Category Archives: Bowery Boys Bookshelf

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.


‘New York Exposed’: Taking on corruption in the Gilded Age

In this week’s podcast, we discuss the tale of Madame Restell, the infamous 19th century abortionist and the moral reformer who brought her down — Anthony Comstock.  Comstock succeeded in destroying Restell in 1878. But the moral crusaders were just getting started.

Old New  York luxuriated in a complex system of rewards to protect its vice industries. The takedown of Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed in the 1870s and illicit providers like Restell only scratched the surface of corruption, held in place by the compromised and easily-bought police department. How could reform-minded New Yorkers even try and fix this problem if it seemed that every other person benefited from it?


In New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Scandal That Launched The Progressive Era, author Daniel Czitrom reveals the architects of what became known as 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, once again, into decline. (The committee is named for New York state senator Clarence Lexow.)

At the center of this story is Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, the reverend who railed against unchecked vice and the police infrastructure which kept fueling it. Parkhurst sounds a bit like a bore, but New York was in need of his determination and tenacity; he was the Gilded Age’s bulldog. His cries of reform from the pulpit led to his participation in the Society for the Prevention of Crime, a private watchdog group which applied great pressure on New York’s most corrupt elite.

As Czitrom reveals, holding this vice racket in place was Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine who repeatedly defaulted to graft and shadiness after short periods of reform. But the reform leaders on the state level (mostly Republicans) who helped form the Lexow Committee were no angels.  What emerged, however, was a fragile Republican-led attempt at ridding government of excess — and expunging Tammany from power.

Some members of the Lexow Committee tale are featured in this illustration, including  Chief of Police Thomas Byrnes, Joseph Choate, John W. Goff, Clarence Lexow and lawyer William Howe.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Czitrom, a Bronx-born professor at Mount Holyoke College, achieves a startling feat; he expertly untangles a complex web of politics and manages to make board meetings and testimonies sound interesting. This is a crucial and important moment in New York City history, and I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing it described as vividly as it appears in New York Exposed.

The problems of Gilded Age would certainly not be solved by the Lexow Committee, but its bold gestures would come to define the Progressive Era.  And its influence — the rinse-and-repeat cycle of reform, what Czitrom calls the Lexow Effect — echoes into present day.

New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Scandal That Launched The Progressive Era

By Daniel Czitrom
Oxford University Press

For More on Jane Jacobs….

We hope you enjoyed our 200th Bowery Boys podcast on Jane Jacobs. For further reading on her life, philosophy and work, we recommend the following books, most of which we used as source material for this show.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs — Obviously you should start with Jacobs’ opus on how the American city works (well, at least the city of the 1960s).  She has a clear, approachable and pragmatic way of looking at urban problems. You’ll also notice immediately how modern city planners have used some of the ideas she’s described.

Wrestling With Moses by Anthony Flint — Perhaps the most succinct book on the specific crises which pitted Robert Moses with Jacobs, a breezy and engaging tale of New York City in the 1950s and ’60s.

Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alice Sparberg Alexiou — If you’d like a good biography on Jacobs, try this enjoyable read (published in 2006, the year of Jacobs’ death) that gives an overview of her life and career.

Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter Laurence — If you’re looking for something more recent, this brand new biography uniquely explores the origins of how she developed her ideas of urban places. Even if you’ve read any of the books listed above, Laurence’s book goes more deeply into her many influences.

The Battle For Gotham by Roberta Brandes Gratz — For even more expansive look at the legacies of both Moses and Jacobs, especially in the proceeding decades. Gratz takes specific aim at more recent projects in New York in a very personalized way.

The Village by John Strausbaugh — A wide-lens history of Greenwich Village, Strausbaugh spends a great amount of time looking at how Jacobs assisted in the salvation of her neighborhood, and how these preservation battles interlocked with the culture of the day.

The Power Broker by Robert Caro — Jacobs famously doesn’t even make an appearance in Caro’s legendary, barn-burning biography, but the book remains essential reading for anybody interested in mid-century America.


