Time Out London: Street Life on Broadway

In the first of a new series that celebrates the world’s greatest streets, Sophie Harris hops, skips and struts down New York’s Broadway where she treads in the footsteps of James Brown, meets a rapper-turned pizza chef and, inevitably, develops a shoe fetish

Broadway is basically the spine of New York, running naturally along the centre of Manhattan Island like the well-worn wooded path it once was. When your plane lands in New York, you’ll notice the way the streets fall in a neat grid structure—imposed by the British in Manhattan in 1811. But Broadway was too well established a thoroughfare to reroute, and to this day cuts through the grid in a diagonal line. If you want to get to know New York, you must get to know Broadway.

I’ve lived in New York for a year but until today my knowledge of its origins as a city was confined to a tatty diorama in the Natural History Museum, showing Dutch badass Peter Stuyvesant conversing with some pissed-off looking Native American Indians. They’re stood at the mouth of Broadway, which was then the Indian Wickquasgeck trail.

‘The Dutch were in the New World to do business with the Indians,’ says Russell Shorto, author of ‘New York City: the Island at the Center of the World’ and affable expert on NYC’s early history. The Indians trapped beavers, and the Dutch traded for them. For the Indians, the partnership was a defensive arrangement: We will let you live here and if we’re attacked, you’ll help us.

The Dutch ‘bought’ Manhattan from the Indians for trinkets amounting to $24, but in 1664, the British invaded. New Amsterdam became New York, and de Heere Straat (in Dutch, ‘the gentleman’s way’) became Broadway. Is there a single characteristic that defines the street to this day? ‘Broadway resists gentrification,’ claims Shorto. ‘It’s got its essential tawdriness – its seedy commerce.’

I begin my odyssey at Manhattan’s southernmost tip: Bowling Green. Emerging from the subway you the Green to your left and the ornate Museum of the American Indian to your right. Beyond is the Hudson River and in the little park by its banks is a World Trade Center memorial; a piece of mangled metal that was once a WTC sculpture, and an eternal flame. You couldn’t cram more history into this space.

A couple of minutes up the hill is the Charging Bull sculpture, representing the stock market. Naughty tourists are posing between the bull’s legs, fondling its brass balls.
As you approach Wall Street, Trinity Church appears on your left. At the entrance is a plaque on the floor, commemorating a visit from her Maj (the Queen, not Madonna) in 1976, and a hand sanitizer. The pretty church is blissfully calm and cool inside. Take a minute.

At Zucotti Park I see a man dressed in fluorescent green fake fur. His name is Elijah, and he is on a mission from the Lord: ‘I come here to meet people and love people. I’m a family man.’ He has over one hundred colour-coded fur suits to match his moods.

I walk past City Hall Park (and a pack of dogs in coats) looking out for today’s first pitstop: Farinella Pizzeria, on Broadway and Worth Street. This superior eaterie was set up last year by Alberto Polo Cretara, a rapper of some note in Italy, who found himself drawn to New York. ‘I’ve always been a foodie, and it’s difficult to eat authentic Italian here,’ says Alberto in a heavy accent. ‘Just because there’s someone Italian behind the counter, it doesn’t mean it’s the real thing,’ he frowns. True to his organically-sourced word, Alberto’s Roman pizza really is a slice o’ heaven. But what about the rapping? ‘Being an artist, you dream of performing on Broadway. I did the next best thing and set up my business here.’

Then you’ll pass the Soho stretch of Broadway – all high-street fashion shops: Top Shop, American Apparel, Gap, Armani X and so on – before reaching Union Square on 14th Street. At the weekend Green Market bustles; take advantage to taste the food samples on offer.

Head on to the Flatiron Building at 23rd Street. Remember what I said about the grid system, and Broadway being the only diagonal? That’s why the Flatiron is such an eye-poppingly odd shape, and Worth Square is actually a triangle.

From here, take the subway (4,5,6) to 42nd Street. The first time I came to Times Square was as a kid on holiday with my parents. ‘Look!’ said my mum, romanced by the area’s musical history and terrible reputation: ‘There’s some Puerto Ricans fighting with scissors!’ This was 1984, and 42nd Street has cleaned up its act since then.

