Sometimes you need to get under the skin of a place, and the best way to do that is through the words of the writers that have immortalised it. Guest blogger Hatty Copeman offers her review of five books about New York that offer a glimpse into the history and culture of this great city.
And of course, check out Hg2 New York for plenty of travel ideas for Manhattan.
The Catcher in The Rye by J.D. Salinger
This iconic book shows New York through 17-year-old Holden Caulfield’s eyes. The story narrator’s nostalgic and deep love for the city bears a romantic view of Manhattan’s most popular landmarks: “I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go?” Other attractions Holden mentions are the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, The Zoo and Carousel in Central Park, Grand Central Station, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Although the book was published in 1951, these landmarks are still some of the most significant places in the city and continue to draw visitors in their flocks. Holden’s idealistic and old-fashioned view of Uptown Manhattan, where most of these landmarks are situated, accurately describes the area’s atmosphere, which remains much the same today.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
The mother of punk’s account of Robert Mapplethorpe and herself living together in New York during the 1970s whilst they were starting out their creative careers provides a vivid insight of the city during that time. Smith’s rich imagery of downtown New York sets the scene for what was a transitional and significant time for the people and the neighbourhood. Soon after, the small community of local emerging artists would contribute towards the city becoming the cultural centre of the Western world. Smith’s portrait provides a cultural background to today’s downtown Manhattan, especially her emphasis on the artistic seriousness and optimism of the city that is still very present and relevant.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
To really get under the skin of New York, this book is an essential read as it documents the influence of Robert Moses, also known as the “master builder”, who was New York’s urban planner from 1924-1960. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography unveils Moses’ vision and efficiency that shaped the look of modern New York City. He was responsible for developing the city into a car friendly place, including the developments of the Westside Highway, the Triborough Bridge, which was recently renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge, and thousands of miles of roads that were constructed. Caro highlights the backlash that came with Moses’ plans describing the eviction of thousands of poor New Yorkers from their homes and the effect it had on masses of historic buildings. This book provides a historic background to New York and explains how and why the city’s urban layout is now the way it is.
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
Although much of Manhattan managed well during the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani’s harsh mayoralty saw the creative underclasses working entry-level jobs and, for them, luxuries became a thing of the past. Meghan Daum’s collection of essays illustrates these struggles through one women’s disillusionment with the ever-diminishing ideal of Manhattan living. Although aspiration is universal, the obstacles that Daum faces and the objects of her affection are exclusive to New York. My Misspent Youth is a true reflection of the challenges the city presents and the unique standards and expectations that New Yorkers have.
The Good Life by Jay McInerney
This is a tale of the rich and privileged set against a backdrop of New York immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Good Life depicts a group of affluent New Yorkers’ lives and how their identities and community were rocked in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Through the story and the characters, McInerney gives a vivid description of a literary editor living in a TriBeCa loft with his family and an investment banker living with his family on the Upper East Side. McInerney communicates the dichotomy of these opposing lifestyles in New York through detailed descriptions of the Manhattan neighbourhoods and places they exist within, creating a rounded view of the city and its culture.
Hatty Copeman is a freelance travel journalist from London and currently based in Barcelona, where she writes about cities art, music, food and places to see from an insider’s point-of-view. Find her at hattycopeman.com or on Twitter @hattycopeman