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Learn the History of Broadway Through Its Typography

By Rebecca Ngu | December 3, 2015 11:41am
 The bright Hotel Empire sign at W 63rd Street  is another example of iconic typography along Broadway.
The bright Hotel Empire sign at W 63rd Street is another example of iconic typography along Broadway.
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Flickr / Jeffrey Zeldman

No street better encapsulates New York than Broadway — the Manhattan portion is a 13-mile street that traverses a diverse spectrum of neighborhoods, cultures, and, in this case, typography. 

A team of people behind Hopes&Fears, an online culture publication that explores “life and culture through a global lens,” biked the length of Broadway looking for eccentric, eye-catching typography on the buildings that line the street. The trip was a whimsical anthropological excursion: What could Broadway's changing typographical landscape reveal about this iconic place? 

The team selected 26 samples, each representing one letter of the alphabet. The histories provided behind each typography sample are surprisingly detailed, complex, and eye-opening. Here are some highlights:

Broadway Temple Methodist Church (4111 Broadway at W. 173 St. in Washington Heights)


The Broadway Methodist Temple Church's engraving is classified as “traditional textura blackletter,” a typography that became more popular in Europe once the printing press was invented and medieval Church manuscripts propagated. In fact, textura is the oldest form of moveable type, as Johannes Gutenberg conceived of the font when he created the printing press.

Broadway Restaurant (2664 Broadway at W. 101 St. in the Upper West Side)



While Broadway Restaurant is clearly a throwback for its comforting diner fare, its backlit plastic sign is also a throwback to mid-20th century America, emblematic of a movement away from neon to plastic signs. Post-WWII America, caught in a technological boom, had become infatuated with plastic and all things disposable, according to the American Sign Museum

Zabar’s (2245 Broadway at W. 80th St. in the Upper West Side)


The iconic, fanciful Zabar’s logo is an unmissable fixture along Broadway’s landscape. Its orange, bifurcated Tuscan typography was invented in 1817 and became popular in the 19th century for “Victorian printed matter such as circus posters and theatre bills.” Such an exotic typography may seem strange for a deli, but after more than 80 years, New Yorkers would think it strange for the font be used for anything else.