Bowery Boys Bookshelf

Here’s my 25 favorite books about New York City history. Help me choose 25 more!

Over the weekend, I put together this Riffle list of my favorite 25 book on the subject of New York City history, published over the last one hundred years.

I’ll admit that this list reflects what’s on my shelf at the moment and is not in any way yet complete. (For instance, I’m obviously sparse on books published before World War II.) But I do highly recommend all of these books as a sort of ‘beginners library’ on the subject of New York City:


(The two grayed out books above are ‘The Tiger The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall‘ and ‘The Most Famous Man In America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher‘.)

Now I’d love to get your ideas to make it a Top 50 book selection, made by the readers and listeners of the Bowery Boys.

Here’s the criteria to be considered:  the book must be non-fiction and fairly non-academic, i.e. meant for a general reading audience, published since 1913 . The books can be biographies or memoirs of famous New Yorkers.  I left references off this list — like the Encyclopedia of New York — but can put it back on if there’s enough outcry.

And, sadly, I’ve left essays and criticism of this list. My E.B White, Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable books are feeling left out.  I’m planning on a follow-up list in coming weeks for those books, and for fiction as well (for those Edward Rutherfurd fans out there!).

You can leave a comment on this page or join our Facebook page and leave your suggestions in the comments there. Or email me ( or even reach out on Twitter (@boweryboys)! I’ll compile the 25 best choices from readers and repost this list late next week as ‘The 50 Best New York History Books Chosen by Bowery Boys Listeners and Readers’.

Thanks in advance for your selections!

23 replies on “Here’s my 25 favorite books about New York City history. Help me choose 25 more!”

I loved “Work and Other Sins” by Charlie LeDuff – it was a collection of his articles from the Times, and a lot of them center on recovery workers in 9/11 – what was called the Pit. Kind of cut from the same vein as Joseph Mitchell. Not as good, but what is?

Incidentally, the Mitchell made me think – have you guys ever done an episode on the New Yorker? Probably a lot there.

Excellent beginner’s list! Kenneth Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City is one of my favorite go to books. There’s also “City of Eros” by Timothy Guilfoyle. Looking forward to seeing your fiction list soon!

I read The Great Bridge based on your previous recommendation, and it was AMAZING!!! Some stuff was super technical, but the history was fascinating. I will have to add several of these books to my list! Thanks for posting!

Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin
Working Class New York, Joshua Freeman
Brownsville, Brooklyn, Wendell Pritchett
To Stand and Fight, Martha Biondi
Manhattan Projects, Samuel Zipp
Phoenix in the Ashes, John Mollenkopf
Plunkitt of Tammany Hall
Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York, Jonathan Soffer
Barrio Dreams, Arlene Dávila
Taxi, Biju Mathew
The Closest of Strangers, Jim Sleeper
The Assassination of New York, Robert Fitch
How East New York Became a Ghetto, Walter Thabit
Just Kids, Patti Smith
Greenwich Village 1963, Sally Banes
New York in the 1950s, Dan Wakefield
Kafka was the Rage, Anatole Broyard
City Poet, Brad Gooch
Subway Art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant
New York, New York, Elizabeth Hawes

All That is Solid melts Into Air, Marshall Berman
White Boy, Mark Naison
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
Another Country, James Baldwin
Howl, Allen Ginsberg

You’ve hit all the good ones I’m familiar with. The Alienist sadly gets disqualified due to not being nonfiction (as far as we know…). For your follow-up list of essays and the like I suggest The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead.

[My browser crash when I was writing a list in this comment].

Anyway, replied to your twitter with a link to my Riffle; first 9 books are non-fiction.

And although I included fiction books, often times, fiction can be more real than non-fiction.

e.g.(The Alienist, although the plot is definitely fiction, the depiction of late 19th c. NYC is very real. Same with the two YA’s — Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed-Up Files, the depiction of UES and The Metropolitan of Art in those time is real, albeit it’s fiction for the young.

And please, please, please, no SATC on the list.

Happy Reading,
ee (@cire_e)

Fascinated by what makes it on to this list as ‘fairly non-academic’ — Lepore and Anbinder’s books were written for a general audience, so are no real surprise; Gay New York is a bit more of a surprise (thrilled to see it on th elist); not sure quite how Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto fits, and it’s now pretty dated, although I can’t really suggest an alternative book on Harlem. Have you read ‘Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars’?

I’ve been reading New York History for a few years. Included here is “Russ and Daughters”. It does include some rich history. Looking forward to your future lists on New York, fiction, etc.

