The best nonfiction books about New York City by women writers

Christiane Bird Author Of A Block in Time: A New York City History at the Corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street
By Christiane Bird

Who am I?

I moved to New York City right after college, hungry to escape from the homogeneity of a small New England town. I wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by people of all races and nations, languages, and walks of life, and to have easy access to some of the greatest cultural institutions of the world. New York can be hard and unforgiving, but there is no place like it. I love living here.


I wrote...

A Block in Time: A New York City History at the Corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street

By Christiane Bird,

Book cover of A Block in Time: A New York City History at the Corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street

What is my book about?

This is the story of New York, told through the prism of a single block and the lives of the people who lived and worked there. It’s a story of forest and cement, farms and hotels, theaters and brothels, toys and gourmet foods. It’s a story of high life and low life, immigrants and tourists, factory workers and aristocrats, newly reinvented African Americans and newly independent women—from Solomon Pieters, a former slave who was the first owner of the block, to Marietta Stevens, whose Sunday-night socials and scheming became the stuff of legend. Greed and generosity, guilt and innocence, extravagance and degradation—all have flourished on this one Manhattan block, emblematic of the city as a whole.   

The books I picked & why

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Why this book?

This classic and hugely influential book, published in 1961, decries the soulless urban planning of the 1950s while delineating what makes a city healthy, vibrant, and safe. But that’s not why I love this book. I love it for Jacob’s vivid descriptions of New York’s West Village, where she lived; her appreciation for the ordinary—butcher shops, delis, funeral homes; her passion; and her celebration of diversity and life.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Death and Life of Great American Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic text, Jane Jacobs set out to produce an attack on current city planning and rebuilding and to introduce new principles by which these should be governed. The result is one of the most stimulating books on cities ever written.

Throughout the post-war period, planners temperamentally unsympathetic to cities have been let loose on our urban environment. Inspired by the ideals of the Garden City or Le Corbusier's Radiant City, they have dreamt up ambitious projects based on self-contained neighbourhoods, super-blocks, rigid 'scientific' plans and endless acres of grass. Yet they seldom stop to look at what actually…


Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

By Luc Sante,

Book cover of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

Why this book?

Another classic—albeit of a far different type—Lucy Sante uncovers the underbelly of 19th- and early 20th-century New York, a world filled with pimps, madams, gamblers, con men, and crooked cops. But this book is more than just a collection of stories about colorful characters. It’s also a meditation on the city’s secrets and the allure of danger and darkness. I dealt with some of the same themes in my own book and had no better model to emulate than this groundbreaking work.

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

By Luc Sante,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Low Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

By Vivian Gornick,

Book cover of The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

Why this book?

As much about ideas and the nature of friendship as it is about the city, this slim volume captures, better than any other I know, the visceral feel of living in New York. Fiercely independent, Gornick wanders the city’s streets in the “habit of loneliness,” ever watching, listening, and thinking. A child of working-class Jewish immigrants, she grew up in the Bronx in the 1940s and 1950s, and writes in a funny, smart, rueful, and tell-it-like-it-is voice that is unmistakably New York. 

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

By Vivian Gornick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Odd Woman and the City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Just Kids

By Patti Smith,

Book cover of Just Kids

Why this book?

Scribner’s Bookstore, the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s, Times Square. Smith’s memoir tells the story of her aching hunger to become an artist, her deep relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and life in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the city was filled with artists, dreamers, hustlers, and romantics of all sorts. Mapplethorpe lived on the block I write about during the last years of his life, and I returned to this book often, both for Smith’s descriptions of the city and for her eloquent prose, so evocative of another time and place.  

Just Kids

By Patti Smith,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Just Kids as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

By Julia Wertz,

Book cover of Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

Why this book?

For an unusual and completely different take on New York, pick up this delightful, funny, and moving book filled with drawings of cityscapes past and present. I wasn’t aware of Wertz’s book until after I’d written my book (full disclosure: Wertz wrote a blurb for my book), but I feel it captures in illustrations what the best of other New York writers capture in words. Reading it is like walking along the streets of the city itself, with a bit of poetry here, a bit of squalor there, a bit of history everywhere.  

Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

By Julia Wertz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tenements, Towers & Trash as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is New York as you've never seen it before; the New York behind the New York that you think you know so well. With drawings and comics in her signature style, Julia Wertz regales us with dozens of street scenes that show exactly what the city looked like "then" versus "now"; cartoons that detail the quirky, quintessentially New York histories that took place there, and several series of detail drawings including the clocks, mailboxes, lampposts and other ephemera that have evolved over the years. Tenements, Towers & Trash takes on a wild ride in a time-machine taxi, from the…


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