Why Is Broadway Called the Great White Way

Broadway is globally known as a New York landmark and the heart of theater in the US. It is frequented by out-of-town tourists and even the city’s residents themselves. Its popular nickname is “the Great White Way” overriding the “Theater District” it was referred to before.

In this article, we shall discuss the hows and whys of this nickname, its popularity, and how it is currently regarded.

What does “the Great White Way” mean?

It’s the nickname given to Broadway in Manhattan, specifically between 41st and 53rd Streets, located in Times Square. It is sometimes named the New York City Theater District, and Broadway is an umbrella term for the cluster of 41 theaters with a seating capacity of at least 500.

Definition of “The Great White Way”

The Great White Way refers to a section of Broadway in Manhattan known for its dazzling signage and electric light bulbs on the theater marquees and billboards that light up the night sky. The term was popularized by the New York press in the 1920s, and today it is synonymous with Broadway’s vibrant entertainment scene.

History of the Nickname

The nickname of Broadway, “the Great White Way,” dates back to the early 1900s. It referred to the electric white lights that illuminated the theater marquees and billboards in the area. Broadway signage dazzled visitors, and the street soon became known worldwide as the Great White Way.

The nickname refers explicitly to a twelve-block stretch of Broadway from 41st Street up to 53rd Street in Manhattan’s Midtown section. Called the theater district for its many theaters, it has become synonymous with live theater entertainment. Broadway was one of New York City’s first streets lit with electric lights.

Some people have proposed changing this nickname due to its racial implications, and Whoopi Goldberg has suggested renaming it “The Great Bright Way” instead. While this name change hasn’t been officially adopted, there is some literature about the matter adding to the discussions among members of the entertainment industry.

Early Days on Broadway

Native American Trail to Manhattan

The Native American trail to Manhattan is vital to the city’s history. This trail dates back to pre-colonial times as a trade route for the Lenape people, and it started from the bottom of Manhattan and went north to Montreal into Mohican territory. Today, this trail can be seen on a 1946 map titled “Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in New York City.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) George Gustav Heye Center is in this vibrant area. It is an essential reminder of Native Americans’ presence in New York City. Before Central Park was established, this area was home to many Native American cultures, which were dynamic and changing due to interactions with Europeans and Americans.


The authentic native New Yorkers can never truly reclaim their homeland, but they can still honor its history through places like NMAI and other monuments around the city. It is important to remember that these trails are more than just roads; they are reminders of a rich culture that has been part of Manhattan for centuries.

Development of electric lighting

Electric lighting has impacted New York City since its introduction in the late 19th century. In 1880, Thomas Edison’s company flipped the switch in 1882, lighting Broadway from 14th Street to 26th Street, marking the first electrical lighting in New York City.

Oscar Hammerstein of Olympia Theatre, the first true performance space in New York, decided to light up his venue with electric lights. Soon theater owners followed Olympia Theatre. The impact of electric lighting was immediate and far-reaching.

Arclight and ‘sun towers’ with their brilliant beams of white-hot light cast shadows down among the holiday shoppers of Ladies Mile, while Edison’s Pearl Street Station lit up lower Manhattan with its incandescent bulbs.

Introducing electric lighting also increased nighttime activities such as theater performances and shopping sprees, transforming New York City into a 24-hour city, earning for itself the nickname the city that never sleeps.

Today, electric lighting is ever-present throughout New York City, illuminating everything from Broadway runs to Madison Square and Times Square billboards to residential streets. It has become built into life in New York City and continues to shape how people experience the city at night.

The Emergence of “The Great White Way” Nickname:  When did the name become official?

The nickname “Great White Way” has referred to Broadway in Manhattan since the early 1900s. Not to be confused with Broadway in the other districts of NY City. The name was inspired by the electric white lights that illuminated the theater marquees and billboards, making it look like a bright light path.

The term was popularized in the 1920s and officially became part of New York City’s vocabulary. It is credited to Shep Friedman, columnist of the New York  Morning Telegraph, who lifted the phrase “Great White Way” from the title of a book about the Arctic by Albert Paine.

Modern Day Broadway

Proposed name by Whoopi Goldberg and reactions

Whoopi Goldberg, the EGOT-celebrated comedian, actress, and talk show host, recently proposed a name change for Broadway’s long-held nickname, “the Great White Way.” Whoopi Goldberg suggested using the term “The Great Bright Way” instead.

