Category Archives: Bowery Boys Bookshelf

Down The Up Staircase: A Century of Black Lives In A Crumbling Old House

The extraordinary house at the heart of Down the Up Staircase is currently for sale.  “411 Convent Avenue is a House located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, NY,” the blog Street Easy dryly notes.  “411 Convent Avenue was built in 1901 and has 3 stories and 1 unit.”

Bruce D. Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, grew up in this house, observing the latter years of its steady, graceful decline. His grandparents had moved into the townhouse in 1944 and his parents had remained within it their entire lives, even through a contentious marriage. Bruce grew up there with his two brothers George and Alan. One of them would meet a tragic end during the fateful summer of 1976.

Down The Up Staircase:
Three Generations of a Harlem Family
by Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch
Columbia University Press

At the start of Haynes’ remarkable memoir and social history, the gracious house on Convent Avenue has become a homey nest of memory and quirk. “The water to the basin had been shut off,” writes Haynes, “and the pipes were concealed by a Japanese tapestry as a formal living room and our parents’ bedroom.”

The house has not simply been transformed by familial necessity; it has been changed by the history of Harlem itself. Down the Up Staircase (cowritten by Syma Solovitch) documents the lives of three families who seem to have felt every tumultuous shift and been present, in some form, in every major milestone in black American life.

Every page of this historical, often unapologetically nostalgic, narrative feels personal, never letting the detours into historical context bog it down with extraneous detail.

The authors have one true civil rights hero among its characters — Haynes’ grandfather George Edmund Haynes (pictured above), co-founder of the National Urban League — but it’s his flawed legacy as a husband and father that reverberate into the lives of those that follow his footsteps through the house on Convent Avenue.

More impactful to the author was a portrait of George Edmund, painted by Laura Wheeler Waring, found tucked away in the attic. “Why had [Bruce’s father] never spoken of it? Why was it consigned to the attic?”

And then there’s Daisy, Bruce’s mother, an individual who steps out from the pages and into your parlor, in her finest fur. “Everybody knew and loved Miss Daisy, as they called her, and treated her like a queen. She had the airs and manners of a grand lady, a Southern belle, and she carried herself like royalty.”

Daisy was a stunning product of upper Manhattan’s black bourgeoisie, upper and middle class African-Americans who matched their white Fifth Avenue counterparts in dress, demeanor and aspiration. Her sons would later reject this assimilation aesthetic, with the 1950s and 60s bringing about an empowered and politically engaged black identity separate from the mainstream.

My favorite section of Down the Up Staircase — a section I’ve re-read about four times now — involves the clash of these two identities at a place called Raymond’s Beauty Shop and the various street hustlers who collected on the street corner out front. As Haynes describes the establishment’s owner:

“Before the word disco became popularized or Patti LaBelle put on a gold and silver lamè spacesuit, Raymond would dazzle the denizens in his nighttime attire. In the photographs he hung up or passed around at his shop,  he looked as much the diva as Patti ever did, dressed in three-inch platform shoes, silver lamè cape and thick makeup.

But Disco Raymond only came out at night. By day, he played the role of Harlem ladies’ man. His nails were manicured and he wore Italian shoes and hip-hugging dress slacks under his apron.  He was charismatic, could carry a tune, and drew the attentions of men and women alike.”

Down The Up Staircase is more than a story of a family, far more than the chronology of a home. And yet the entire tale — the story of the black experience in the 20th century — feels like it’s being very intimately told to you  from the parlor.



Pictured at top: Convent Ave, south from 148th St., photographed by Thaddeus Wilkerson, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

The International Express: The Personality of the 7 Train

The New York subway system has been a frightening place recently — derailments, stalled trains underground, agonizing delays.

Most of these interruptions are experienced in a unique way, a group of strangers coping with a  situation outside their control. After a few minutes of waiting, people get impatient, pace the train, grumble silently, turn up the volumes on their listening devices. Their spheres of comfort may change, allowing them to speak to a fellow passenger in a sign of solidarity.

Now take those regular mass-transit routines and observe them on the most unusual train in all of New York  City (if not the world) — the 7 train which travels from the Hudson Yards to Flushing, passing through a wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods. It’s affectionately called the International Express.

New Yorkers on the 7 Train
By Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum
Columbia University Press

In International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, two ethnographers Stéphane Tonnelat and William Kornblum study closely the daily routines of subway riders along this line, representatives from a dozen unique communities, some blissfully lost in their own worlds, others suppressing their own racial prejudices, creating a fascinating space of temporary urban cohabitation.

