On the Upper West Side, the Broadway Malls form the median of one of the City’s most famous streets. The City first acquired the land for Broadway, or Bloomingdale Road, as it was known then, in 1855. Bloomingdale Road was a main thoroughfare connecting the Dutch village of Bloomingdale, near West 90th Street, to lower Manhattan. After Central Park interrupted the flow of Manhattan’s new street grid plan, the Board of Commissioners of Central Park reexamined the layout of the streets on the Upper West Side. In 1866, the State Legislature authorized the City to widen the thoroughfare and a plan released in November 1867 called for the straightening of the road.
From 1867 to 1869, Bloomingdale Road was redesigned, and in 1869, the new “Boulevard” opened, modeled after the Champs Elysées in Paris. Intended to raise area property values and employ workers laid off by the completion of Central Park, the Boulevard featured a 160-foot-wide right-of-way, twin rows of elm trees on each 15-foot sidewalk, and 30-foot-wide landscaped medians with broad, planted walk-through malls. The road itself, a rudimentary gravel thoroughfare, was straightened and streetcars ran right along each side of the malls.
In 1890 the street, in poor condition, was repaved with asphalt. At this time, the Boulevard began to develop fashionable hotels and apartments and during the 1890s, it was a favorite route of bicycle riders. In 1899 it was formally named Broadway. The malls as they appear today were established in 1904 after cut-and-cover construction on the IRT subway line removed the original malls. Parks gained jurisdiction over the malls in 1908 and the malls were redesigned by Samuel Parsons, Jr. (1844-1923) and planted up to 110th Street. The new design enclosed the malls with an iron fence and furnishing and setting of curb, excavating materials, furnishing and depositing in place top soil, erecting ornamental iron fences, furnishing and laying sod, installing a water supply system, and paving the ends of the parks with asphalt tiles.
The malls were broader before IRT construction, although this renovation added sitting areas located at the intersections along Broadway. Subway vents were installed at this time up to 137th Street and some of the original wrought-iron fences still surround them. The 1915 Parks Annual Report noted that fixing the fences damaged by collisions with automobiles and wagons along Broadway and Park Avenue kept four blacksmiths busy almost every day of the year.
In 1935, under Commissioner Robert Moses (1888–1981), Parks relandscaped the malls, filling each section with trees and shrubs. In 1972, a group of West Side park advocates formed the Broadway Mall Association, which eventually attained non-profit status and which now raises significant funds for the care of the Malls. Starting in 1979, Parks teamed with the Broadway Mall Association to renovate the malls, a project that added new shrubs, ivy, and flower bulbs as well as new benches and decorative paving. Reconstruction of the malls, from 60th to 122nd Streets and 135th to 168th Streets, began in 1980 and was completed in 1993, with costs in the final phase reaching about $80,000 per mall, for a total of $6.6 million. There were eight phases of construction in all and another $600,000 project completed in 2000 replanted the malls. Curbs along the malls were raised to 16 inches and the fences were removed, which proved safer for both trees and reckless motorists.
During the 1980-1993 renovation, most of the walk-through malls were converted to green malls, and many of the oak trees were replaced with other species, primarily London planetrees (Platanus x acerifolia). Most of the trees on Broadway date to this era of reconstruction, although some still date to the 1930s. Large trees survive in the Broadway Malls, in part because the soil depth is generally 16 inches above street grade and four feet below grade. Community flowerbeds were installed at the end of each mall along with new wheel chair accessible crosswalks. The benches were replaced and a chain and post fence was installed along the sides of the malls.
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