This suggestion from Whoopi Goldberg came from a larger conversation about race in the entertainment industry. On-stage theater and musicals do not represent the community, leaving minority audiences feeling alienated from the performances they view.

Whoopi Goldberg proposed that this name change is an essential first step towards creating more diverse and inclusive spaces where everyone can feel seen and heard. She is one of the prominent entertainment figures who has spoken on this matter.

Whether this new nickname suggested by Whoopi Goldberg will become widely adopted is still being determined. It does serve as an important reminder that language can have powerful implications as a reflection of our values and beliefs.

Discussion on whether the nickname should be kept or changed

Great White Way” has been used to describe Broadway in New York City theater district for over a century. Recent years have raised questions about keeping or changing it due to its racial implications.

There are arguments that the nickname should remain as it is a part of Broadway’s history and tradition. They point out that changing it would be an attempt to erase history and deny the legacy of those who came before us. They say that it is essential to remember our past mistakes so we can learn from them and not repeat them.

On the other hand, some believe that the nickname should be changed due to its racial undertones; that it is inappropriate and insensitive to continue using a term that implies racial superiority. They believe that changing it can create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome regardless of race or ethnicity.

Whether or not the “Great White Way” should be kept or changed is up for debate. Only time will tell what decision will be made about this long-standing nickname for Broadway in New York City.

Impact of the nickname on Broadway today

Part of Broadway was called “The Great White Way,” starting in the early 1900s. This nickname has been going through discussions and reassessment recently because of racial implications that were not intended in the beginning.

Warren Hoffman’s book, “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical,” is an eye-opener for the racial implications of commercial musical theater.

The book seeks to identify and combat white supremacy in musicals by examining how race has been portrayed on stage over the past century, often presenting stereotypes about minority groups while simultaneously celebrating whiteness.

Hoffman argues that these portrayals have impacted our culture, where white performers are seen as more talented or desirable than their non-white counterparts. This has led to a lack of diversity in casting decisions, with many roles going to white actors instead of actors of color.

Hoffman’s work sheds light on the importance of recognizing and challenging racism in our entertainment industry and beyond. By understanding how race has been portrayed in musicals over time, we can begin to create more inclusive spaces where everyone feels seen and heard.


How Broadway is Keeping “The City that Never Sleeps” Alive

Broadway has been a staple of New York City for over a century, and its impact on the city is still felt today. From the bright lights of Times Square to the iconic theaters along Broadway, it’s no wonder why New York is known as “the city that never sleeps.” Broadway runs have been entertaining audiences since the late 1800s, and remain an important part of New York culture.

Theaters along Broadway host some of the most popular musicals and plays in the world. From classic favorites like The Phantom of the Opera to modern hits like Hamilton, there’s something for everyone on Broadway. Audiences can experience stories that range from heartwarming to heartbreaking, all while enjoying some of the best performances in the theater.

Broadway also has an impact beyond just entertainment. It helps bring people together and creates a sense of community in New York City. Whether it’s attending a show with friends or family or simply taking in the sights and sounds of Times Square, Broadway is as inherent to New York as the Statue of Liberty.

Broadway continues to be an important part of New York’s city culture, providing entertainment for everyone. From classic favorites to modern hits, there’s something for everyone on Broadway – making it one of the most beloved parts of “the city that never sleeps,” along with Times Square.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why is Broadway also known as the Great White Way?

A: Broadway is also known as the “Great White Way” due to its long history of illuminated theater marquees. The term was first used in 1902 when the New York Times reported that Broadway was “ablaze with light” from all of the electric signs and billboards. Popularized by the New York press, this nickname has since become synonymous with Broadway.

Q: What is the meaning of the Great White Way?

A: The Great White Way is a nickname for the New York City Theater District, specifically a twelve-block stretch of Broadway from 41st Street up to 53rd Street. It got its name due to the brilliant lighting that lit up the area at night. The term was first used in print in 1902 and has been used ever since to refer to this iconic part of Manhattan.

Q: Where does the “Great White Way” come from?

A: The phrase “Great White Way” is a nickname arising from an article by Shep Friedman in the Morning Telegraph that described the dazzling display of light from Broadway’s many theaters’ billboard signs. The new nickname has since stuck.