Take a bite of the Big Apple

May 19, 2000

New York is hot again. Harvey J. Kaye reports on the essential reading matter for visitors to the city

Our younger daughter travelled with her high-school chorus to New York City for spring break. They performed along the way, but the trip was really about seeing and experiencing the city. With their music teacher and several parents, they drove the 20 hours from Green Bay to New York by coach in order to spend four days in the Big Apple. Not a lot of time, but it really excited the kids.

They attended two Broadway shows and took in the usual sights - the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, St Patrick's Cathedral, Central Park and Times Square, where they were let loose for a couple of hours. Plus, these white Wisconsin kids enjoyed a half-day tour of Harlem, which included a spirited black church service. Some returned all the more appreciative of Wisconsin; others youthfully announced they would some day make a go of New York life.

After a quarter century, New York City is hot again. I cannot say whether it has to do with the current capitalist boom, the dramatic reduction in the city's crime rate, or the race between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and First Lady Hillary Clinton for the state's open US senate seat. But, having grown up within 20 miles of Times Square, I appreciate my fellow Americans' renewed fascination with New York. Indeed, when friends tell me they are heading there on business or a holiday, it gives me great pleasure both to prep and de-brief them.

Of course, donnish folk like to read up on their destinations. No problem, both academic and popular writers have also thrown themselves back into New York. So, if you are planning a trip to the city, you have lots of new titles to choose from.

For the most devoted scholars, I propose Ed Burrows and Mike Wallace's Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 - although to grapple with its 1,416 pages requires both intellectual and physical strength. For those not so devoted, or endowed with strong arms to carry the former around, I suggest George Lankevich's crisply written, 250-page American Metropolis: A History of New York City, covering the 1520s through the 1990s.

Those who prefer watching history to reading it, should get hold of Ric Burns's recent 12-hour television series and his coffee-table-sized volume, New York: An Illustrated History. Or, for the sheer fun of it, order The New York Pop-Up Book by Marie Salerno and Arthur Gelb, which celebrates the "New York experience" through pop-ups designed by a host of artists and "paper engineers".

In the structural vein, Eric Darton has written Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York City's World Trade Center. I always insist that visitors ascend to the top of the Empire State Building. Nevertheless, the newer and taller Twin Towers at the tip of Manhattan instigated exuberant urban development schemes. They demand critical consideration and - when visiting Wall Street - a close up look.

Speaking of grandiose projects, Gerard Koeppel's Water for Gotham relates the perilous story of providing good water for the expanding metropolis. For those who marvel at the making of landscapes and what goes on within them, Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar recount the history of Central Park in The Park and the People, and Samuel Delany laments the "Disneyfication" of 42nd Street in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

Those intrigued by New York intellectuals will want to read Christine Stansell's American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. She treats anew that colourful generation of figures - among them Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, John Reed and Max Eastman - who made Greenwich Village their home in the early 20th century. Also, The New Yorker has just celebrated its 75th anniversary; so, even though you'll have missed the soirees, you'll want to get Ben Yagoda's About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. And for a comparative perspective on urban politics in the wake of the London mayoral race, pick up Herbert Mitgang's Once Upon a Time in New York: Jimmie Walker, Franklin Roosevelt and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age.

My favourite new books address the labour question. Debra Bernhardt and Rachel Bernstein have produced a wonderful pictorial history of New York working people, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. Ron Howell and Ozier Muhammad have compiled One Hundred Jobs, offering a panorama of work in the city by way of 100 personal stories. And Joshua Freeman has authored Working-Class New York, in which he brilliantly and critically narrates the making and unmaking of liberal and social-democratic New York.

You could wait to buy the books over here at Columbia University's Labyrinth Bookshop, which specialises in scholarly and academic titles, or at the gigantic, but still pleasant, Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square. Or - if you really want to save money, and have the patience to search shelves of review copies - you could try to find the titles at reduced prices at the Strand near New York University in Greenwich Village.

I cannot begin to recommend restaurants. But you must go for "deli" at Katz's on Houston Street (and be sure to order a Dr Brown's Cel-Ray soda). On the street, buy a hot pretzel. And do not fail to take a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan to get a good view of the skyline and the George Washington and Brooklyn bridges. If anybody tries to sell you the latter, forget it, it is mine.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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