Or burrow your way through the New York Times archives of material on the battles waged by Jane Jacobs and Village community activists against the city.  Start with these:

Shopping Scarce In City Projects “Most of the 350,000 New Yorkers living in public housing must go outside the projects for the loaf of bread, the quart of milk, the daily newspaper and the sociability of the candy store, coffee shop or tavern.” (June 16, 1957)

Road Test Halted In Washington Square: Closing of Park to General Traffic Called Success By Village Leaders (November 25, 1958)

Two Blighted Downtown Areas Are Chosen For Urban Renewal (February 21, 1961)

Board of Estimates Votes Expressway Across Manhattan (March 8, 1968)

And here’s Jane’s 2006 obituary in the Times.


Below: Washington Square in 1930. Photo by Samuel H Gottscho. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth (May 4), the Municipal Art Society, with funding by the Rockefeller Foundation, has been hosting a series of events this year. From the website #JJ100:

“The celebration will pay tribute to Jane Jacobs on the 100-year anniversary of her birth by highlighting self-organized activities and events that embody Jane’s lasting legacy in cities around the world.”

Starting with Jane’s Walk in May, and culminating at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador, Jane Jacobs at 100 will promote self-organized Jacobsian programming and projects taking place in New York and in cities around the world.”  Keep checking in at their website for more information. And of course Jane’s Walk arrives in May!


Meanwhile The Center for the Living City is taking a fascinating approach to their celebration of Jacobs’ legacy. Check out their dedicated page Jane’s 100th for a list of events and unique objectives. Including getting Jane Jacobs on a postage stamp! (How is she not on a postage stamp? Harry Potter has a postage stamp!)  Author Peter Laurence has set up a petition for this that you obviously must sign.

You also may be interested in their new project being launched as part of their Jacobs celebrations — the Urban Acupuncture Network.


By the way, if you’re interested in hearing the entire 1962 chat by Jane Jacobs that we featured in our show, you can hear it here.

Or perhaps you’d like to catch the new Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs opera — A Marvelous Order!

New Bowery Boys podcast: We look at our own history and to the future

As we prepare for our #200th episode — and the release of the first-ever Bowery Boys book — we’ve decided to take a look back at our last 100 shows, at some of the highlights of the past six or so years.  What were some of our favorite episodes? The most controversial episode? What’s the weirdest episode among the past 100 shows? (Clue: It has to do with a current presidential candidate!)

But we start by officially introducing you to Adventures In Old New York, our new book coming out in May.  We give you a little insight into its development and what history you can expect to find in it.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!




The history and future of Gowanus: Interview with author Joseph Alexiou

Brooklyn gentrification has reached a curious impasse — the Gowanus Canal.

The neighborhood surrounding it thrives with new housing developments, trendy restaurants and bars, music venues, shuffleboard clubs and even a Whole Foods. Curbed just named it neighborhood of the year. It’s now a destination for foodiesPity about that fetid and uniquely aromatic body of water then, a SuperFund site since 2010 and a problem that has vexed Brooklyn for decades. (Black mayonnaise anyone?)

The Gowanus is also pivotal to the history of Brooklyn — and all of New  York City — as enjoyably laid out by author Joseph Alexiou in his new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.

The shores of Gowanus Creek have been critical to Brooklyn’s growth since the early Dutch days.  Its story is surprisingly thrilling and robust, from the bloody Revolutionary War battle fought on its shores to its transformation into an artery for industry.  Residents  have struggled with the Gowanus’ toxic qualities — both in the water itself and the criminal life it seems to regularly attract — for over a century and a half.

I wish there was a book like this for every foul, troublesome thing in New York.  Gowanus feels like a biography with an engaging protagonist — plucked from innocence and slowly corrupted — that you want to help save by the end.

