NorthNew York got into my blood. It’s a side effect when you spend years walking its streets, talking to hundreds of residents. It invaded my thoughts, colonized my reading list, and still appears, vividly, in my dreams.
My favorite New York books are about people. My latest, New Yorkers, contains interviews with nearly 80 residents, including Black Lives Matter protesters and an Occupy Wall Street veteran, as well as 9/11 first responders. When Covid-19 broke out, I spent months talking to nurses and survivors. I’m still talking to them; You never leave a New York project behind.
Many books have been written on the New York systems. (If you like sewers, get lost at Kate Ascher’s The works: anatomy of a city.) They are interesting but they do not convey the New York I love: a city of voice and interruption, full of people ready to chattering the days that are left. Will a sewer line talk about the immigrant experience? Probably not.
Building a book with the words of New Yorkers is painstaking work. Some turn to search engines to get to know the city, but the best New York books are written by those who enter New York with awe and humility. A search engine is always more convincing than a know-it-all. If you commit to its streets, this place will surprise and scandalize you, but it will always provide.
1. Maeve Brennan’s long-winded lady
Nobody captures the little moments of New York like Maeve Brennan. I remember a woman at City Diner, 90th and Broadway, showing up almost every night with a fat Russian novel and a glass of white wine. Maeve Brennan would have written her story in prose that at first would seem wispy before revealing its weight. Brennan accomplishes exactly this feat in the 47 short pieces here, all of which appeared in the New Yorker between 1954 and 1981. They are slight only on first reading.
2. The Strange Woman and the City of Vivian Gornick
In his memoirs, Gornick describes New York as a “legendary context for the creation myth of the young genius who arrives in the world capital … where he will finally be recognized for the heroic figure he knows himself to be.” Unsurprisingly, these men are still here, often transplanted, braying about their authentic New York experience. Gornick doesn’t want any of that: “It’s not my city at all.” His New York is populated by “the eternal wanderers who roam these mean and wonderful streets in search of a self reflected in the eyes of a stranger.” Although Gornick grew up in the Bronx, she considers herself a pilgrim to the city. When he finally moved to Manhattan, he experienced what most of us yearn for upon arrival. “I could taste the world in my mouth, pure world.”
3. Disappearing New York by Jeremiah Moss
Moss looks at today’s New York with rage. Money dictates. Speculation destroys. Pedestrians experience repetition. Haven’t I passed this Bank of America already? A New York nowhere flourishes, block by block. I am often frustrated, but it is Moss who wrote the cry of the heart. As the city changes, Moss warns, the people and their opportunities will change. The Angry City books are necessary and, like most New York projects, this one never ends. March 13 this year Moss wrote a blog post on the closure of Eisenberg’s, a large sandwich shop, another victim of the pandemic. The attached photo shows Moss’s final tuna sandwich flanked by a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Four. Harvey Wang’s New York
In the foreword to this 1990 collection of portraits, city chronicler Pete Hamill describes three New Yorks: the land of romantic fantasy, the gloomy landscape, and a New York of “toil and endurance.” In this book of black and white photographs, Wang concentrates on the latest, what he calls “the New York resistance.” If they resisted in 1990, today they are almost extinct: typographers, photoengravers, knife sharpeners. A blacksmith looks at the camera from his workshop in Astoria. “Just look into the eyes,” Hamill writes, “the eyes and hands … They do not fulfill their lives; they live them. ”Wang’s slim collection reminds us that, in a way, we are all redoubts in an ever-changing city.
5. Dejon Monster Ice Cream
Dejon made my list for the way he sells his own books. I met him outside the subway entrance in the South Bronx, where he set up a trestle table and cajoled passersby into buying his latest crime novel. “Just take a look, just take a look at the cover, just buy a book, how are you doing, I like those shoes.” In New York, you are always outside of someone’s establishment. Dejon wasn’t exactly expecting the book industry to offer him a sneak peek. His advice: find an empty stretch of sidewalk, convince people, use your voice, sell it.
6. Nevermind by Jana Prikryl
Prikryl is a very different subway writer, a tremendously talented poet whose work makes the familiar contours of the city strange. When I interview New Yorkers, I often find a tendency toward the illusory. Someone will talk about a street but then admit that it is a dream. Prikryl welcomes these transformations, “like the East River pretending to be a river when it is simply an appetite.” His poems also catalog the many points of warmth that sparkle among New Yorkers. “In this city, friendship is the main mode of disaster preparedness.”
7. Gus Powell’s Company of Strangers
While working downtown, photographer Gus Powell followed the lead of poet Frank O’Hara and spent his lunch hours making art. For Powell, the camera frame is where New Yorkers meet, just for a second, to create complex friezes of urban life. Look long enough and you will notice the connective substance between their figures, what Powell calls the New York plasma. For me, there is no better representation of the complex pedestrian choreography of its sidewalks.
8. Close up of David Wojnarowicz’s knives
Cruises, sex work, homelessness, drug abuse, the AIDS epidemic: all are themes delivered by an artist who writes at high speed, who clings to memories of New York while his community disappears: “piece by piece, the landscape it is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder ”. In these 1991 “memoirs of disintegration”, Wojnarowicz’s prose cries out for attention. See these New Yorkers, his lovers and friends, and witness him engrave his presence on the city’s social history.
9. Harlem is nowhere in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Rhodes-Pitts describes how the history he learned from Harlem was “a flat version of events where a place is allowed to be one thing or another.” But Harlem is not that binary. The Rhodes-Pitts project captures many of its angles. She struggles with the weight of the story, as well as how to approach gentrification. He recognizes the names of the heavyweights that appear on the streets (Baldwin, Garvey, WEB Du Bois) and then addresses the anonymous characters discovered in the local archives. It is definitely not a complete story. Harlem challenges the integral.
10. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
The list of actors in Mitchell’s writing is impressive: exterminators, preachers, marfoodenarios. But most important to this collection of reports is Mitchell’s belief in the power of aimless walking and the relentless generosity of the streets. I heard it repeat itself over and over again. No matter what you like, New York will provide it. If, like Mitchell, you are interested in people, there is still a vernacular, there are still eloquent self-writers. There is still a voice from New York. It will still bend your ears.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism