping in with the cold. One new volunteer sailor even transformed himself in a matter of weeks from a two-tone, Vespa-riding ska kid, skinny tie and all, into the very image of Herman Melville: […]