Books about the history of New York City
May 16, 2013 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to read about New York City. I'm looking for more general "New York 101" overviews, or books about longer eras/themes. I'm not looking for books about cultural "scenes" or specific events/short periods. I have my eye on "Gotham" by Burrows and Wallace, which seems like the standard one volume history, and also "The Power Broker" by Caro (which, to give you an idea, is about as focussed and specific a book about New York as I'm looking for right now). What else can you recommend?
posted by caek to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Low Life by Luc Sante
posted by greta simone at 8:21 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding Low Life but mostly dropping in to say I can't recommend you a better book about NYC than The Power Broker because I don't think one exists. It is an amazing read and taught me so much about the city I call home--I'd suggest starting there.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:25 AM on May 16, 2013

The Island at the Center of the World details the Dutch history of the city using relatively recently found documents.

Quite a fascinating time - for example, the Dutch at one point freed the slaves but with the proviso that, should they need them, they'd have to come back and be slaves again.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:35 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A different take on this could be Edward Rutherfurd's "New York: The Novel". He writes historical fiction with some pretty interesting and engaging storylines woven throughout. I haven't read the New York one, but I did read his take on London and found it to be entertaining and incredibly informative about the development of London, the major historical periods and events, that sort of thing. I'd imagine the New York version is just about the same.
posted by undercoverhuwaaah at 8:36 AM on May 16, 2013

I came in to recommend Low Life and The Island at the Center of the World, so guess I'll second those.
posted by saladin at 8:39 AM on May 16, 2013

I believe Gotham is supposed to eventually get a sequel, covering 1899 to the present.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:50 AM on May 16, 2013

Low Life really is great. I found Gangs of New York to be very poorly written and dull, but I'm in the minority there, so you may want to consider it.

One somewhat unusual book that I'd recommend - despite its age - is Harry Granick's Underneath New York, which is about the deep infrastructure of the city: subways, sewers, electrical lines, steampipes, etc. It's a really fascinating book that, as I understand it, is regarded as something of a classic in its field.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:13 AM on May 16, 2013

I really enjoyed The Big Oyster : History on the Half-Shell by Mark Kurlansky, which looks at the history of New York by following the changing fortunes of its oyster colonies.
posted by Azara at 9:53 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Appetite City by William Grimes, a pretty interesting look at the culinary history of the city.
posted by Kitteh at 9:56 AM on May 16, 2013

Best answer: Gotham and Power Broker are two of my favorite books ever, so they're hard to top, but Manhattan in Maps is a great overview (a light read, given that it's mostly just maps and not very long) and of course Jane Jacobs' Death & Life of Great American Cities is a necessary addition to these fundamentals.

I also tend to have Kenneth Jackson's Encyclopedia of New York City open most of the time while (re-)reading these other books, and it's very readable on its own. Similarly, I'd block out time for reading NY Songlines and Forgotten NYC.
posted by anildash at 10:13 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can enthusiastically recommend "The Power Broker" by Robert Caro. True, it's a biography of only one person, but that person is Robert Moses, who served in city government for decades and whose policies continue to reverberate even today.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2013

Are you currently here in the city? If you are, the best collection of NYC history books (and nyc-related fiction or poetry as well) is at the Tenement Museum gift shop on Orchard and Delancy.
posted by greta simone at 11:00 AM on May 16, 2013

I came in to recommend exactly what greta simone did. Their shop is online, too, though IIRC the store has a much larger selection of books than the website does.
posted by serialcomma at 11:55 AM on May 16, 2013

Echoing Low Life. Also Dry Manhattan, about prohibition in NYC.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:13 PM on May 16, 2013

Subway Lives, by Jim Dwyer, is about the history of the various transit systems in New York. It sounds dry as dirt but it was one of the most fascinating pieces of non-fiction I have ever read.
posted by 8dot3 at 6:47 AM on May 17, 2013

George Chauncey's Gay New York is a unique historical book examining gay life in NYC in ways that had never been done before in a history book. It is a favorite among many queer historians (myself included!!).
posted by kuppajava at 7:15 AM on May 17, 2013

> Kenneth Jackson's Encyclopedia of New York City

Speaking of whom: his "History of New York City" class at Columbia is the "New York 101" you're looking for. I can only find the page for the e-seminar, whatever the hell that is, but if you click on each segment of the series you'll see recommended reading at the bottom of each page.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:12 PM on May 17, 2013

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