The best books on how New York became New York (that aren’t Robert Caro’s The Power Broker)

The Books I Picked & Why

The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984

By Marvin J. Taylor

The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984

Why this book?

This is the primer for everything Downtown during arguably Downtown’s greatest era. The contributions are first-rate, by people who were on the scene, and it’s a handsome book to hold. If you’re interested in anything from Punk and Patti Smith to Haring, Basquiat, and Afrika Bambaataa, this is the place to start, without nostalgia, agenda, or hype.


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All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

By Marshall Berman

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

Why this book?

This book ranges through some pretty unexpected territory as it probes the nature of modernity and development in New York—Goethe and Baudelaire; Russian literature. But just lean back and take it all in because Marshall Berman explains how it matters to modern New York with a combination of breathtaking intellect and an Everyman’s experience of urban life. Though he was a globally important Marxist philosopher, he was first and foremost a passionate New Yorker, so he makes all his big ideas come alive in the streets.


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Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City

By Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Matthew Gordon Lasner

Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City

Why this book?

For my money, affordable housing is the biggest issue New York faces right now and this book was one of the happiest, most fascinating surprises in my research. No one should utter that phrase—“affordable housing”—until they read this book, a comprehensive, overview of all the different kinds of affordable housing created in and by New York over the last century. With fabulous imagery from photographer and sociologist David Schaillol, it ultimately becomes an alternative history of what the city has done, which made me hopeful about what it can do if we choose to.


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Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

By George Chauncey

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

Why this book?

If there’s one book that truly decentered my understanding of New York, it’s this one. Like most people, I had my own map of New York that I assumed was the “real” map; the history that I assumed was the “real” history. Chauncey’s exploration of Gay life in New York City drew an entirely different map over places that I thought I knew, adding meaning to things I was positive I already understood.


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The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

By William H. Whyte

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Why this book?

Holly Whyte is a sort of godfather to my book. He was a journalist turned urbanist who became extremely influential in New York City by focusing on how exactly people used public space. He and his team would set up cameras around plazas and small parks to document the ways New Yorkers sat, strolled, and schmoozed. Their findings, along with Whyte’s profoundly optimistic vision of people as the solution to urban problems, laid the foundation for transformative changes in places like Bryant Park and Times Square. You’ll never look at the city the same way after reading this, both in terms of the built environment and in how people act in public space.


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