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On Broadway

February 2024
1min read

A Journey Uptown Over Time

by David W. Dunlap; Rizzoli; 327 pages; $65.00.

This big, handsome book walks the reader along New York City’s famous boulevard, past and present, slighting
almost no building from Bowling Green to 230th Street. It is an elegant cataloguing of Broadway—and, by extension, American urban architecture- since the time of the Dutch. The six hundred photographs in On Broadway are arranged sequentially as the avenue winds its way uptown. The only way to squeeze in so many facades is to fill the margins with small likenesses of the buildings, as in a good travel guide, but lush pages are set aside for picture profiles of the Woolworth or Flatiron or City Hall buildings. Dunlap, a New York Times writer on real estate, has been chronicling Broadway’s changes with his camera for more than a dozen years. Out of respect for the older pictures, he has shot his newer photographs in matching black-and-white.

Many of the great observers of Broadway are here, from Walt Whitman—"Thou, like the parti-colored word itself—like infinite teeming, mocking life!"—to a more subdued V. S. Pritchett, who supposed he liked Broadway because of its “unmathematical name.” The chapters take their titles from Broadway’s own geography: “Financial District,” “SoHo,” “Ladies’ Mile,” “Theater District.” The one slip seems to be “NoHo,” a moribund 1980s real estate term.

This is a history from the second floor up. Except for a silhouetted worker setting the hands of the New York Life Building’s clock, human beings make only incidental appearances in 327 pages. But the noisy, frantic Broadway best belongs in another book. Dunlap’s is a classical look at the avenue, with only the text suggesting the verve and the menace. Broadway has traditionally veered farther into shabbiness, glitz, and venery than its statelier rival avenues to the east, but there are no pornographic bookstores or head shops in this treatise. Dunlap’s view seems to be that these things don’t last, and he’s probably right. On Broadway deals exhaustively and beautifully with the things that do.

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