Given the current situation in the neighborhood — anybody looking for a cheap apartment?Gowanus is an important and urgent read.  Plus the book is nominated for a GANYC Apple Award for outstanding achievement in non-fiction book writing! (Check out the full list of nominees here.) On the eve of the awards ceremony this Monday, I asked Alexiou a few questions about his experiences researching this curious creek:

Greg Young: What’s your particular connection to the Gowanus? How did you decide to develop this as a book subject?

Joseph Alexiou: I lived in Gowanus from 2006–2011, and happened upon the canal quite by accident, but it was love at first sight. I spent  several years  in the neighborhood  before making my foray into freelance writing, when I realized the area was a goldmine of funny stories and and weird characters.
The pollution was also so extreme and kind of surprising, which I learned about thanks to the appearance of Sludgie the Whale in 2007. Eventually, I ended up in journalism school, where my obsessions and nerdish love of history became the subject for a book proposal class.


GY: Since your book is really arranged like a biography of the Gowanus, what would say has been its personality over the decades?

JA: The Gowanus has always been stubborn and dependable, and muddy. Definitely thoughtful— a calm, earthly reminder of the powers of nature with that occasional tendency to overflow. But the beginning it was a lot more crunchy and pastoral, full of wildlife and pleasant breezes. But as industry arrived, the Gowanus became stinky, smelly, exciting and unsavory—perhaps just a little bit dangerous. The foreboding sense of doom was its personality for a long time. But with the dynamic nature of cities and waterways, that grittiness is evolving yet again.


Illustration from The Stone House of Gowanus, Scene of the Battle of Long Island (1909) by Georgia Fraser


GY: Were you surprised to find how important the Gowanus has been to the overall history of Brooklyn? It seems like its story reflects many of the changes that have happening to the city (and borough) over the decades?

JA: When I discovered that the name “Gowanus” appeared in some of the oldest documented history of New York—dating back to 1636—that’s how I knew there was a particular history to be told. It was a surprise, but also a relief when I discovered how often the name “Gowanus” appeared across newspaper pages and old documents, once I had started really researching the book. So many people used it for business, pleasure, crossed its banks, complained about the traffic, fell into it!


It’s a really unique kind of New York waterway—naturally occurring, then industrialized, then neglected. It’s difficult to move and get around, and often caused much trouble because of the flooding. So many people have invested in it, cursed it, pondered its existence, and written about Gowanus throughout history because it was weird and offbeat, a wrinkle in the map. That proved to be quite a boon, and a great vantage point from which to observe the history of Brooklyn.


GY: Is there anything truly ‘natural’ about the Gowanus anymore? I confess to strolling around it sometimes, trying to picture it as a natural body of water. Is there anything about it at all that remotely resembles the creek that you introduce us to at the beginning?

JA: Well, the rise and fall of the tide is one of the remaining original aspects of the canal. There’s no real wetland left around the canal, although if the walls were knocked down it would start to rebuild itself. Perhaps I should give a nod to little snippets of nature that pop up at street ends (Second Avenue comes to mind) that sort of mimic the original landscape. But imagination is helpful!


View from Gowanus Heights, Brooklyn, 1840, painted by Herrmann Julius Meyer (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)


GY: The community has a fondness and love for the Gowanus, even considering the health concerns that have vexed it for decades. What do you think is the specific appeal to living near here?

JA: For a very long time it was simply that it didn’t cost very much. But lately, for the more visually-minded, the neighborhood has a unique shape apart from the grid. The industrial architecture, bridges, funny signs, graffiti—all of this gives the neighborhood great character and personality. A soaring warehouse building or an unusual edifice gives a break from the monotony of endless streets. It’s very Jane Jacobsian, but strange breaks in the city grid, or old buildings repurposed, allow for newly creative use and exploration. This particular appeal has long existed in contemporary Gowanus.

 Gowanus Canal from Second Street, 1986, Randy Dudley, from the Brooklyn Museum collection1

GY: Your book explores the struggles to clean up the Gowanus over the decades. There’s obviously a great urgency now due to the residential boom in the neighborhood.  Do you think it’s really possible to rehabilitate the Gowanus at this point, at least in a cost effective way? Do you think it will ever be considered ‘safe’ in our lifetimes?

