Help me learn about New York.
October 10, 2006 6:15 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in learning more about the history of New York City.

I've lived in New York for several years now and know the very basics of the city's history, but I would love to learn more. I'm especially interested in specifics - the history of particular buildings or streets or neighborhoods. The time period doesn't especially matter. Could you recommend books, films, or possibly websites for me to investigate? Straight history would be great, but evocative fiction is also welcome.
posted by miskatonic to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Start with
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:23 AM on October 10, 2006

Yes! Check out the movie The Cruise which should totally inspire you even further. And that movie will point you in a second direction as well, toward guided tours of the city-- there are so many kinds, ranging from very general to highly specialized.

But really, you should check out that film. I'm planning on giving it as a gift this year to all my friends who have visited me in NYC.
posted by hermitosis at 6:31 AM on October 10, 2006

This should get you started:
Nonfiction: Gotham. Island at the Center of the World. Delierious NY.
Fiction: Waterworks.
DVD: Ken Burns' big old doc.
posted by DenOfSizer at 6:32 AM on October 10, 2006

Caleb Carr's The Alienist is a very, very immersive novel about New York just before the turn of the 20th century. Just avoid the sequel. Yeesh.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 6:45 AM on October 10, 2006

Luc Sante's Low Life — non-fiction, intensively researched (great bibliography) and better written than most fiction. The Strand always has copies on sale at their "New York" table up by the registers.
posted by vetiver at 6:56 AM on October 10, 2006

No living historian knows more about the streets and architecture of New York City than Barry Lewis. His web site lists his shows currently airing on Channel 13, as well as his videos, books, and lectures. I took a 10-part lecture series of his at Cooper Union, and the man is a walking repository of hard knowledge and entertaining anecdotes that provide a good deal of the history behind what's found in more traditional surveys of architecture.
posted by hsoltz at 6:57 AM on October 10, 2006

Seconding Gotham, and would also recommend George Lankevitch's New York City: A Short History. He's too judgmental, but the book is a great readable survey.

Also, if you're interested in the colonial period (my specialty), I definitely suggest Michael Kammen's Colonial New York; A History. Carl Lotus Becker's History of Political Parties in the Colony of New York, 1760-1774 is old, but it's so complicated and full of intrigue that it's fascinating in its own way.

If you read this stuff, you can finally know who Chambers and Murray and Delancey and Livingston and Morris were.
posted by nasreddin at 7:00 AM on October 10, 2006

If you have time to go to the New-York Historical Society, I'd recommend checking out the Letters of John Watts, who wrote in the 1750s and 60s. He was an extremely intelligent and witty merchant, and his letters are an amazing insight into daily life in the New York of that period.
posted by nasreddin at 7:11 AM on October 10, 2006

The Epic of New York City is another must-read. Quite thick, very detailed.

For lighter reading, you might also check out Time and Again. I think they're even making this into a movie soon.
posted by DefendBrooklyn at 7:20 AM on October 10, 2006

city of dreams was fairly decent and educational.
posted by dorian at 7:35 AM on October 10, 2006

I recall reading Chants Democratic, the aforementioned 'Gotham', and The WPA Guide to New York City while taking a college course on the history of NYC several years ago. The Gangs of New York was in there too.
posted by exit at 7:37 AM on October 10, 2006

Second, with wild enthusiasm,Time and Again. It is a novel, written around 1968, about a man traveling back in time to 1882 New York. He's a an amateur photographer, so photos of old New York abound.

You'll never look at the Dakota the same way again--when I was a kid in Manhattan, this book opened my eyes to the city and continues to affect me.

I recommend it go to the top of your reading list--with my usual caveat that the first sixty pages drag for almost everyone. One way to make them more interesting is to notice how wildly dated the "contemporary" parts of the book are.

This list is well done.

There's also the Museum of the City of New York, the Transit Museum, and some online resources.

Old maps are a cool visual way to learn about neighborhoods. Your block was a farm, this neighborhood was a nature preserve, this one was a town far north of "Manhattan." This city was a huge enginering project throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, so there are a ton of maps and surveys online. It's really cool to look at ones from say, 1850, before the grid was fully realized, and the far East 60's were woods, the top sixth of Central Park had just been acquired, Broadway was "Bloomingdale Road" as it headed above the West 40's...

A ton of maps.

Rumsey Collection. Pannable, zoomable, hi-res repros.

Some older, less clear images

More for the whole state.

Subway maps through time.

On preview, I second vetiver's book recommendation too.
posted by Phred182 at 7:53 AM on October 10, 2006

Seconding the Alienist (and not the sequel), Low Life and especially the completely marvelous cult classic Time and Again.

Pete Hamill has a new book out that has the whole history of NYC as a backdrop but though I have it, I haven't read it yet so can't tell you if it's any good.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:54 AM on October 10, 2006

I'm in the middle of reading Five Points by Tyler Anbinder, which is fantastic; unlike Herbert Asbury's Gangs Of New York – which is a mishmash of myth, supposition and sensationalism, but is still definitely worth reading – it's meticulously researched, scholarly and all that jazz, but still completely readable to the layman. (It also looks like Amazon will do you a discount if you get them both at once.)

Since you asked for "evocative fiction" you could do far, far worse than Kevin Baker's Dreamland: Coney Island at the peak of its popularity, Bowery bums, Freud and Jung's trip to America, mad dwarves and freak shows. In amongst everything else.
posted by Len at 7:56 AM on October 10, 2006

Here is the map that first came to mind.

This comes from a site that describes an entire village, settled by African Americans, that was erased by Central Park.
posted by Phred182 at 7:57 AM on October 10, 2006

Definitely second Gotham and Ric Burns' New York.

Also Robert Caro, The Power Broker-- ostensibly a biography of Robert Moses, but also a history about the shaping of New York City through the 20th Century.
posted by andrewraff at 8:05 AM on October 10, 2006

Robert Caro's The Power Broker is a 1100+ page commitment, but it thoroughly covers changes in the physical and political landscape of NYC from the 1920's to the 1960's, focusing on the rise & fall of Robert Moses. I read it when I was just getting familiar with New York as a way to understand the city better, though I live in SF. I highly recommend it.
posted by migurski at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2006

Damn you andrewraff! =)
posted by migurski at 8:10 AM on October 10, 2006

Evocative fiction:
Even though it starts out in the midewest Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie culminates in both the dream and the nightmare of New York.
A good deal denser, but just as worthwhile: Manhattan Transfer, by John dos Passos.
Lots of good books by E.L. Doctorow evoke NYC.
James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain is an unflinching look at pre-civil rights era Harlem.
Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries bring you closer to the modern era.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:11 AM on October 10, 2006

Another very strong recommendation for "The Power Broker".

It is densely written, but it will teach you more about New York and how it came to be the city that it is now more than the broader histories.

Very worth the effort.
posted by briank at 8:15 AM on October 10, 2006

Let's not forget Brooklyn while you're learning about neighborhoods. Jonathan Letham's novels all take place there. I especially liked Motherless Brooklyn. The Fortress of Solitude was decent but not nearly as good.

Then there's always the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn featuring a pre-hipster turn-of-the-century Williamsburg. And it happens to take place in the same area as mob flick Donnie Brasco.
posted by DefendBrooklyn at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2006

It happened on Washington Square, I most definitely recommend this book. Yes, I know it is just one of the many neighborhoods but the history of it is disproportionately large. Apart from the historical narrative which is very well done you will find photographs and anecdotes about the time rarely seen elsewhere. In fact, I dare you walk around and identify the buildings, squares and other landmarks mentioned in the book. I love, love New York.
and thank you for the thread
posted by carmina at 9:15 AM on October 10, 2006

You get a lot of great NYC history in Robert Sullivan's book Rats.
Another fascinating angle is Joel Rose's short book New York Sawed in Half.
I am also a huge fan of the book Time and Again by Jack Finney.
posted by mattbucher at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2006

As mentioned above:

* Gotham
* The Power Broker
* Ric Burns' New York

I've also found indispensable Kenneth Jackson's Encyclopedia of New York City, and Manhattan in Maps was a really helpful cross-reference while reading the other works, so that I could see (roughly) what maps people were using to make their decisions.

Next on my list is Dan Okrent's Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. But Gotham should be first on your list, and I believe Ken Jackson still speaks regularly around town about NYC history -- seek out one of his presentations.
posted by anildash at 9:42 AM on October 10, 2006

I would again reccomend Gotham, and I would also suggest the book Rats as well.
posted by BobbyDigital at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2006

Another Ric Burn's classic, Coney Island. My all-time favorite American Experience program, and for me, that's saying something. Being a doc, it's historical, not fictional, but told in such a way, that is far more evocative than any other I can think of. Don't miss it. The theme music is especially haunting. I believe it's "Aqarium" from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals.
posted by marsha56 at 10:09 AM on October 10, 2006

Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. Wonderful book.

[Disclaimer: I have never set foot in NYC. But I feel like I have.]
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:04 PM on October 10, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions so far. I'm really looking forward to diving into this stuff.
posted by miskatonic at 6:46 AM on October 11, 2006

Oh! Oh yes! Mitchell! Up In The Old Hotel is fantastic.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:03 PM on October 11, 2006

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