Leadon’s tale is a whirl of characters: architects and landlords, capitalists and unionists, reformers and traditionalists, visionaries and charlatans. It is a whirl, too, of events like ticker-tape parades, civic battles, financial booms and inevitable busts. Enlivening the stories are cameo appearances by the rich and famous, like the showmen David Belasco and George M. Cohan, the ever-burdened Edgar Allan Poe, the radical Emma Goldman and the rivalrous cousins of enormous wealth William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor 4th ... This is a book best read in several sittings; there is a lot of detail to absorb. At times, it can be nearly numbing. Is it really necessary to recite practically the entire inventory of the vast Arnold Constable department store, located in 1869 at Broadway and 19th Street? But Leadon is graced with a wry wit. Flashes of it are sprinkled throughout ... As Leadon says, 'It is the nature of things in New York that very little lasts.' True enough, and Broadway the book shows that Broadway the street is no exception.
Reading Broadway may give you the sensation I felt at the notorious Bodies exhibition, seeing the human form preserved and sliced lengthwise into inch-thick sections: a fresh, strange but mystifying view of the whole. Odd events and colorful characters are seen as Broadway intersects their course, but we don’t usually get the whole story. Mr. Leadon, whose previous book was a guide to New York City architecture, pays special attention to Broadway’s buildings ... Mr. Leadon also has a keen sense of what life was like at street level ... Mr. Leadon has a gift for capsule biography, especially of the larger-than-life types who gravitate to Broadway ... Inevitably, much is left out of this book ... this history simply bypasses the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem jazz scene ... Broadway, fascinating as it can be, is the public face of New York City, commercial, gaudy, violent and touristy by turns. The real life of the city is in its neighborhoods, and Broadway—whatever else it is—is no neighborhood.
As the street works its way up the West Side (partly following the old Bloomingdale Road), Broadway changes character. Recent major transformations are unfortunately entirely omitted. Except in Manhatttanville (uptown), the bad times are barely discussed. At best, the book is a partial history of Broadway, but it is engagingly written and supplemented by good, easy-to-follow maps at each milestone.