JA: “Safe” is a relative term, and within the next two decades I do believe it will become much cleaner, and safer. I don’t know if the canal will ever be swimmable though, as raw sewage will always be in danger of spilling into the water (albeit much less than now, if the EPA plans go accordingly)—some problems are just too immense to totally solve.


GY: And, out of concern for your safety – just how much time did you actually have to spend near the Gowanus itself? God forbid you didn’t actually go anywhere close to the water?!

JA: I’ve been down to the Gowanus quite a bit, and gone out on a boat, no less than three times! I can’t say I felt totally safe during any of the voyages, but it was exhilarating! It’s a fantastic and totally unique way of seeing Brooklyn, and the city!

The Bowery Boys ten favorite
 New York City history books of 2015

With the holiday season arriving, you may actually have time to get a little more reading done. May I suggest the following ten books, my favorite New York City history books of 2015? They don’t have a lot in common — ranging from a children’s book with a great heart to a massive tome about a great entertainer — but their perspectives into the greater tale of New York City history are rich, original, sometimes provocative, and always entertaining.

While warm nostalgia is certainly represented on this list (Coney Island Reader, St. Marks Is Dead), a great number focus on the uglier side of New York City — from the industrial deformities that sometimes define a city (Gowanus, Taming Manhattan) to the questionable moral judgments of a supposedly informed society (Santa Claus Man, Spectacle).

Dead Wake, my favorite book of 2015, recounted the complicated story of an international tragedy on its 100th anniversary. Erik Larson’s tale of the RMS Lusitania is notable for its various viewpoints, excellently woven into one seamless, frightening narrative. It accomplished something I never thought possible — it made me want to watch the movie Titanic again.

Some of the books have been reviewed on this site already, and a couple others will be the focus of longer pieces in the next couple months. (I swear I have a great excuse; I was too busy writing the Bowery Boys book, coming out next year!)

And if you haven’t finished holiday gift shopping, then just take this list to the store with you:



City on the Grid: How New York Became New York
By Gerard Koeppel
De Capo Press

The Croton water system, the subway, skyscrapers — these things seem inevitable within modern New York City today. What would the city be without them? But the grid plan, the masterwork of civic planning created by the Commissioners Plan of 1811, is on a different level from those; every element of life in Manhattan is determined by the placement of streets and avenues. Cities often took grids into their skeletal development — early Manhattan was a collection of small systems — but the grand ambitions of early 19th century city planners are almost hard to fathom.  Koeppel takes us into the motivations for creating this mighty, orderly system and the methods in which they were plowed — sometimes violently — through the topography of New York.  Even its imperfections (like that original lack of a large open space) are fascinatingly told here.



The Coney Island Reader
Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion
edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola
Columbia University Press

Everybody sees Coney Island a little differently. Most people know it for the amusements but not everybody has the same feeling about them. One person craves the beaches, the food. Another prefers a stroll along the boardwalk, fireworks, an evening Cyclones game. Others live nearby, too familiar with the swelling weekend crowds. And some people — and this seems like blasphemy — have had their fill of Nathan’s hot dogs.

In The Coney Island Reader we get a time machine through its many iterations, thanks to the observations of dozens of writers.  This is perhaps the only book in history that features the writing of e.e. cummings and Robert Moses. One saw “[t]he incredible temple of pity and terror,  mirth and amazement,” the other “overcrowding at the public beach, inadequete play areas and lack of parking space.”  Ah, Coney Island. It’s what you make of it.



Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Crown Publishers

This captivating new narrative non-fiction from Larson (The Devil In The White City) follows the tragic fate of the RMS Lusitania from four sectors.  In England, a group of cryptoanalysts in shadowy Room 40  attempt to crack German messages as their U-boats began prowling through British-controlled waters. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson, still mourning the loss of his wife, attempts to keep American neutrality intact in the face of growing threats.