Flickr/Tarek Awad

As the two authors observe, there really is no experience on earth like riding the subway.

Their observations of human behavior can be read to include all experiences upon the New York subway, but the 7 train provides a very unique mix of languages and cultures, intensifying and sometimes complicating regular daily routines.

Riders in rich ethnic communities of one type may only interact with those of other communities while riding the subway. On the 7, this means sharing a space with people of many ethnic backgrounds at once.  “Riders are fascinated by the diversity they experience and take pride in learning in learning to read cues regarding the identities of strangers on the trains.”

Flickr/Doug Letterman

In a very blunt but incisive way, the authors identify various aspects of New York that often hard to quantify. “[A]fter paying the fare, we all have an equal right to be on the subway, to be in the city dressed however we please, and to be ready to defend ourselves against stereotyping and bigotry.”

And yet, as observed in interviews with countless 7-train riders, the train becomes a sort-of safe space as well, where individuality is not only allowed but even supported, as it allows every rider to express themselves personally within basic norms of decency. Not that riders don’t personally harbor hostile or racist views at times; but mostly, perhaps as preservation of the 7 train’s neutral space, they keep these thoughts to themselves.

The authors also explore the particular power of the 7 train itself in transforming Queens into the most diverse and second-most populous borough, allowing neighborhoods of specific ethnic character to thrive, even at moments in New York City history where the rest of the city stagnated.

The success of neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Flushing ultimately depend on the train. The most illuminating sections of International Express seem almost like dire warnings in light of 2017’s recent mass-transit disasters.

Or, as the authors put it, “Despite overcrowding, construction and mechanical delays, sweltering platforms in the summer, and endlessly broken escalators, the physically and socially competent urbanite chooses the subway. Will that always be the case?”

‘Incendiary’: The Mad Bomber Terrorizes 1950s New York

George Metesky was just your average working joe with a unique and understandable beef against his former employer Con Edison. He was injured on the job, eventually fired and denied workers compensation for what appear to be purely bureaucratic reasons.

But any sympathies one might find for Metesky, however, are quickly abandoned.

In retaliation, he began a meticulously sustained crime spree in New York City within its most famous and most bustling landmarks.

For sixteen years (from 1940 until his arrest in January 1957), this disturbed man placed explosive devices throughout the city, a chilling swath of discord meant to send a message while endangering the lives of thousands of New Yorkers. Grand Central, Penn Station, the New York Public Library and a variety of theaters (including Radio City Music Hall) were all targeted by the man who the press would eventually label ‘the Mad Bomber’.

The Psychiatrist, The Mad  Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
By Michael Cannell
Minotaur Books/Macmillan Publishers

In Incendiary, the brisk new page-turner by Michael Cannell, these disturbing events and the race to capture Metesky are given a bold, true-crime retelling, an immersive non-fiction thriller with cinematic pacing.

Metesky operated a bit like a comic-book villain, sending letters to the New York Journal-American, taunting the police, all the while setting devices in places where they would receive the most attention. But, strangely enough, the ‘Mad Bomber’ never meant to seriously take lives; indeed, of the dozens of explosive devices set off over the city, nobody was actually killed. (But there were a number of serious injuries.)

Given the nature of Metesky’s crime spree, investigators were able to use ground-breaking criminal profiling methods. A disturbed individual like Metesky almost demanded such an investigation, his psyche on full display in his newspaper letters.

Key to his eventual capture was psychiatrist James Brussel who worked closely with the police in constructing a profile of Metesky that was extraordinarily detailed — and mostly accurate.

Even down to outfit he wore when he eventually confronted the police on a cold evening in January of 1957.

“I know why you fellows are here. You think I’m the Mad Bomber.”

Metesky conducted his frightening crimes with an alarming theatricality — indeed, Brussel’s criminal profiling methods would inspire millions of hours of evening television — which is why Cannell’s gripping procedural feels immediate and particularly terrifying.  This is the stuff of modern nightmares.


At top: A portion of one of Metesky’s letter. Below: the Mad Bomber in jail

Judd Mehlman/New York Daily News via Getty Images

The marks of World War I, scattered throughout the five boroughs

Echoes of the first World War, one hundred years behind us, can still be found in virtually every neighborhood of New York City.

In Kevin C. Fitzpatrick’s revealing and compact guidebook World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War, these memories linger in familiar landmarks and obscure monuments alike. The effect of assembling these reminders in one book is eye-opening; collecting them brings a new sense of poignancy to markers often ignored.