Take the TKTS stairs. The massive ticket booth now supports a gleaming, red glass stairway. Climb to the top and you can see the whole sweep of Broadway unfurl. Look a little closer and you might also catch the Naked Cowboy. Let me explain. The Cowboy (Robert Burke to his mum) has been coming to Times Square pretty much every day for 13 years now to play cowboy songs in his underpants. Isn’t it hell in the winter? I ask him. ‘Nah, I thrive on the attention,’ he says. ‘I make everyone squeeze my ass!’

The stretch of Broadway that runs from 41st to 54th street is the razzle-dazzle heart of New York. One of the first streets to get electric lighting in America, Broadway was dubbed ‘the Great White Way’ in 1902. The funny thing is though, of the 32 theatres that fall under the Broadway umbrella, only four are actually on Broadway. Using this same fuzzy logic, I make a detour to 40th Street and 9th Avenue, to see Phil LaDuca: Shoemaker to the stars.

‘I was a Broadway baby for ten years,” says softly-spoken Phil. ‘But after twenty years of lifting girls, I popped a disc.’ The ballet dancer-turned-Broadway tap dancer changed direction and channelled his specialised knowledge into making the most beautiful, comfortable dance shoes in the game – according to Penelope Cruz, Fergie, Bette Midler, Meryl Streep and Catherine Zeta Jones. LaDuca kits out all the big Broadway shows and Phil’s star stories are amazing. Streep apparently halted filming a dance routine in Mamma Mia mid-scene saying, ‘Stop! I cannot do this! Get me LaDucas!’ Midler, he describes as, ‘Such a pistol! So fun to be with!’ And apparently Antonio Banderas introduced Phil to his buddies in LA as ‘the maestro.’
To eliminate any doubt concerning the delights of LaDuca shoes, I try some on. I am not in any way a shoe-drooler, but when I put my feet into the leopard-print heels selected by Phil, something extraordinary happens. It’s like being physically lifted up and elongated. My feet are comfortable. I feel like Cinderella. Phil grins. I think he can read my expression, which is, ‘What possessions can I sell, in order to buy these shoes?’ Failing to come up with $600 worth of answer, I leave the shop.

Next stop, Colony Music—a true Broadway landmark. Colony is the store at the base of the Brill Building. You know the place where Goffin and King wrote ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’? Tin Pan Alley? You’re looking at it right now. Colony has been going since 1948 and is still fantastic. Open till 1am, you can browse a massive selection of sheet music, records, posters and ephemera (original Elvis cologne, Sinatra fan club gifts and the like.

Richard Turk is the boss of the shop, and remembers James Brown walking in to Colony, grinning, and saying, ‘This smells like a music store!’ When Turk was just a clerk, Irving Berlin would drop by to check what was selling, seasonally: ‘Is Easter Parade selling?’ ‘Is White Christmas selling?’ Today you’re more likely to see ‘Sex in the City’s’ Chris Noth (Mr Big) or blues-nut James Spader trawling the aisles.

Now people, you have a choice. We’ve been walking a long time. It’s getting late. You can either continue on foot and become hysterical (it’s uphill from here), or, jump on the M104 bus and head north. From the cosy confines of the bus, you can look out the window and decide which sites of interest you want to get off at. Suggestions: Carnegie Hall at 55th Street. The horses and carts at Columbus Circle. The Lincoln Center at 62nd. The beautiful, restored Beacon Theatre at 74th (last year’s headliners included Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and, er, Nick Jonas). The Broadway bus is like a quiet guided tour.

I want to go somewhere I’ve not been before, so I set my iPod to Vampire Weekend, and stay on the bus until I get to 116th Street—Columbia University. This old, beautiful college is where the dewy-faced kids from Vampire Weekend got together. As a big fan and a music nerd, I want to see where the songs came from.

I couldn’t wish for a more gorgeous end to my tour: When I walk on to the campus, it’s dark, and the trees that line the central walkway are spangled in fairylights. The Columbia buildings are grand and beautiful and seem to will you into wanting to learn. Cross over to the other side of Broadway and walk down 116th Street to Amsterdam and you can stroll the Hudson River by moonlight.

You do, of course, deserve dinner by now, and this peaceful university district has a ton of nice restaurants (at Caffe Swish, the kids eat dumplings. Next door at Vine, their parents eat posh sushi). From here, you could continue up to Washington Heights and the Bronx and eventually you’d hit Canada.

I decide to take the bus back to my subway connection, listening to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album – and seeing angels in the architecture all the way home. What a magnificent day.