But the two central perspectives are what grant Dead Wake its lurching, inevitable dread — that of the unwitting passengers of the Lusitania and of the U-boat which would destroy it.  And Larson switches between them like the dance of predator and prey in a nature documentary.



Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal
Joseph Alexiou
New York University Press

The Gowanus Canal is absolutely disgusting, and Alexiou’s engaging history of this ancient Brooklyn waterway is probably the most pleasant thing associated with it. Few today could look at its ramshackle, hemmed-in borders and know how vital the Gowanus was to the development of Brooklyn, from the earliest days when a critical Revolutionary War battle was waged on its shore to its importance as a waterway of trade and industry. It’s the gradual corroding powers of that industry that have transformed this once-bucolic shore into a putrid deathtrap for aquatic life and a health concern for modern residents.  Gowanus has an urgency that few history books possess; its last pages take you to a modern, thriving neighborhood in an unstable relationship with the body of water that defines it.



Oskar and the Eight Blessings
Richard Simon and Tanya Simon
Illustrated by Mark Siegel
Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Publishers

What is a fictional children’s book doing on a history book list?! Well, this is no ordinary story.  Oskar, a waif with wide eyes and curly hair, is sent to New York by his parents under troubling circumstances, to get him out of perilous, Nazi-controlled Europe.  Nobody knows he’s arrived in New York. It’s during a snowstorm and Oskar needs to walk 100 blocks by himself through a completely foreign and bewildering city to get to his aunt’s house.

Authors Richard Simon and Tanya Simon aren’t setting Oskar out on a random landscape, but one uniquely tied to a specific time — the seventh day of Hanukkah 1938, which also happens to be Christmas Eve. Illustrations by Mark Siegel wonderfully captures New York as a sort of wistful historic mirage, a child’s distorted gaze over a city, enchanting and endless.  His illustrations seem to generate warmth as the story progresses towards its poignant and beautiful ending.



Santa Claus Man
Alex Palmer
Lyons Press

In 1913 John D. Gluck seemed to conjure up a genius solution for handling those piles of Santa Claus letters written by needy children. Following the Gilded Age, New York City was filled with wealthy residents interested in charitable concerns. Why not bring the two together via his very own Santa Claus Association?

But Mr. Gluck would have topped Santa’s naughty list, concocting one of the most shocking scams of the early 20th century.   Palmer, the great grandnephew of Mr. Gluck, turns this surprising tale into a fast and clever romp through New York, racing from the newly built Woolworth Building to the most famous department store of its day – Macy’s.  The Santa Claus Man is a rich, sensational story of holiday spirit corrupted by audacity and greed, fueled by the media at the dawning of the Jazz Age.



Sinatra: The Chairman
James Kaplan

In time for Frank’s 100th birthday, Kaplan gives us the second half (the first Frank: The Voice came out in 2011) of his massive tribute to one of the 20th century’s definitive performers.  In the years covered here — from his Oscar win for From Here To Eternity in 1954 to his death in 1998 — Sinatra becomes more than a talent. He’s both a player behind the scenes, from Toots Shor’s in Midtown Manhattan to the office of John F. Kennedy, and upfront in the spotlight with glamorous love interests like Juliet Prowse and Mia Farrow. (Kaplan also weighs on the possible paternity of Mia’s son Ronan!) Lovingly researched — a warts-and-all bio — Kaplan’s book is way too long to read while drinking martinis but you’ll certainly be tempted.



Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
Pamela Newkirk
Amistad, HarperCollins Publishers

In 1906, visitors to the Bronx Zoo observed a rather bizarre sight in the Monkey House — the exhibition of a man in African dress, often accompanied by a parrot or an orangutan. His name is Ota Benga, Newkirk’s engaging new biography is both a sincere ode to his tragic life and a contemporary accusation of the terrible forces that exploited him over a century ago.  The story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.

He spoke little English and there are no accounts from his perspective. Almost everything we know is from the perspective of a jaundiced press and the glare of condescending authority. He was the subject of great fabrications over the years; the truth is almost impossible to extricate from hyperbole.  But the story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.  While his story is front and center in Spectacle, he barely raises his voice. He never had one.



St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives Of America’s Hippest Street
Ada Calhoun
W. W. Norton & Company

There’s no other way to tell the story of St. Mark’s Place in the East Village than the personal. (We broke out our own personal tales in our podcast from earlier this year.)  Calhoun saw its history first hand as a child, and her admiration and love for its gritty punk days is evident from page one. This is a grand complete history of one of New York’s most flexible streets, alive with anecdotes from its days on Peter Stuyvesant’s farm to its rich immigrant life. But let’s be honest — its the crazy, vibrant days of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring where the book really becomes a delightful page-turner. While the pages are sometimes glittery with nostalgia, the author never forgets to underscore the music and the madness with the reality of St. Mark’s vicious and sometimes ugly shadows.



Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City
Catherine McNeur
Harvard University Press

Here is New York as it actually was.  Dogs and pigs — hundreds of them — wading through muddy streets of detritus, neighborhoods reeking of human filth and boiling offal.  Blocks dominated by poorly constructed buildings, spilling waste into the streets.  Foul and unhealthy conditions for daily living, fostering sickness and disease. Watch out for that dead horse in the street.

To be fair, it may not have been that terrible all at once, but you come out of reading Taming Manhattan with an appreciation of how far the city has come in terms of cleanliness. You’ll certainly need a bath afterwards.

There was a class and racial component to this sudden ‘taming’.  New York’s new wealthy classes, enriched by the opening of the Erie Canal, wanted clean promenades and handsome private parks in which to luxuriate.  Watching the many changing motivations unspool in McNeur’s dense but exciting narrative makes for a surprisingly unpredictable tale.

Modern Family: Black and Latino Alliances in New York City

The political landscape of modern New York City is a stew of neighborhood, borough, financial and ethnic interests built upon over two centuries of experience and tradition.  The most interesting story of the past fifty years — both locally and nationally — is the ascension of minority voices into the public sphere, reflecting population changes but also rising strategies of organization.

How did non-white New Yorkers first find their voice in modern politics? In Upsetting the Apple Cart, an impressive navigation through late 20th century politics by Frederick Douglass Opie, the answer comes from seemingly surprising places — the hospital, the classroom, the kitchen table.


Opie, a professor at Babson College, inspects the particular relationship between New York’s black and Latino communities as they find ways to align at the workplace and in the voting booth. Today it seems obvious that two large minority interest groups might team up to achieve common goals, but it wasn’t until after labor and student activists explored the relationship in the 1950s and 60s that alliances were forged in the major political spheres.

The first half of Upsetting the Apple Cart traces the influences of both the unions and the civil rights movement upon minority workers at local hospitals and students at universities.  Frustrated by lower pay and unfair hours in comparison to their white counterparts, black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers found common ground and successfully organized. This culminated in a massive, ultimately successful city-wide strike on May 8, 1959, lasting almost two months.


Minority higher-education students at Columbia University, Hunter College and other school found other reasons to work together — to improve enrollment and educational needs. At Columbia students successfully closed the campus in protest over a new gymnasium being built in Morningside Heights, seen by many as an encroachment into the majority black neighborhood.

Personally I found the second half of Upsetting the Apple Cart more intriguing, but then, I love rooting around in the history of New York backroom political alliances.  Opie’s book excellently explains the early history of black and Latino political organization, from the rise of power in Harlem by the Gang of Four (including David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel) to the first politicians of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican descent in New York.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Politics is made from shifting alliances but it wasn’t until the victory of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 that the united front of African-American, Hispanic and Latino-American activists made itself felt in a major political race. Such unification of goals made its way to New York through the presidential aspirations of Jesse Jackson and the various (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to unseat New York mayor Ed Koch.