Fitzpatrick organizes these marvelous finds by subject, but in my opinion the most helpful section is near the end, where all entries are arranged by borough and neighborhood.  It’s a book designed for American history buffs and locals who just want to make new connections with their neighborhoods. (There’s even a few maps for those who enjoy self-guided walking tours.)

A few of my favorite World War I related artifacts featured in the book:

Pilot Albert S. Heinrich on Governors Island July 4, 1914. Heinrich built airplanes for the war effort during WWI. (Library of Congress)

Fort Jay Airfield and the Early Birds

Sure, Governors Island is a veritable pleasure garden now, but back in 1916-17, it was a pivotal location for wartime flight training, the spot of one of America’s first airfields.

Writes Fitzpatrick: “More than two dozen pioneer aviators trained here, and many shipped out as America’s first combat pilots.”

Library of Congress

James Montgomery Flagg and Howard Chandler Christy Studios

Two artists most associated with the war propaganda effort worked and lived on the same block on the Upper West Side.

Fitzpatrick: “Christy is remembered for his luscious palette and fetching women, often dressed in men’s uniforms, next to slogans such as ‘Gee! If I Were A Man I’d Join The Navy.’ But Flagg created the real icon, instantly recognizable a century later: Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer over ‘I Want You.'”

Photo by Jim Henderson/Wikimedia

The Red Hook Doughboy

There are Doughboy statues all over New York but they are not always well highlighted. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook holds one of these treasures which once sat in a local park.

Fitzpatrick: “It was vandalized, the bronze plaques stolen, and the memorial ruined. In 1972 it was hauled to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5195, where today it is locked up behind a steel fence next to 325 Van Brunt Street. It was repaired and memorial plaques replaced.”

World War I New York:
A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick
Globe Pequot Press


NOTE: Fitzpatrick also has a book on the Algonquin Round Table and joined us for our podcast on the subject back in March.

AT TOP: The Victory Arch which once sat astride Madison Square Park. While the arch is no longer there, dozens of other memorials still grace the streets of the city.

‘Fear City’: The unthinkable tale how New York City almost went bankrupt

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the title of Kim Phillips-Fein’s riveting new book on the 1970s financial catastrophe, isn’t wantonly comparing New York City to the devilish landscape of a horror film.

It’s the actual title of a grim pamphlet the New York Police Department distributed to tourists in 1975, providing insights into staying safe during this period of high crime and government cut-backs. Today it does read a bit like promotional material for an actual horror film The Purge, a fear-mongering document meant to embarrass city officials and galvanize communities.

Its advice included:

  1. Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.
  2. Do not walk.
  3. Avoid public transportation.
  4. Remain in Manhattan.
  5. Protect your property.
  6. Safeguard your handbag.
  7. Conceal property in handbags.
  8. Do not leave valuables in your hotel room and do not deposit them in the hotel vault.
  9. Be aware of fire hazards.

The flyers enraged Mayor Abe Beame, who was scrambling to come up with money to save New York, and he even slapped a restraining order upon the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association who was attempting to distribute the flyers. “Abandoning the notion of leafleting the airports,” writes Phillips-Fein, “police officers instead drove around trucks decked with American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting around the city, blasting out warnings about the threats to public safety.”

How did New York City get itself into this weakened, paralyzing situation? And just as impossibly — how did the city manage to get out of it?

Metropolitan Books
New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
By Kim Phillips-Fein
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.

In Fear City, Phillips-Fein manages to sift through this complicated and seemingly indecipherable story and recount even the most gloomy late-night board meetings with a vital urgency.

In essence, it does have a horror-film quality, as we watch a festering monster grow in size within the corridors of government. New York’s financial woes began in the late 1950s, as the city began taking out large, virtually unchecked loans, playing elaborate games on spreadsheets in order to pay the bills. They were assisted by state government (who at first facilitated such borrowing and even changed laws to allow it) and the eager ratings agencies who considered New York a safe A-rating bet as late as 1973.

Mayor Beame, besieged by reporters outside of Gracie Mansion

Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

To be fair, under prior mayors, coffers began aching under increased funding of social services, expanded to combat growing threats such as the depopulation of some neighborhoods (due to the growth of suburbs) and the spectre of deteriorating infrastructure.

