Ten favorite books about the city, in no particular order.

1.  Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante.

Wonderful account of the sleazy side of Manhattan life—which was most of it—in the Nineteenth century.

2.  New York City Hagstrom 5 Borough Pocket Atlas

As good as any novel ever written about the city. You can stare at this for hours and never get bored.

3.  At Sea in the City: New York From the Water’s Edge by William Kornblum

Kornblum, a native New Yorker and sociology professor at City University, delightfully blends his personal history with that of the city as he sails around its edges in his 24-foot catboat.

4. The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts by Colson Whitehead

Often described as a “tour de force,” but don’t let that put you off. Whitehead’s short bursts of fractured narrative sound like the city talking to itself.

5.  AIA Guide to New York City by Norville White and Elliot Willensky

The classic guide to the architecture of all five boroughs. Refreshingly impolite and solid as a brick at over 1100 pages. A fifth edition will appear in June 2010.

6. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

Like all great biographies, this one illuminates not just the life of its subject, but the world of which it was a part. The New York of the mid-Ninteenth century comes vividly alive.

7.  Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

What is there left to say about this collection of (largely) essays about New York and its citizens by The New Yorker’s greatest writer and perhaps the city’s, too? Essential reading.

8. Gone to New York: Adventures in the City by Ian Frazier

A collection of Ian Frazier’s hilarious pieces about New York, including his classic trio of “Bags In Trees” essays. 

9. Changing New York by Berenice Abbott

Abbott’s photographs of New York in the 1930s have become only more fascinating and tender over the years.

10. New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott’s New York by Douglas Levere

Seventy-something years later, photographer Douglas Levere returns to the exact same spots at the exact same time of day as Abbott took her originals from, and the result is remarkable in both how much the city has changed and how much has remained the same.


Despite writing a book about the waterfront, I am not a nautical buff, and although I immensely admire the passion of the men and women who dedicate their lives to restoring old tugboats and the like, I don’t have any desire to help scrape their hulls or polish their engines myself. What drew me to writing a book about the waterfront in the first place was a typically writerly—and probably, to these men and women, rather irritating—love of romance, and on the decks of these old boats, or in their engine rooms reeking of diesel and oil, I found some of the most potent romance the city has to offer. Former clown and juggler David Sharps, spotted a half-sunken wooden railroad barge—the last of its kind in New York—lying beneath the George Washington Bridge and knew what he had to do. Over the next four years he pumped out the mud and restored her to her near original condition. The barge is now a living museum where Sharps educates people about the city’s maritime past, but with all the wit and gusto you’d expect of a former street entertainer. Pegasus is a survivor from another era, a 1907 tugboat originally with steam engines, whose type was once ubiquitous around the Harbor. Owned by Captain Pamela Hepburn, one of the very few women to ever have worked as a tugboat captain in New York, she is now a working museum. Captain Hepburn will try to coral you to volunteer. A former coast guard vessel, and another rare steam vessel. Even if you have little interest in boats, it’s worth taking a look at the Lilac’s engines, a beautiful abstract steel sculpture frozen in motion, and awaiting, at its owners estimate, 40,000 man-hours of work to liberate. Jessica DuLong is a former dot-commer who found her true vocation in life as an engineer on John J. Harvey, a decommissioned 1930s NYFD fireboat that still spurts great barrages of water from its canons. She also owns her own tugboat and is the author of a book about her nautical experiences, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson


Of all the New York Times stories I wrote, Children of Darkness, about the men and women who venture into its often decaying and frequently majestic infrastructure, was the most interesting to undertake. Even given that I was treated to a tour of the more “vanilla” delights that await, at least in terms of their relative ease of access, it was still an extraordinary experience, and the more intrepid urban explorer’s websites contain some jaw-dropping images. This is just a small selection of what’s out there. Although this website is the work of a collective, its prime originator is Joe Anastasio, a.k.a “Control,” a thirty-something Queens native who has yet to encounter a rotting mental asylum, high rise bridge, or live subway tunnel he doesn’t feel the need to examine close up. “Joe bombs everything,” as one of his fellow explorers put it. If Joe Anastasio is the “bomber” of urban explorers, Steve Duncan, who runs Undercity, is its professor. Duncan, a self-described “guerilla historian,” sets out to understand and explain the history of New York, in all its different permutations, by carefully peeling back the various physical layers of the city. Miru Kim is a diminutive Korean artist who, most famously, photographs herself naked amid surroundings of spectacular urban decay—disused subway tunnels, long abandoned hospitals, the innards of decaying factories. Far from being a mere gimmick, the result is powerful and provocative art. is one of several websites by author and explorer Julia Solis devoted to creating art out of the experience of urban exploration. Like Miru Kim, her work (books, films, even “parlor games”) is both dark yet filled with humor, and she is a terrific photographer. is the work of Moses Gates, a licensed New York City tour guide whose website takes you to places the tourists he shows around town on a double-decker bus are unlikely to venture. While there’s much on New York, he also has sections on urban exploring in cities around the world. is less brash than the guerilla sites above (its creator, Kevin Walsh, is in his fifties), but it does contain a wonderful treasure trove of photographs, ephemera, history, mythology, and often just plain guesswork about both the past and present of New York’s many neighborhoods. Walsh generally stays above ground, and in legal territory, but his web site is no less fascinating for that.


Like many Brits, I’ve always been drawn to the sheer bravado of American writing. Pete Hamill once said of Brooklyn that “its essential style is an irresistible (for a writer) combination of toughness and lyricism,” and I think that combination applies to much American writing in general. Writers I love—Richard Yates, Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, Pete Hamill, Vivian Gornick, Joseph Mitchell, Studs Turkel, Joan Didion, John McNulty, Frederick Exley, May Sarton, Frederic Tuten, Cynthia Ozick—all are tough (and the women perhaps the toughest of all), and all have a carefully controlled lyricism beneath the surface that never degrades into sentimentality. As this list suggests, I’m hardly at the cutting edge of contemporary writing, (though two younger writers I admire enormously are the novelist Joshua Ferris and the essayist and memoirist Elif Batuman, both of whose first books are so original they appear almost timeless.) If this all seems a pretty narrow list—and it is—then in part I blame New York City, which precisely because it contains the world, encourages the dangerous belief that one need look no further than the five boroughs to see all there is to see.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *