Thursday, January 20, 2011

Become an Instant New York City Expert!

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam, 1664, an early picture of Nieuw Amsterdam made in the year when it was conquered by the English under Richard Nicolls and re-named New York.  By Johannes Vingboons, Cartographer.
Source: Geheugen van Nederland (Memory of The Netherlands), Selections from the Map Collections.  Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Nederland (National Archives, The Hague, The Netherlands) 

Become an Instant New York Expert!

So, you want to be an expert on New York City, instantaneously?  Well, I don’t know about instantaneously, but by reading a few well-specified books, you could probably fool 90% of the people in the world, at least 90% of the time! 
Even a cursory search through the topic of “New York City books” on, for instance, yields over 10,000 books, so how do you go about figuring out which ones are the best?  There is an incredible plethora of books out there, and judging by the publication dates of many of these, they just keep comin’! 
I have selected a collection that, in my humble opinion, represents the best books about NYC in terms of a wide-ranging overview, and many of these are considered seminal works on the topic, by renowned authors.  I say: read the first four books on this list, and then a couple of the others, and you will have a very good handle on the overall history of the city, why things are the way they are here, plus a lot of interesting factoids that will doubtless impress people you chat up in the pubs, the clubs, or at dinner parties (does anybody have dinner parties anymore?). 
I have not included any photo/picture books, and of course there are many great ones of New York, starting with Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York” (1901) which you can get in reprint from Dover Press.  There are a number of other more recent photo essays on NYC, especially those kind with the “Then” and “Now” shots, using historical photos.  These are always a lot of fun to page through. 
You will notice that several of the books on the list have to do with housing.  This is not just because it is a particular interest of mine, but because so much of NYC’s crazy past, present, and probably future is bound up in real estate - New York City’s most famous (and expensive) commodity. 
            The first book on the list is, you guessed it, an atlas!  This should be required reading for anyone living in NYC or even remotely interested in NYC. 
            I have given the web address of each book for – not because I am shilling for Amazon, but because it is a convenient place to look up further info and read reviews about the books, and even, in most cases, to be able to have a "look inside,” as they say.  Let me know what you think!
I expect I may hear from some of you, chastising me about how could I have left out such-and-such a momentous tome.  Well, I am not recommending anything here that I haven’t read myself.  And there is a limit to how much reading even the Map Monkey can do!  If you have a book that you think deserves to be added to the list, let me know!  I have seen what looks to be some interesting books on specific populations in NYC (Puerto Ricans, Muslims, Irish, LGBTQ, etc.) as well as some books treating specific neighborhoods and geographies (such as the Kenneth Jackson series on the individual boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, for instance) but I haven’t read any of these yet, so I am loathe to recommend sight unseen.  I will update this list as I go along through life.  And one of my future projects is to compile a list of great fiction about New York City.  There are many fabulous old novels that come to mind, as well as many contemporary ones, such as “As the Great World Spins,” by Colum McCann, and “Chronic City,” by Jonathan Lethem, both of which I highly recommend, and in which NYC figures as a character as important if not more so than the actual human characters in the novels.  But I digress, as usual.  As the Map Monkey is wont to do from time to time.  So, without further ado or nonsense, here is my list. 

REQUIRED READING (to achieve something akin to “Expert” Status!):

The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City's History
Alice Hudson (Illustrator), Eric Homberger (Author) 
Holt Publishing, 2005

This is the gold standard of New York City map books.  One of the authors (Hudson) is the head of the rare map division at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, and if you haven’t found your way there yet to pore over old maps, shame on you!  Another decent map book is Manhattan in Maps, (by Cohen and Augustyn, Rizzoli Books, 2006) but only get that one AFTER you read the Homberger/Hudson book. 

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
Robert Shorto
Vintage, 2005

According to this book, if you don’t understand the Dutch beginnings of NYC, you will never fully understand the city today, and you will miss out on many insights about how New York got to be the way it is today, and even more amazingly, why New Yorkers themselves are the way they are.  A very interesting book about a little-known era of our past. 

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Robert Caro
Vintage, 1975

“Surely the best book ever written about a city,”  David Halberstam.
Well, I guess that review just about says it all!  Especially coming from a Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker!
I had to read The Power Broker 20 years ago when I was an urban planning graduate student, and it was a real eye-opener, an eminently readable account of a truly unique period in American history, and Caro captures all the details, all the nuances, so completely.  It explains so many things about planning in NYC that we take for granted, and explains to the naïve amongst us (myself included in that category) how power really works (or worked).  The book still holds up beautifully over time. 

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell
Mark Kurlansky
Random House, 2007

This book is very entertaining, and the author weaves much about NYC history into the tale of the lowly oyster.  At one point, the oysters in NYC’s surrounding waters were so huge and so plentiful that they were considered the best in the world, eaten by both high and low, much sought after by the rest of the country. 

“Although the title and cover suggest that the book is about oysters, it's actually a history of New York City--the choices and, in particular, the (hindsight-only) mistakes in handling the environment that transformed Manhattan Island and its surroundings from pastoral beauty to modern Gotham. Today, New York is the very totem, the very image of "city". This is how it got that way--through the eyes of the oyster.”  (Review from

RECOMMENDED / OPTIONAL READING – Pick one or two, according to your interests.