But by the mid 1970s, the city and its new mayor Abe Beame faced the terrifying possibility of bankruptcy. This would not only be bad for the city, but for the nation as a whole, destabilizing the country’s banking networks. Indeed New York threatened to fall into a hole and pull the entire country in with it.

“Over time,” writes Phillips-Fein, “the fear of bankruptcy took on a life of its own.”

The one person with certain power to bail out the city chose not to. President Gerald Ford would eventually butt heads with his own vice president Nelson Rockefeller over the country’s involvement with New York. “Most of Ford’s advisers believed New York was shamelessly begging for help to prop up its welfare state. The cold light of default … might be the only thing that could compel the city to change its ways.”

We know how that ended up turning out.

But if Ford wouldn’t come to the table to offer assistance, Beame often had a problem admitting there was a problem at all. At times he sounds like an addict, frantically coming up with excuses for his own behavior. “He claimed the city was just running low on cash while it waited for revenues to arrive.”

You may know portions of this story quite well — some of you lived through it — but you may not know the varying and even opposing ways that the city got out of this mess.

On one level, it did so with the help of financiers and CEOs, leading task forces  of great and questionable power.

Empowered by a late-night act hurriedly passed by the state senate, the ominous-sounding Emergency Financial Control Board oversaw all city expenditures, “wrest[ing] control over the city’s finances out of the hands of the mayor and the City Council.” Among those on the board were the CEOs of New York Telephone Company, American Airlines and Colt Industries (the gun manufacturer).

Below: Anger at the EFCB’s actions to close Hostos Community College inspired vigorous protests. Such community action helped save the college.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

But the real bailout came from the citizens of New York themselves who weathered the horrifying notion of “planned shrinkage,” the drastic and detrimental cutbacks to hospitals, schools and public transit, generally speaking, with great resolve. (Events like the Blackout of 1977 notwithstanding.)

But they did not weather them quietly.

Communities were not afraid to push back against aggressive cuts that would have endangered them, such as the efforts by one Greenpoint community to save their fire house from closure and another by a South Bronx residents to stop the shuttering of a unique educational institution — Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York — aimed at the community’s bilingual residents.

Phillips-Fein, an associate professor at New York University, has crafted one of the best history books of the year out of one of the ugliest periods in New York City history. Aspects of this story reverberate into present dilemmas — on the local, state and national levels — as austerity measures take center stage as possible solutions to deficits and shortfalls. Let’s not hope for any sequels.

Below: New York City 1976

Photo/John VanderHaagen


New York City 1977

Photography by Derzsi Elekes Andor

‘The Gargoyle Hunters’ and the Architecture of Nostalgia

BOOK REVIEW The architects and builders of the post-Civil War period provided New York City with masterpieces of great beauty — cast-iron facades, modern emblems of trade rendered in marvelous stone, fanciful medieval gargoyles upon impressive towers. Gilded Age architecture and the ornate shapes of pre-modern design have nonetheless defined the timeless identity of the city.

In the 1970s lovers of this fading architectural landscape decided to protect its most treasured features. By liberating its details from the landscape entirely.

They were called ‘gargoyle hunters’, so passionate for the city’s magnificent beauty that they would rather steal aspects of it than see it destroyed.

The Gargoyle Hunters
by John Freeman Gill
Alfred A. Knopf

John Freeman Gill‘s new book The Gargoyle Hunters is obviously about one of these guerrilla collectors, working with a crew of thieves, chipping away at doomed architectural wonders falling into disrepair, scouring heaps of rubble for a bit of beauty in a city tumbling into financial ruin.

One of the thieves is the gargoyle hunter’s son. His name is Griffin.

Shortly into Gill’s captivating and exuberant novel, one realizes that architectural crimes are merely the backdrop. This is a story about all varieties of nostalgia. Formalized urban nostalgia, of course, of the kind that drives landmark preservation and podcasts about New York City history. But also the constant pining for recognizable moments in a person’s life, both for the pleasures of our childhood and for the relationships that once held us in safety.

Below: The World Trade Center, with the Woolworth Building peering through — two architectural contrasts in Gill’s novel (photo date 1973)

Gill, a New York-based journalist and New York Times contributor, is the son of a ‘gargoyle hunter’ who traipsed 1970s in search of aged, deteriorating treasures, and his adventure, while certainly fictionalized, has the immediacy of a memoir, laced with specific references to corner shops, restaurants and cheap snack foods.

Griffin’s parents are separated so he spends time between his home — a rustic, unrenovated brownstone on the Upper East Side — and his father’s workshop in a warehouse in Tribeca, many years before chic hotels and film festivals would arrive here. Griffin has accepted the separation, if mournfully, just as he assumes New York as a faded, withering place, the rubble upon which the foibles of his adolescence play out.

Below: Heaps of rubble abound in early 1970s New York. In The Gargoyle Hunter, they sometimes possess abandoned treasures. 

But those around him are not so complacent. His sister spends her time trying to piece her family back together in crafty ways. At one point, she smashes a window with a rock, knowing her father will have to come back and repair it.

Her father also vandalizes to repair the past, soon employing his son in wild and increasingly dangerous capers to remove carved detailing from old Gilded Age buildings, finding great spiritual urgency in his tasks.

“The bridge of time is very poignant,” he told me. “I think about the immigrant carvers who came over here and did this work on people’s home — itinerant nobodies, many of them, with no stable homes of their own — and I meet them across time.”

Their adventures soon lead to a startling heist — the theft of an entire building.

“No, not part of a building, son. What we’re going to steal is a building — the whole damn thing, cornice to curb. Just stop asking so many questions and you’ll see. Okay?

(NOTE: This sounds far-fetched, but Gill bases this on an actual event of a cast-iron structure win 1974.)

Below: The ramshackle streets of Tribeca, another vivid location from the book

I feel as though Gill is doing a bit of gargoyle hunting from his own life, the novel filled with charming and very specific anecdotes of teenage exuberance and wistful remembrance, dotted along the corridors of 1970s New York that you can almost follow along with on a dusty map.

There’s even a marvelously awkward experience atop the Statue of Liberty, one that feels gleefully unrestricted, with a major nod to modern cinema’s greatest ode to nostalgia — A Christmas Story.

The central crimes (or are they rescues?) of The Gargoyle Hunters feel realistic because they’re paired with the common trials and errors of teenage life, moments we all wish we could chip away and save forever.


The New Brooklyn: The ups and downs of a very frenetic borough

The subtitle to Kay S. Hymowitz‘s engaging and often provocative new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring A City Back is a bit of a misnomer.

Brooklyn is not back in any conventional sense of the word. It has not returned to any kind of sense of normalcy or financial stability. In fact, Brooklyn has never felt more granular, a borough with newly formed and slightly unstable multiple personalities. If it were a person, you might medicate it.

Brooklyn is back — for many, safe, vibrant and livable but it is also beyond. It’s in a category all to its own.

Below: The new Williamsburg

Courtesy John/Flickr

Brooklyn is also my home. I live two blocks from a row of millionaires to the east and two blocks from working class residents in a housing project to the west. Retail options are frayed and deeply unsatisfying to all — expensive boutiques next to drug stores with lines down the block. No grocery stores in sight. A few blocks away lies the Gowanus Canal, a perilously grim body of water that now, in 2017, attracts glassy chemical films on its surface and luxury condos at its banks.

The past two decades in Brooklyn have been transformative in a way that few places in the world have experienced. This is certainly the most tumultuous era for the borough since it was dragged into the embrace of Greater New York — via the Consolidation of 1898. 

It can be one of the greatest places to live in the United States. It can also be a frustrating, hopeless place. Its dysfunctions are legion. The pockets of Brooklyn which foster great cultural changes are never far from others that are (intentionally or otherwise) closed to any sort of change.

Below: Sunset Park

Courtesy Barry Yanowitz/Flickr

Recent shifts began in the early 1990s when younger people, mostly single, began flocking to the industrial neighborhood of Williamsburg after they couldn’t find acceptable space across the river in the East Village and the Lower East Side. This, in itself, was not a new phenomenon; Brooklyn Heights saw a similar ‘bohemian’ gentrification a century ago, as did Park Slope in the 1960s and 70s.

But the Williamsburg migration initiated a widespread lurch of gentrification into Brooklyn — some of it, as Hymowitz notes, with great degrees of population displacement. Gentrification is considered a bad word for many, a sign of Brooklyn becoming deeply homogenized to the detriment of its working-class residents.

The New Brooklyn
What It Takes To Bring A City Back
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Roman & Littlefield

Roman & Littlefield

In The New Brooklyn, Hymowitz looks at the more nuanced effects of gentrification by diving into the histories of seven neighborhoods — Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Sunset Park and Canarsie. (My only objection to this book is that the surveys are so engaging that I would have loved to read her take on other intriguing corners — Red Hook and Brighton Beach, for example.)