The apex of minority political alliances occurred with the election of David Dinkins, famous for his appeal to the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York ethnicities. Dinkins won because, in the end, he appealed to a majority of New Yorkers. But Opie makes note of the unique organizations of outer-borough Hispanics that helped get him elected.

Wait, did I mention that Upsetting  the Apple Cart is also a cookbook? Somewhat incongruously, traditional recipes for tamales, arroz con pollo, fried chicken and other dishes pop up throughout the chapters. Opie, a food traditions professor, emphasizes the role of social interaction in creating these unique coalitions.  To paraphrase a popular adage, the best way to a neighbor’s heart is through her stomach.  The success of these early alliances lends some credence to food as the great uniter.

Upsetting the Apple Cart:
Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office
by Frederick Douglass Opie
Columbia University Press


Strike pictures courtesy 1199SEIU

Mysteries of the New York Street Grid at Museum of the City of New York

One of the best shows at the Museum of the City of New York in recent years was their excellent show from 2011 called The Greatest Grid, putting a spotlight on the invention of the Commissioners Plan of 1811, the visionary map which gave modern New  York its streets and avenues.

I loved that show but there’s more to the story! In a few weeks I’ll have a review of Gerard Koeppel’s City On A Grid: How New York Became New York, an epic take on the growing city’s risky gambit and the tale of John Randel Jr., the surveyor tasked with remaking the city, acre by acre.

On November 10, at 6:30pm, Koeppel will be at the Museum of the City of New York in conversation with Hilary Ballon, the curator of 2011’s The Greatest Grid. This is literally mega New York City history meeting of the minds!

And for Bowery Boys readers and listeners — a special offer! Buy your tickets now using the discount code MCBC1 for $10 tickets (regularly $16). Go directly to the museum’s website here to to get your tickets and find other information about the museum.



The Magic of 1930s New York Through a Child’s Eyes

I don’t often review children’s books on this blog, but then again, there are few that use New York City history in such a spellbinding way as Oskar and the Eight Blessings, a winter’s tale spun from nostalgia.

Oskar, a waif with wide eyes and curly hair, is sent to New York by his parents under troubling circumstances. They are Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe and have sent their son away to an aunt who lives in upper Manhattan.

Courtesy Macmillan Publishers
Courtesy Macmillan Publishers

Nobody knows he’s arrived in New York. It’s during a snowstorm (albeit of the very best kind). He has to get to his aunt’s house before sundown. Oskar just needs to walk 100 blocks by himself through a completely foreign and bewildering city.

His journey is the basis of an extraordinary story about generosity and kindness that, believe it or not, can still exist in New  York, can still exist, maybe, in humanity. Authors Richard Simon and Tanya Simon aren’t setting Oskar out on a random landscape, but one uniquely tied to a specific time — the seventh day of Hanukkah 1938, which also happens to be Christmas Eve.

Through a gauze of magic realism, the New York Oskar experiences is a real New York. Oskar visits Trinity Church, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the Dakota Apartments and other places, running into a host of New Yorkers (including a couple famous ones) who teach him a little something about being a decent human being.

I was brought to this book because of my interest in the work of illustrator Mark Siegel who I’ve been a fan of since Sailor Twain, his terrific graphic novel about Hudson River steamships and enchanted mermaids. His work here wonderfully captures New York as a sort of wistful historic mirage, a child’s distorted gaze over a city, enchanting and endless.  His illustrations seem to generate warmth as the story progresses towards its poignant and beautiful ending.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings
Richard Simon and Tanya Simon
Illustrated by Mark Siegel
Roaring Brook Press
Macmillan Publishers



‘Spectacle’: The Story of Ota Benga

In 1906, visitors to the Bronx Zoo observed a rather bizarre sight in the Monkey House — the exhibition of a man in African dress, often accompanied by a parrot or an orangutan.

