On Broadway and beyond

Rick Barnes
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"They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway..."

Good old George Benson's version of the "On Broadway" tune plays in my head while Wife and I stroll along Broadway toward Times Square at the heart of New York City's theatre district.

It was George's song that opened the classic '79 flick, "All That Jazz," with choreographer Joe Gideon played by Roy Scheider - that's right, the shark killer from the unforgettable "Jaws" movie.

From top left, the lights of Broadway. Brooklyn Bridge fashion shoot. Bottom left, Ground Zero. Garment workers' memorial Photos by Rick Barnes/Special to The Telegram

Good old George Benson's version of the "On Broadway" tune plays in my head while Wife and I stroll along Broadway toward Times Square at the heart of New York City's theatre district.

It was George's song that opened the classic '79 flick, "All That Jazz," with choreographer Joe Gideon played by Roy Scheider - that's right, the shark killer from the unforgettable "Jaws" movie.

George's neon lights are long gone from Broadway. They have been supplanted by high-resolution LED type jumbotrons that are so powerful, they deliver all the colour a human eye can detect, even bathed in the direct sunlight of an early Manhattan spring.

The giant pumping video screens, freed by technology from the constraints of the old 4 x 3 aspect ratio, are wrapped around buildings and chopped into a variety of asymmetric shapes.

I, who, long ago, was amazed at the buzzing red and green neon sign of a Chamberlains lumberyard that tirelessly spelled out "H. V. Randell" against the black sky, found the Times Square collages of colour and streams of promotional messages almost frightening.

Below the blazing video, down at street level, the never-ending parade of bright yellow taxis could have been a Jiffy Cab convention. To better accommodate the constant crush of people, more and more space on New York streets has been allocated to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Bicycle lanes are delineated on many busy streets and a full lane on each side of a portion of Broadway has been claimed by foot traffic.

Much of Times Square itself is closed to vehicles and New Yorkers sit at tables in the square and stare into their laptops, taking advantage of the free wireless coverage.

New York pedestrians don't wait for the "walk" light, but surge forward as soon as the traffic breaks - even momentarily. The street corners clog so quickly with pedestrian traffic, there would be little progress made by the sidewalk hordes if they didn't take advantage of any brief lull in automobile flow. So the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, presses onward untidily.

Crosswalks, sacred to St. John's natives as channels of pedestrian right-of-way, are shared by creeping SUVs and surging crowds with an occasional shout or middle finger signal.

All this motion takes place at the bottom of canyons formed by the countless buildings of concrete, steel and glass that soar into the sky and shape the oddly familiar Manhattan skyline.

Many of New York's monstrous skyscrapers are built on skeletons of steel raised by iron workers from the Conception Harbour area of Newfoundland. Today, more Newfoundlanders and young men from Brooklyn, whose parents were born on the island of Newfoundland, are at work building the Freedom Tower at the site of the World Trade Center disaster. The new tower will share the space once occupied by the destroyed twin towers with two four-sided waterfalls - twin monuments to the people who perished there on Sept. 11, 2001.

I was drawn, too, to the site of an older disaster at the edge of nearby Washington Square. There, the only evidence of the tragedy that took place nearly 100 years ago at the top of a 10-storey building that now belongs to New York University is a small plaque affixed to the Washington Place/Greene Street corner of the building.

March 25, 1911 was a Saturday afternoon - a regular workday in the garment industry. Near quitting time, a fire flashed through the top three floors of the 10-storey Asch building and in just half an hour killed 146 workers who sewed for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

All but 23 of the victims were women, some as young as 14, and many of them were recent immigrants who had fled the pogroms of Russia for New York.

Compounding the tragedy of the March 25, 1911 fire was that some of the 146 burned and broken bodies left behind after the conflagration were once plucky young Jewish women who, just two years earlier, went on strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and other New York sweatshops for decent wages and better, safer working conditions. The factory owners fought the striking workers and refused their demands.

The same policemen who had repeatedly arrested the picketing Triangle strikers, just two years later witnessed workers leaping to their deaths from the windows of the burning factory, some with clothes and hair already in flames.

The trapped women and men were unable to escape because employers routinely locked factory doors to deter workers from pilfering bits of lace and fabric.

At the end of his 2004 book, "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America," Washington Post journalist David Von Drehle published, for the first time, a complete list of all those identified who were lost in the Triangle disaster.

Von Drehle also describes in great detail the sweatshops of New York at the beginning of the 20th century, and traces the wave of reform that began in the aftermath of the Triangle fire, right to President Roosevelt's "New Deal" of the '30s.

Wife and I also visited some of the less sombre tourist attractions of New York - icons like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, making our way one windy night onto the platform atop the Empire State Building to view the city lights stretching to the horizon in all directions.

We twice walked the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, sharing the pedestrian level of the grand old suspension bridge with other tourists, lovers and even a fashion shoot. Commuters on bicycles raced across with whistles screeching for right of way, while below on the East River, tugboats pushed tanker barges towards the Statue of Liberty.

Despite the frenetic pace of the crowded streets, New Yorkers seem to be friendly. Three times when Wife and I stopped on a corner and opened a tourist map to get our bearings, strangers offered us help and gave directions.

One evening on 8th Avenue, I came upon a lone trumpeter playing the theme of the old "Naked City" TV series. I went up to him and did my impression of the voice-over for the show: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City ..." We had a great laugh over it. Later he told me he knew where Newfoundland was because he had seen a documentary on PBS about the people of Gander who took in stranded American travellers during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Even though crime rates in New York are at the lowest in the city's history, there are reminders that there is potential for violence. Many busy subway entrances are guarded by black-clad SWAT teams armed with machine guns, and police officers on horseback constantly patrol the Times Square area.

Back at our hotel on 44th and Broadway late on the night of Easter Sunday, we heard sirens wailing and saw dozens of police vehicles speeding down Broadway. The reason for the police activity remained a mystery until the following Tuesday, when The New York Times ran a story (way down on page 22) describing mayhem on Easter Sunday as hundreds of young people, "howling and unruly" poured into Times Square.

At a news conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg used the term "wilding" to describe the chaos. According to The New York Times article, four people were injured by gunshot wounds (one right in front of The Times building) and 33 were arrested. Apparently for some young New Yorkers, Easter Sunday is becoming an annual night of mischief.

For us, the highlight of the trip was theatre. We managed to squeeze in five plays during our week in New York, all very fine productions ranging from the classic "West Side Story" to a high-energy musical, "Memphis," to a revival of "A Little Night Music" featuring this year's Tony-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones and the amazing Angela Lansbury, a five-time winner herself. Eighty-four-year-old Lansbury, whose TV character Jessica Fletcher was well-known for solving murder mysteries, was given one of the week's most enthusiastic rounds of applause for her solo, "Liaisons."

The character George Benson sings of in his recording of "On Broadway" is not a tourist; he is struggling to make a living with his guitar. But, he is right about one thing:

"They say there's always magic in the air ... on Broadway ..."

Organizations: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Freedom Tower, World Trade Center New York University Washington Post New York Times The Times

Geographic location: Broadway, New York City, Times Square Manhattan Newfoundland St. John's Conception Harbour Brooklyn Washington Square Washington Place Russia East River 8th Avenue Naked Gander West Side Story Memphis

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