The first two are general, and the rest cover specific geographies, aspects, populations, or time periods.

Empire City: New York Through the Centuries
David S. Dunbar, Kenneth Jackson (Editors)
Columbia University Press, 2005

Kenneth Jackson is just the ultimate in NYC historians, and literally wrote the book on NYC with his encyclopedic tome, called, well, the Encyclopedia of New York City!  This book, Empire City, is quite different, however: a wonderful anthology of writings about NYC throughout the centuries, just as the title says!  But be forewarned – it is over 1,000 pages!  No disrespect intended, but this is a great book to leave in the bathroom, and just pick up and open it to any page and start reading! 

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of New York City)
Edwin Burrows, Mike Wallace
Oxford University Press, 2000

Another hefty door stop of a book at almost 1,500 pages!  Won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. 

Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930
Gilbert Osofsky

A wonderful sociological critique about the role of geography, what is valued by whom, and how the sequence of events, policies, and decisions can spiral out of control. 

Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum
Plume 2002

If you like the whole “Gangs of New York” thing, you will like this book. 

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2003

AHHH, one of my favorites!  Weird and fascinating stuff in the old town!

A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in NYC
Richard Plunz

This book would be perfect if only Prof. Plunz would update it to the Present!  It stops at 1990, and a lot has happened with NYC housing in the past 20 years!

Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York
Anne-Marie Cantwell, Diana diZerega Wall
Yale University Press, 2002

An excellent book!  I had the pleasure of taking a graduate course with Prof. Wall, at the time that they were in the process of researching and compiling the data for this book, so I had the "preview."   Really interesting stuff!

City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860
Christine Stansell

A very provocative look at the interaction of race, class, and gender.

Oxford University Press, 2004

Another good book, covering roughly the same time period as Sex and Class.  Perhaps not surprising, considering that Wilentz and Stansell are (or were?) married!  Wilentz has won several prestigious book awards for a number of influential American history books and biographies, as well as writing a controversial and influential article called “The Worst President in History” about G.W. Bush. 

At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge
William Kornblum (Author) Pete Hamill (Foreword)
Algonquin, 2002

How can you resist anything that Pete Hamill endorses?

Another couple of good books about waterfront NYC: Manhattan Water-Bound: Manhattan's Waterfront from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New York City History and Culture), by Anne Buttenwieser (1996); and The New York Waterfront: Evolution and Building Culture of the Port and Harbor, by Kevin Bone and others (2003). I haven't read the Kevin Bone book, but he is very knowledgeable about NYC's waterfront, even though I don't always agree with him on waterfront development and planning.

The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City
Thomas Kessner

Another one of my old professors, (still at the CUNY GC, I believe) and he wrote another very good book: Fiorello LaGuardia: The Making of Modern New York, Penguin, 1991, for those interested in early 20th century NYC.

Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850
Elizabeth Blackmar

Winner of the Vernacular Architecture Forum's Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize for 1990

Helps explain why NYC is still a town of renters. 
“Blackmar explains how the economic boom in the early 19th century caused land values in Manhattan to rise, forcing homeowners to augment their incomes by taking boarders while less wealthy proprietors turned wage-workers had to rent rather than purchase living quarters.”
"In this interesting and wide-ranging book, Elizabeth Blackmar investigates the development of New York City's housing market from colonial times to 1850. She discusses public officials, landowners, builders, renters and tenants, and the interplay among and between these groups as the value of land in the city skyrocketed in the early nineteenth century and made renting the only possibility for most New Yorkers." Reviews from

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York
Eric Sanderson
Abrams, 2009

This is another book with lots of maps and neat graphics, back-predicting what the island of Manhattan was like in 1609, on the cusp of European “discovery” and subsequent colonization.  If you are not familiar with this project, you are in for a real treat!  Using archival maps and historical materials about flora, fauna, hydrography, and topography, Sanderson and his team use GISc, modeling, and high-tech graphics to re-create what the island may have looked like 400 years ago.  A very informative narrative accompanies details about the modeling project. 

AIA Guide to NYC
Oxford University Press, 2010

First published in 1968, and completely updated every so often, this is THE definitive guide to NYC’s great places and spaces, and is invaluable to anyone interested in learning more about (and/or seeing first-hand) NYC’s architecture, landmarks, open spaces, and urban design.  It’s another great book to leave lying around in the bathroom, and will inspire you to get out and explore the city. 


  1. One of my favorite books on NYC history is Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants which is both humorous and rich in information. Robert Sullivan gave an excellent talk at Queens College which prompted me to pick up his book. The map on the cover is adorable, too!

  2. Thanks, Gretchen! Yes, I have seen that "Rats" book, and I also LOVE the cover! (A map of Manhattan with the streets outlined in the shape of a giant rat!) So I'm glad to have such a ringing endorsement of it. As I mentioned, I didn't want to recommend any book that I hadn't actually read myself. Now I feel inspired to read it! Here's the link, for those of you so inclined:

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