An African pygmy, so read the sign, “Age, 23, Height, 4 feet 11 inches, Weight 103 pounds, Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa.” Displayed in one of America’s foremost institutions devoted to the display and care of exotic animals. Elephants, tigers, polar bears, snow leopards, bison. And one young man named Ota Benga.


He is the subject of Pamela Newkirk’s engaging new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, both a sincere ode to his tragic life and a contemporary accusation of the terrible forces that exploited him over a century ago.

But the story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.

He spoke little English and there are no accounts from his perspective. Almost everything we know is from the perspective of a jaundiced press and the glare of condescending authority. He was the subject of great fabrications over the years; the truth is almost impossible to extricate from hyperbole.

While his story is front and center in Spectacle, but he barely raises his voice. He never had one.

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia) Title: Ota Bengi     Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher     Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card]     Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.     Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-22741 (digital file from original negative)     Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.     Call Number: LC-B2- 3971-2 [P&P]     Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA     Notes:         Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards.         Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).         General information about the Bain Collection is available at     Format:         Glass negatives.     Collections:         Bain Collection     Bookmark This Record:
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia)
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher 
Ota Benga is probably not even his real name. And even then, it’s twisted and distorted mercilessly, sometimes by the man himself. (When he died in 1916, he was known as Ota Bingo.)  In 1904 he was rescued from captivity in the Congo by the explorer and would-be scientist Samuel Phillips Verner.

This is probably true although Verner is an unreliable source, often changing his own biography to burnish his reputation in the science community.  Verner was the product of his age, seeing Africans as inferior beings but seeing their continent as a source of revenue. Verner sought to profit handsomely from his ‘explorations’ both by currying favor with the Belgian King Leopold II (the ruthless leader who exploited the people of the Congo) and by snatching human specimens for display in America.

Ota Benga first arrived with a group of other men and boys for an exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  People delighted at his mischievous nature and unusual appearance. His teeth were filed into points, a decorative trait that exhibitors (including Verner) proclaimed were the product of a cannibalistic nature.

Below: Ota Benga at the St. Louis World’s Fair with other men taken from Africa 


He went back with Verner to Africa only to arrive back in America by 1906 where he was placed in the care of the American Museum of Natural History. Ota Benga actually lived inside the museum, subject to more than a few indignities. “I have bought a duck suit for the Pigmy,” wrote Hermon Carey Bumpus, the director of the museum, to Verner. “He is around the museum, apparently perfectly happy and more or less a favorite of the men.”

Ota Benga’s removal to the Bronx Zoo and subsequent display in the Monkey House has certainly been a blight to that institution’s history. The decision reveals the outmoded and racist philosophies that pervaded scientific thinking of the day.

At best, Ota Benga was simply an object in an exotic diorama with audiences prodding him to do tricks. His humanity was barely considered. At worst, the exhibition lays bare the racism of the day in the most baldy sinister way possible, corroding even the most esteemed institutions of the day.

It’s a small relief to hear of the many criticisms the zoo received in the press back in 1906. Sanity soon prevailed and Ota Benga left the zoo to live in an orphanage in Weeksville, Brooklyn.

2Newkirk gives the life of Ota Benga a proper eulogy. She crafts an intriguing tale around the many uncertainties of his biography, sometimes even stopping to analyze his state of mind.  I greatly credit the author for parsing through volumes of inaccurate news reports in search of even the smallest grains of truth.

His story ends with an unsatisfying hollowness, outside New York and far from the Congo. Few in his life ever treated him as an equal. In fact, due to his size, he was frequently treated like a boy, although he mostly like ended his life in his early 30s.  He never found a place to fit in.

There’s only a single moment in the book where Newkirk lets us in on his marvelous potential, on a life that could have been under more fair and enlightened circumstances.

He becomes, for a moment, “a father figure and hero” to a group of small African-American boys in Lynchburg, Virginia.  “In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.”

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Amistad, HarperCollinsPublishers

by Pamela Newkirk


Other recently reviewed books on the Bowery Boys Bookshelf: