The History of Broadway: How We Got Here

Broadway, once the pre-Columbian Wickquasgeck Trail which led up the length of Manhattan, turned during the decades of New Amsterdam into a widened road called Heere Wegh, which translated from Dutch means "Gentleman's Way".  When the British wrested control of the city in 1665, they renamed the road Broad Way reflecting its unusually large width.

As development of the island moved farther north, Bloomingdale Road ran up the West Side.  It was on Bloomingdale Road where George Washington's troops retreated after the British captured New York in the early days of the Revolutionary War.  The road, named in some parts Kingsbridge Road, was landscaped in 1865 to resemble a Parisian-style, tree-lined boulevard and its named tweaked to Broadway.

In the mid 1800s, New York high society paraded on Broadway below Union Square (named because it united Broadway and Bowery). In 1883, the Metropolitan Opera House opened at Broadway and 39th St.  Theaters have long existed in proximity to Broadway, notably around Union Square in the 1870's and, by 1900, many had opened around Madison Square.  In 1880, Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square won acclaim as one of the first streets to be illuminated with electric lights, hence, its nickname, The Great White Way. Soon after, in the early 1900's, the theaters moved to the Times Square area, where they have stayed, and after World War II, when musicals gained enormous popularity, Broadway became worldwide shorthand for the musical theater. 

Although traffic initially flowed two ways on Broadway, in the 1960s city officials started in stages turning it into a one-way street south of Columbus Circle. In 2008, Times Square blocks on Broadway were converted to a plaza, closing them to vehicular traffic.  With that change, Broadway for the first time no longer served as an efficient through-way for automobiles.  Less than a decade later, city officials similarly converted Herald Square, and in 2017, also closed to vehicular traffic Broadway near Madison Square Park.  Most recently, the officials responded to a June 2022 taxi crash that injured pedestrians and cyclists, sending three to the hospital in critical condition, by expanding the Madison Square plaza to 29th Street.

The trend of Broadway becoming a place for people, not cars, continues to this day, but much of the avenue remains under-used, neither an efficient automotive thoroughfare nor a pedestrian-welcoming green parkway.  Broadway speaks to us about New York City's pre-colonial beginnings, American revolutionary history, theatrical contributions, and rise as a grand metropolis. Broadway's blocks convey the story of New York itself.  Let's honor this rich history by making Broadway, the avenue, a star again, this time, The Great Green Way.

More about the history of Broadway in general can be read in Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles by Fran Leadon.