Below: Brownsville

Courtesy Nathan Prelaw/Flickr

She notes that gentrification, even of the most well-intentioned kind, is always fated for a rough landing. “When the educated middle class sets up housekeeping amid people from a different culture — whether white working class, poor black or immigrant  Hispanic, Chinese or whoever — tensions are inevitable.”

Gentrification in Brooklyn has come in all forms, with varying degrees of displacement. While sensitive liberal tenancies among current displacers has made gentrification into a bad word, this was not so deeply concerning in the 1960s — in Park Slope, for example — when the city was spiraling towards financial doldrum.  Writes Hymowitz:

“[G]entrification can drive out residents by increasing evictions, demolitions and landlord harassment, and raising rents to heights that existing tenants cannot afford. This kind of displacement has a decades-long history in gentrifying Park Slope. In the early days (and despite their countercultural sympathies), brownstoners made no bones about wanting to evict tenants whom they often inherited with their newly purchased brownstones.”

Below: Park Slope

Courtesy John-Paul Pagano/Flickr

Yet the Williamsburg-into-Bushwick-and-beyond form of gentrification is of an entirely different breed; it became an international model for urban renewal. “Everyone, including people who might have once aspired to the Ritz, whether in Tokyo, Stockholm, Berlin, Philadelphia or Chicago, wants to be cool in a Brooklyn sort of way.

While this has made Brooklyn an overall safer place to live, it’s also created an experience quite out of reach for many. In Hymowitz’s survey, she also visits Brownsville, a neighborhood almost entirely closed off from the so-called “rebirth,” a place where residents, mostly poor and working class African-Americans, are struggling to break free from life in “the permanent ghetto.”

The New Brooklyn is anchored firmly in history with an excellent overview of Brooklyn’s past upfront and startling neighborhood histories beginning each chapter. History explains the reactions to modern changes.

In Bed-Stuy, longtime residents are concerned that rapid gentrification is changing the nature of this historic center of black culture. While in Sunset Park, as Hymowitz notes, “you’d be hard-pressed to find any anti-gentrification protests or activists taking up the cause.”

— By Greg Young

Below: Bedford-Stuyvesant

Courtesy Melissa Felderman/Flickr



Top picture — Brooklyn 1945, courtesy New York Public Library


The New York Riots of 1964: Violent history with a haunting familiarity

One hot summer’s morning, in the neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, high school student James Powell was shot and killed by police officer James Gilligan.

Powell either attempted to stab the officer or else the unarmed boy was brutally set upon by a man with violent tendencies. Gilligan, a war veteran, was either defending himself from a troubled delinquent or else he gunned down the teenager with little remorse.

There were few actual witnesses but dozens of bystanders. The incident took place across the street from a high school, and the students, incensed by rumors and the fear of blood running in the streets, began panicking.

The year was 1964.

It’s hard not to read the opening pages to Michael W. Flamm’s gripping In The Heat Of The Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime (University of Pennsylvania Press) and not see the parallels to modern police brutality cases.  So many different testimonies obscure the truth that it’s hard to know what really did happen in front of 215 East 76th Street that day. (Video footage might not have even cleared it up.)

Yet Flamm’s book isn’t specifically about the crime, but the chaos which ensued — the New York Riots of 1964 (with the most violent night often referred to as the Harlem Riot of 1964). For several evenings following the shooting, a host of speculations and false rumors — mixing with grief and despair on a series of hot summer evenings — led to roaming violence and looting in Harlem (with some also reported in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant).

The incidents which occurred that summer stem from hostilities which had built up within the black community for decades. A great distrust between the police and African-Americans played a part in the rising crime rate in poor neighborhoods like Harlem in the 1960s.

Courtesy the New York Daily News

Fearful residents felt powerless against increasing criminal behavior and drug abuse in their streets but didn’t risk involving law enforcement, who most considered corrupt and racist.

White residents avoided black neighborhoods — and vice versa — due to wildly dramatic reports in the press. Black power movements like the Nation of Islam escalated talk of violence while, in some neighborhoods, white vigilantes stopped and interrogated every black person found in the streets.

Writes Flamm: “New York sounded to the rest of the country like some frontier town helpless before the uncontrollable violence stalking its streets.”

Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun

Flamm follows two parallel threads, both coming together in raw, unexpected ways. The first is a terrifying minute-by-minute account of the late-night street riots, the chaotic protests and the rallies organized by those who wished to funnel that rage into a mechanism of change. The second is the reactions of politicians and civil rights leaders to New York’s race and law enforcement problems.

