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

Who am I?

It took eight years to write New York, New York, New York, and reading hundreds and hundreds of books about all different aspects of New York past and present. There were lots of brilliant ones along the way, but these five changed how I think about New York, flipped assumptions, created entirely new maps and narratives.


I wrote...

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation

By Thomas Dyja,

Book cover of New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation

What is my book about?

New York, New York, New York, Thomas Dyja’s sweeping account of this metamorphosis, shows it wasn’t the work of a single policy, mastermind, or economic theory, nor was it a morality tale of gentrification or crime. Instead, three New Yorks evolved in turn. After brutal retrenchment came the dazzling Koch Renaissance and the Dinkins years that left the city’s liberal traditions battered but laid the foundation for the safe streets and dotcom excess of Giuliani’s Reformation in the ‘90s. Then the planes hit on 9/11. The shaky city handed itself over to Bloomberg who merged City Hall into his personal empire, launching its Reimagination.

From Hip Hop crews to Wall Street bankers, D.V. to Jay-Z, Dyja weaves New Yorkers famous, infamous, and unknown—Yuppies, hipsters, tech nerds, and artists; community organizers and the immigrants who made this a truly global place—into a narrative of a city creating ways of life that would ultimately change cities everywhere.

The books I picked & why

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

By Marvin J. Taylor (editor),

Book cover of 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.

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

By Marvin J. Taylor (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Downtown Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Downtown is more than just a location, it's an attitude--and in the 1970s and '80s, that attitude forever changed the face of America. This book charts the intricate web of influences that shaped the generation of experimental and outsider artists working in Downtown New York during the crucial decade from 1974 to 1984. Published in conjunction with the first major exhibition of downtown art (organized by New York University's Grey Art Gallery and Fales Library), The Downtown Book brings the Downtown art scene to life, exploring everything from Punk rock to performance art. The book probes trends that arose in…


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

By Marshall Berman,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Marshall Berman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked All That Is Solid Melts Into Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A bubbling caldron of ideas . . . Enlightening and valuable." Mervyn Jones, New Statesman.

The political and social revolutions of the nineteenth century, the pivotal writings of Goethe, Marx, Dostoevsky, and others, and the creation of new environments to replace the old all have thrust us into a modern world of contradictions and ambiguities. In this fascinating book, Marshall Berman examines the clash of classes, histories, and cultures, and ponders our prospects for coming to terms with the relationship between a liberating social and philosophical idealism and a complex, bureaucratic materialism.

From a reinterpretation of Karl Marx to an…


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

By Nicholas Dagen Bloom (editor), Matthew Gordon Lasner (editor),

Book cover of 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.

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

By Nicholas Dagen Bloom (editor), Matthew Gordon Lasner (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Affordable Housing in New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A richly illustrated history of below-market housing in New York, from the 1920s to today

A colorful portrait of the people, places, and policies that have helped make New York City livable, Affordable Housing in New York is a comprehensive, authoritative, and richly illustrated history of the city's public and middle-income housing from the 1920s to today. Plans, models, archival photos, and newly commissioned portraits of buildings and tenants by sociologist and photographer David Schalliol put the efforts of the past century into context, and the book also looks ahead to future prospects for below-market subsidized housing. A dynamic account…


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

By George Chauncey,

Book cover of 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.

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

By George Chauncey,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gay New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The award-winning, field-defining history of gay life in New York City in the early to mid-20th century

Gay New York brilliantly shatters the myth that before the 1960s gay life existed only in the closet, where gay men were isolated, invisible, and self-hating. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents, George Chauncey constructs a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, cohesive gay world that is not supposed to have existed. Called "monumental" (Washington Post), "unassailable" (Boston Globe), "brilliant" (The Nation), and "a first-rate book of history" (The New York Times), Gay New Yorkforever changed how…


The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

By William H. Whyte,

Book cover of 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.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

By William H. Whyte,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1980, William H. Whyte published the findings from his revolutionary Street Life Project in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Both the book and the accompanying film were instantly labeled classics, and launched a mini-revolution in the planning and study of public spaces. They have since become standard texts, and appear on syllabi and reading lists in urban planning, sociology, environmental design, and architecture departments around the world.


Project for Public Spaces, which grew out of Holly's Street Life Project and continues his work around the world, has acquired the reprint rights to Social Life, with the intent…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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