Harlem : the four hundred year history from Dutch village to capital of Black America / Jonathan Gill

New York 1880 : architecture and urbanism in the gilded age / Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman

Russ & Daughters : reflections and recipes from the house that herring built / Mark Russ Federman ; foreword by Calvin Trillin

97 Orchard : an edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement / Jane Ziegelman

Bricks and brownstone : the New York row house, 1783-1929 / Charles Lockwood ; original photography by Robert Mayer ; color plates by Madeleine Isom ; walking tour photography by Christopher Puchalski ; introduction by Paul Goldberger

Eat the city : a tale of the fishers, trappers, hunters, foragers, slaughterers, butchers, farmers, poultry minders, sugar refiners, cane cutters, beekeepers, winemakers, and brewers who built New York / Robin Shulman

All that glittered : the golden age of drama on Broadway, 1919-1959 / Ethan Mordden

Shutting out the sky : life in the tenements of New York, 1880-1924 / Deborah Hopkinson

The New York Public Library : its architecture and decoration / Henry Hope Reed ; photographs by Anne Day (unless otherwise noted) ; preface by Arthur Ross

The historical atlas of New York City : a visual celebration of nearly 400 years of New York City’s history / Eric Homberger ; Alice Hudson, cartographic consultant

The neighborhoods of Queens / Claudia Gryvatz Copquin ; introduction by Kenneth T. Jackson

Streets : a memoir of the Lower East Side / Bella Spewack ; introduction by Ruth Limmer ; afterword by Lois Elias

Unearthing Gotham : the archaeology of New York City / Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall

New York night : the mystique and its history / Mark Caldwell

Lost New York / Nathan Silver

Upper West Side story : a history and guide / Peter Salwen

New York, New York : how the apartment house transformed the life of the city (1869-1930) / Elizabeth Hawes

In August we are performing Mae West’s “DIAMOND LIL” (last seen onstage in NYC in 1951). Mae West called her main character “The Queen of the Bowery.” Mae’s Gus Jordan, owner of Suicide Hall, was a very thinly disguised “Big Tim” Sullivan, Boss of the Bowery. Chuck Connors, the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” is roped into her novel as the right-hand man of Gus Jordan. (In 1928, when Mae cast the original Broadway production of “Diamond Lil,” Chuck Connors was played by Chuck Connors, Jr.)
Anyone who would like to spend August 17th and August 18th surrounded by our 1890s costumed Bowery characters, please come up and see Mae and get the details . . . and I recommend the novel DIAMOND LIL by Mae West (published in 1930) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thanks for the list and to everyone who’s commented with some additional titles.

I definitely think there needs to be more books on NYC history after WWII but I think the problem is those books still need to be written yet for the most part. But I did appreciate that at least 2-3 fit that bill.

A few more I would suggest:

More history of NYC sports. One suggestion: Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

A history of skyscrapers. It’s out of print, but I’d recommend Rise of the New York Skyscraper: 1865-1913.

Sam Roberts Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America

Hi guys, great site. Thanks! Please put “The Encyclopedia of New York” on your list. You said ” I left references off this list — like the Encyclopedia of New York — but can put it back on if there’s enough outcry.” Well, okay:
“Outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry,outcry, outcry, outcry, outcry”
Phew, is that enough? 🙂 There may be 8 million stories and 8 people in NYC but there are another 292 million people across the U.S., like myself in Illinois, who would and have found the
Encyclopedia to be a great introduction and starting point to bite deeper into The Big Apple by us bookworms.

Thanks again,

Tom F.

Norah by Cynthia G. Neale

I could not put this well written book down as I was drawn into the story of Norah and her rough times in 19th-century New York. It is a story of a strong and courageous woman’s survival in a difficult historical time. Norah McCabe, a resourceful and intelligent woman, overcomes very bad obstacles, learns something valuable from them, and moves forward with her life in a time that was difficult for women to achieve anything, and improve their lives. The story also highlights the importance of the support and closeness of the family unit to survival in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place.

Cynthia Neale’s story telling is superb and her authentic portrayal of this difficult time in history is full of details that only a thorough researcher and skillful, experienced writer could portray as believable. I yearn for a sequel as I want to know more about what will happen to Norah. I highly recommend this book.

Paticia O.

Manhattan, when I Was Young

Manhattan, when I Was Young
by Mary Cantwell

An autobiographical account of a female writer in the 1950s. Fresh out of college, Cantwell arrived in Greenwich Village and shared an apartment with a friend. Despite all the flair of metropolitan life, experiences with high-style department stores, exclusive little shops, theaters, parties, restaurant outings, and even a romance and marriage, she became increasingly depressed. Her close ties to a lovingly encouraging father were broken by his early death. She details the passage of years by describing the flats, houses, and apartments she lived in and the jobs lost and gained in her career pursuit, including at a fashion magazine. Despite Cantwell’s lifelong involvement with psychoanalysis, her account is enlivened with the glamour of little black dresses, Steuben glassware, ethnic neighborhoods, and the whole ambiance of the city, presenting anew the eternal charm of the Big Apple for the young — and especially in that 1950s world Cantwell inhabits, that of magazine and book publishing and fashion and the middle-class bohemia of downtown New York at a golden moment in time.(less)

Published October 1st 1996 by Penguin Books (first published 1995)

THE GREAT SCHOOL WARS: NEW YORK CITY, 1805-1973 By Diane Ravitch
(Dry but fascinating topic)

Wait Till Next Year – A Memoir: Doris Kearns Goodwin
(this one is really set in Rockville Center, but talks about the love of baseball and the hated rivalries between the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants, and is a phenomenal slice of suburban post-war life, from the child’s perspective of one of our best historians)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (On the to-read list but haven’t talked to a single person who hasn’t gushed about it)
Looks like you already have about everything else I’ve read.

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