10 Best Books About New York City Update 05/2022

Got a taste of New York City. When you spend years walking its streets and talking to hundreds of people, you get used to it. It came into my mind, took over my reading list, and still shows up in my dreams. My favorite books about New York are about people. My new book, New Yorkers, has interviews with more than 80 people who live in the city. They include Black Lives Matter protesters and an Occupy Wall Street veteran, as well as 9/11 first responders. When Covid-19 started, I spent months talking to nurses and people who had been there. There is always a project in New York that you don’t finish.

In the past, a lot of books have been written about how New York works. The Works: Anatomy of a City is a book about sewers by Kate Ascher. If you’re into sewers, you should read it. They’re interesting, but they don’t show the New York I love. It’s a city of voices and interruptions, full of people who want to dance the days away. Is a sewer line going to talk about what it’s like to be a new person? There’s a good chance. This is very hard work to make a book with the words of New Yorkers in it. The best New York books are written by people who are awed and humble when they visit the city. A person who is looking for something is always more interesting than someone who already knows everything. If you’re willing to walk its streets, this place will surprise and shock you, but it will always give.

The Long-winded Lady by Maeve Brennan

She is the best at capturing the little things that happen in New York. In the 90th Street City Diner, there was a woman who came in every night with a big Russian book and a glass of diner white wine. Her story would have been written in a way that first looked like it was wispy, but then it would have become clear how strong it was. There are 47 short stories here by Brennan that were published in the New Yorker between 1954 and 1981. Brennan does this in each of them. There are only a few on the first read.

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick

“New York is the setting for the creation myth of the young genius who arrives in the world’s capital, where he will finally be recognized for who he truly is.” Unsurprisingly, these men are still here, many of them from outside the country, talking about how they had a real New York experience. No way: “Not my city at all.” People who live in her New York are “eternal groundlings” who “wade these mean and wonderful streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of a stranger.” Gornick was born and raised in the Bronx, but she thinks of herself as a pilgrim to the city. On her first day in New York City, she felt like everyone else did. “I could taste the whole world in my mouth.”

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss

Moss is angry when he sees how things have changed in New York. Money is the boss. Speculation kills. Repetition happens to pedestrians. I haven’t passed this Bank of America yet. A city that isn’t New York grows block by block. Moss wrote the cri de coeur. I often get angry. In time, Moss says, the people and their chances will change. Angry city books are important, and like most projects in New York, this one never ends. Moss wrote a blog post about Eisenberg’s, a great sandwich shop that closed down because of the pandemic. Moss’s last tuna sandwich is shown in the picture next to a bottle of hand sanitiser.

Harvey Wang’s New York

Pete Hamill, a city chronicler, wrote the foreword to this 1990 collection of portraits. In it, he talks about three New Yorks: the romantic fantasy world, the grim cityscape, and a New York of “work and endurance.” New York is Wang’s main subject in this book of black and white photos of the city. He calls it “holdout New York.” If they were still around in 1990, they’re mostly gone now: typesetters, photo-engravers, and knife grinders. In Astoria, there is a blacksmith who looks at the camera from his shop. Look at the eyes, says Hamill, “the eyes and the hands… “They don’t act out their lives, but they live them.” Wang’s small collection makes us think that we’re all “holdouts” in an ever-changing town, even though we’re all moving forward.

Ice Cream for Freaks by Dejon

It was because of how he sells his own books that I put Dejon on my list. He was outside a subway entrance in the South Bronx, where he had set up a trestle table and was trying to get people to buy his new crime book. ‘Take a look at the cover, buy a book, how are you? I like those shoes.’ In New York, you’re always on the outside of someone else’s business. It was not like Dejon was waiting for the book industry to give him a cash advance. You should find an empty stretch of pavement, talk to the people, and sell it.

No Matter by Jana Prikryl

Prikryl is a very different kind of metro writer. He is a very talented poet who makes the familiar shapes of the city look weird in his work. When I interview New Yorkers, I often see a tendency to make things up. Someone will talk about a street, then say it’s just a dream. Prikryl likes how the East River “pretends to be a river when it’s just an appetite.” When she writes poems, she also talks about the many ways that New Yorkers feel warm to each other. “In this city, friendship is the most important way to prepare for a disaster,” says the teacher.

The Company of Strangers by Gus Powell

It was during his lunch break that photographer Gus Powell took after poet Frank O’Hara and made art. People in New York City meet for a split second in the camera frame to make complicated friezes of urban life. What Powell calls the plasma of New York is what connects all of his figures. If you look long enough, you’ll see it. For me, there is no better way to show how people move around on the sidewalks in this city.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz

This is what an artist who is writing at a high rate of speed is talking about when he talks about cruising, sex work, homelessness, drug abuse, the Aids epidemic, and more. “Piece by piece the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made from feelings of love and hate,” he says. Wojnarowicz’s writing in this “memoir of disintegration” from 1991 is so loud that you can’t help but pay attention to what he says. These New Yorkers are his lovers and friends, and you can see how he etched their names into the city’s social history.

Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

When Rhodes-Pitts was learning about Harlem’s history, she said that the events she learned about were “flattened.” This means that a place can be one thing or another. But Harlem isn’t so simple. A lot of the project is covered by Rhodes-work. Pitts’s When she thinks about how to deal with gentrification and the weight of history, she has a hard time. She pays attention to the big names on the streets, like Baldwin, Garvey, and WEB Du Bois. Then she moves on to the lesser-known people found in the local archives. It isn’t even close to being a complete history. Harlem doesn’t want to be comprehensive.

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

Mitchell’s book has a cast that includes exterminators, preachers, and people who work with seafood. But what’s most important in this collection of stories is Mitchell’s belief that walking without a plan can be powerful and that the streets are always kind. I kept hearing it over and over again. New York will have what you want, no matter what. If, like Mitchell, you’re interested in people, there is still a language, and there are still people who can speak well about their own myths. There is still a voice from New York. It will still make your ears twitch.

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