The author’s meticulous research finds microcosms of hate and fear at nearly ever corner — of the kind which will make nobody particularly nostalgic for the period. “Central Harlem seemed like a war zone, with screams from people and cracks from bullets as they ricocheted off brick walls and cement sidewalks.”

New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Wolfson, Stanley, photographer.

At the center of the story is civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (pictured above) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), often caught between keeping and promoting the peace and quelling the concerns of angry residents.

At one point, Rustin was literally disarming people. “The toll might have gone much higher if not for Rustin, who personally disposed of three cases of dynamite — enough to destroy a city block — after two young black men agreed to give it to him instead of using it.”

Few history books I’ve read in the past twelve months have felt as immediate as In the Heat of the Summer, with anecdotes that seem to speak pointedly to the events of today’s headlines.

For example, some police authorities applauded television coverage of the riots. Said one commissioner: “It’s the best answer we have to the cries of police brutality. The camera, after all, cannot distort or lie; the worst that can happen is that the film is edited. But what you see on the home screen is the actual occurrence.”

Insomniac City: A strange tale of love and a tribute to off-beat New York

Writer and photographer Bill Hayes moved to New York in 2009 and experienced what many of us have already learned:  the nights are magic and the subway is a wilderness.

He began jotting down his observations of peculiar experiences, the strange behaviors of others existing in their own little New Yorks. “Every car on every train on every line holds a surprise,” writes Hayes, “a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.”

Above and below: A couple of the many strange and captivating photographs by Bill Hayes featured in the book.

During the day he would aim a friendly camera towards New Yorkers of all shapes and affinities. Hayes left San Francisco after the tragic death of his partner and fortunately seems to have fallen into New York like one of its many prodigal souls. His experiences aren’t unique; they mirror yours and mine.

Except for the fact that, oh yes, he falls in love with a noted British neurologist and author — the late and dearly missed Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks, photographed by Bill Hayes

In Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, Hayes’ new memoir and urban rumination, we’re presented with a bird’s eye view of New York’s universal appeal to outsiders, paired with a microscopic look at two of those outsiders.

Sacks, a celebrated author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Awakenings (the basis of the Robert De Niro/Robin Williams film), was a guarded individual, coming out to himself late in life and socially removed from non-professional affairs.

Hayes introduces us to Sacks’ extraordinary worldview, an intellectual who brought critical thinking into the slightest of gestures and loved going to the roof to drink wine out of the bottle. The love and reverence Hayes has for Sacks is clear, referring to him throughout the text as just ‘O’, giving us their intimate moments only when they illuminate something of his genius.

Insomniac City is a fragmentary, often poetic look at love of a city and of an individual, told in notes and journal entries. It’s a book one could easily devour in a single sitting but I suggest prolonging the experience, reading a little at a time, allowing the individual anecdotes to inform your own adventures out in the big city.

It take on a set of colossal tasks; it can be poem, a documentary and a tribute on just a single page. Hayes is giving us permission to stare into his life — and into the lives of others — in the same durations of time that we experience each other in our daily lives.  In those flash moments of bonding on mass transit or on the street, where we may imagine what another person is thinking and feeling before they vanish.

And knowing, in his vignettes, that he’s exposed an intimacy with strangers, he then bares his own to us, his unabashed mix of love, friendship and bewilderment to a wonderful, complicated man, who also came and went.

New York, Oliver and Me
Bloomsbury Publishing


Photographs courtesy Bill Hayes and Bloomsbury

Ten holiday gift ideas for history buffs: The books of 2016

GIFT GUIDE The best part about the holidays in 2016 is that it requires two bursts of shopping — before the holidays for your loved ones and after the holidays for yourself (via gift cards and post-Christmas sales).  So consider this a list of recommendations not only for others, but for yourself!

