The best books about terrible, beautiful New York

Alice Sparberg Alexiou Author Of Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery
By Alice Sparberg Alexiou

Who am I?

I’m a second-generation Jewish New Yorker. I love my city passionately, and I know that it loves me back. Some two million Jews left Russia for New York at the turn of the 20th century. They landed at Ellis Island, headed for the Lower East Side, and made the city theirs. My immigrant grandparents were among them. It’s impossible to conceive of New York without Jews. Lenny Bruce once said: In New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish.

I wrote...

Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery

By Alice Sparberg Alexiou,

Book cover of Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery

What is my book about?

The Bowery was a synonym for despair throughout most of the 20th century. The very name evoked visuals of drunken bums passed out on the sidewalk, and New Yorkers nicknamed it “Satan’s Highway,” “The Mile of Hell,” and “The Street of Forgotten Men.” For years the businesses along the Bowery periodically asked the city to change the street’s name. To have a Bowery address, they claimed, was hurting them.

But when New York exploded into real estate frenzy in the 1990s, developers discovered the Bowery. They rushed in and began tearing down. Today, Whole Foods, hipster night spots, and expensive lofts have replaced the old flophouses and dive bars, and the bad old Bowery no longer exists. In Devil’s Mile, Alice Sparberg Alexiou tells the story of The Bowery, starting with its origins. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Why did I love this book?

Death and Life, written in the early 1960s – the height of the urban renewal movement  when people were fleeing cities for the shiny new suburbs, caused a sensation among policymakers. Tearing down shabby neighborhoods and replacing them with high rises is all wrong, she argued. In prose so gorgeous it takes your breath away, Jacobs showed us that cities are, in her words, delicate ecosystems. Cities are things of beauty. I’ve reread Death and Life many times, and each time I learn something new. Jane Jacobs taught me why I love New York. 

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

10 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…

Jews Without Money

By Michael Gold,

Book cover of Jews Without Money

Why did I love this book?

This 1930 novel (but really, it’s a memoir) takes the reader back to the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century. The shit-poor, packed neighborhood was the first stop for the thousands of Jews then debarking daily from immigrant ships. One of them was my grandfather, who found himself eating out of a garbage can one day and nearly decided to go back to Russia. Michael Gold grew up in this brutal world, became a card-carrying Communist, and wrote this, his only book, as a cri de coeur against the exploitation of immigrant Jewish workers under capitalism. His descriptions of life in the tenements (“A parrot cursed. Ragged kids played under truck horses. Fat housewives fought from stoop to stoop. A beggar sang.”) grab the reader by the throat. A real page-turner, and a reminder of just how recently the Jews in America, many of whom now feel guilty about their “white privilege,” were impoverished and despised immigrants. 

By Michael Gold,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Jews Without Money as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a writer and political activist in early-twentieth-century America, Michael Gold was an important presence on the American cultural scene for more than three decades. Beginning in the 1920s his was a powerful journalistic voice for social change and human rights, and Jews Without Money--the author's only novel--is a passionate record of the times. First published in 1930, this fictionalized autobiography offered an unusually candid look at the thieves, gangsters, and ordinary citizens who struggled against brutal odds in lower East Side Manhattan. Like Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and Abraham Cahan's The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky, Jews…

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why did I love this book?

Oh, how I adore Edith Wharton. She skewers the cruelty of Old New York aristocracy—her worldin such elegant, nuanced prose. The House of Mirth is Wharton’s masterpiece. The doomed heroine, Lily Bart, infuriates me—she’s so shallow, so foolish, so blind. She has such terrible values. But I also get that she’s a victim because she’s a woman with fancy tastes and no money, at a time when women had no options besides marriage. That Wharton also makes Lily beautiful—and therefore even more vulnerable to abuse by menadds to the tragedy. Everybody uses Lily, most of all that asshole, Lawrence Selden, the lawyer who loves her and betrays her. This story takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster. The best kind of read.   

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The House of Mirth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bestseller when it was published nearly a century ago, this literary classic established Edith Wharton as one of the most important American writers in the twentieth century-now with a new introduction from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan.

Wharton's first literary success-a devastatingly accurate portrait of New York's aristocracy at the turn of the century-is considered by many to be her most important novel, and Lily Bart, her most unforgettable character. Impoverished but well-born, the beautiful and beguiling Lily realizes a secure future depends on her acquiring a wealthy husband. But with her romantic indiscretion, gambling debts, and a maelstrom…

Book cover of The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

Why did I love this book?

Yes it’s true, there is no city like New York, but I only understood why after reading Shorto’s meticulously researched book about Dutch Manhattan. New Amsterdam was set up in 1624 by the Dutch West India Company, not as a government colony but as a private financial entity. The Dutch were shrewd businessmen, and their culture astonishingly liberal for the times. (Still is). New Amsterdam existed solely to make money and welcomed immigrants because it was good for business. We owe the Dutch for creating Manhattan’s mad-paced, money-centered, anything-goes ethos, the only place in the world where anybody from anywhere feels at home.

By Russell Shorto,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Island at the Center of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a riveting, groundbreaking narrative, Russell Shorto tells the story of New Netherland, the Dutch colony which pre-dated the Pilgrims and established ideals of tolerance and individual rights that shaped American history. 

"Astonishing . . . A book that will permanently alter the way we regard our collective past." --The New York Times

When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely…

Book cover of How I Became Hettie Jones

Why did I love this book?

Hettie Cohen defied the stifling conventions of her middle-class Jewish Queens upbringing to live the life with her husband, the poet LeRoi Jones in a Bowery loft. When the Black Power movement beckoned, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka and left her. Hettie Jones’ memoir brings to life the Village of the late 1950s and 60s, complete with the beats, their women, jazz spots, and the rich literary scene. A little-known gem about a very specific cultural moment in New York, told in a clear, honest voice. 

By Hettie Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How I Became Hettie Jones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Greenwich Village in the 1950s was a haven to which young poets, painters, and jazz musicians flocked. Among them was Hettie Cohen, who'd been born into a middle-class Jewish family in Queens and who'd chosen to cross racial barriers to marry the controversial black poet LeRoi Jones. Theirs was a bohemian life in the awakening East Village of underground publishing and jazz lofts, through which drifted such icons of the generation as Allen Ginsberg, Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Franz Kline.

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