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. 

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?

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. 

Jews Without Money

By Michael Gold,

Book cover of Jews Without Money

Why 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. 

The House of Mirth

By Edith Wharton,

Book cover of The House of Mirth

Why 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.   

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

By Russell Shorto,

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 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.

How I Became Hettie Jones

By Hettie Jones,

Book cover of How I Became Hettie Jones

Why 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. 

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