In addition to our own book of course — The Bowery Boys’ Adventures In Old New York  I thought I’d suggest a few other New York City history related books that have come out this year, a few with ties to subjects we’ve spoken about in prior podcasts:

American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States
by Nicholas L. Syrett
University of North Carolina Press

You’ve heard us interview Syrett on our recent podcast on the notorious Madame Restell. In Syrett’s latest book, he uncovers the story of child brides in American history, observing the changing perceptions of sexual maturity and marital objectives. Anchoring each chapter are deeply researched examples of young brides in our nation’s history — from Colonial-era North Carolina to Texans in the 21st century. It’s a far more complex tale than you might have guessed — with shifting power dynamics through the decades — and Syrett analyzes every aspect in rich detail.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital
by David Oshinsky

Bellevue Hospital is one of New York City’s oldest institutions and one of the oldest health providers in America. Those who may not be totally familiar with their major contributions to American life might know Bellevue only from horror stories of their psychiatric ward.  But Oshinsky engagingly puts the hospital in its proper context — from its early days battling yellow fever to the 1980s AIDS crisis — and does so in a thrilling read. An especially fine follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Polio: Am American Story.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History in Immigrant New York
by Tyler Anbinder
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This is one of the best history books of the year, a tribute to the DNA of the United States — the foreigners who came before us, struggled in poor neighborhoods and endured the hate and hardship of a fearful nation (comprised of people who, a generation or two before, were themselves newcomers). Anbinder presents the entire history of New York City from the perspectives of those sought out its streets as a sanctuary and home. City of Dreams provides the origin story for the diversity of today’s city.

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine
by Sarah Lohman
Simon & Schuster

Food historian Sarah Lohman travels far and wide hunting down the surprising stories of the eight flavors that define contemporary American cuisine, and by extension, America itself. This fascinating and charming book is a multilayered confection of food history, travelogue, scientific sleuthing, personality profile, and time-machine cookbook.

In telling the stories of how these signature ingredients (black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha) arrived in American kitchens (quite often through New York’s restaurants and homes), we’re introduced to the culinary habits of famous Americans (Martha Washington, Julia Child) and those overlooked, until now, by history books, including early American merchants, an African slave in a vanilla bean field, and Ranji Smile, the Indian chef brought to New York from London in 1899 by Louis Sherry to spice things up at Sherry’s on 44th and Fifth Avenue. All that, and Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe, too. A delicious read.

Hamilton: The Revolution
by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Grand Central Publishing

The closest many will ever come to seeing the pricy Broadway musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s companion tome to his massive musical hit feels like it was built specifically for the holiday season, a glamorous, well-produced celebration of the show, filled with making-of tidbits woven through the full text of the show. For theater lovers it provides a rare insight into the show’s inception and Miranda’s genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter. Slip on the cast recording while perusing its pages, and it’ll be like you’re on the front row.

A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park: How A Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront
by Nancy Webster and David Shirley
Columbia University Press

The Brooklyn waterfront just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge has served two purposes — as a thriving port until the mid-20th century (when container shipping effectively destroyed Brooklyn’s pier industries), and as an unobtrusive platform for those that enjoy the gorgeous views of Manhattan from the vantages of the Brooklyn Promenade and the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. Transforming  this area into a lovely park then was, no surprise, an epic struggle. Webster and Shirley take you through every contentious step of the park’s evolution from the 1980s until today.
Read my full review of this book here.



The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan
by Sebastian Mallary
Penguin Press

At first glance, this might be a strange book to include on a list of New York City history books. But this excellently written biography about the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve is a true New York story. Alan Greenspan was born in Washington Heights and educated at both NYU and Columbia University. His evolving beliefs on the economy and his rise in the world of American finance are brilliantly told by Mallary, a respectful but unblemished look at the intersection of Wall Street and the White House. As somebody who finds themselves rather lost in traditional tales of the financial market, I found The Man Who Knew to be both engaging and brisk.


New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Scandal That Launched The Progressive Era
by Daniel Czitrom
Oxford University Press

A vibrant, vivid retelling of a critical event in New York City history: the formation of the Lexow Committee, the state task force which eventually — after a couple rough starts — blew the lid off of New York’s most corrupt practices and sent Tammany Hall into decline. This event created the structure by which other corrupted politics could be dealt with in the 20th century.  Read my full review of this book here.

A Place For Us: West Side Story and New York
by Julie L. Faulkes
University of Chicago Press
The Broadway musical West Side Story and its film adaptation say more about New York City than perhaps any other musical ever created. The extraordinary talent who brought it together (Bernstein! Robbins! Sondheim!) made the impossible work, inspired by the tensions of late 1950s New York. Foulkes follows the musical from inception to its influence around the world.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking/ Penguin Random House

Philbrick (In The Heart of the Sea) is one of America’s most engaging historians, able to animate the past with the immediacy of modern prose. This year he tackled the Revolutionary War from the perspective of Benedict Arnold, a complicated figure who first assisted in saving Washington’s efforts before later betraying him. His tale will have you wondering if maybe his life wouldn’t make a good music.