The NYPL Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy recommends our favorite, most readable, most memorable New York City nonfiction. These are the true stories of New York that engaged us, that intrigued us, and that we thought you might like to read as well.
97 Orchard: An Edible History Of Five Immigrant Families In One New York Tenement
Explores the culinary life that was the heart and soul of New York's Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century—a city within a city, where Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews attempted to forge a new life. Through the experiences of five families, all of them residents of 97 Orchard Street, she takes readers on a vivid and unforgettable tour, from impossibly cramped tenement apartments down dimly lit stairwells where children played and neighbors socialized, beyond the front stoops where immigrant housewives found respite and company, and out into the hubbub of the dirty, teeming streets.
Staff says: "Food history and New York seamlessly woven together in a easy-to-read yet meticulously well researched book. I learned not only about the foods that certain immigrants ate, but how this changed over time, how Americans viewed 'foreign' cuisines over many different eras, and how this was a description of New York history and not just a reflection of imported appetites."
American Passage: The History Of Ellis Island
Vincent J. Cannato
A chronicle of the landmark port of entry's history documents its role as an execution site, immigration post, and deportation center that was profoundly shaped by evolving politics and ideologies.
Staff says: "The history of the island and the immigration station, and also of immigration policies in NY and the US. This book is well researched, scholarly and a very easy read. If you only read one book on Ellis Island, then this is it!"
The Battle For New York: The City At The Heart Of The American Revolution
Provides a dramatic account of the seminal role played by New York City during the American Revolution, from its September 1776 fall to the British under General William Howe, through years of occupation, and beyond, interweaving illuminating profiles of the individuals on both sides of the conflict with a study of the cultural, political, social, and economic events of the eighteenth century.
Staff says: "It sticks in the mind, especially for the quality of the research and the tour of today's New York in light of the events of history."
The Big Oyster: History On The Half Shell
For centuries New York was famous for its oysters, which until the early 1900s played such a dominant a role in the city's economy, gastronomy, and ecology that the abundant bivalves were Gotham's most celebrated export, a staple food for the wealthy, the poor, and tourists alike, and the primary natural defense against pollution for the city's congested waterways.
Staff says: "Lots of good NYC history in there along with the fascinating world of food history and bivalve science."
Dark Harbor: The War For The New York Waterfront
Traces the historical influence of the Mafia on New York's waterfront, drawing on the investigative series of New York Sun reporter Malcolm "Mike" Johnson into the region's racketeering, violent territorial disputes, and union corruption.
Staff says: "The real story behind the film On the Waterfront. I also get annoyed when films are historically inaccurate for the sake of plot, ending, etc when the truth is probably just as exciting: see Bridge On The River Kwai. Well researched, and exciting."
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story Of The Building Of The Brooklyn Bridge
Evaluates the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as the greatest engineering triumph of its time, citing the pivotal contributions of chief engineer Washington Roebling and the technical problems and political corruption that challenged the project.
Staff says: "A favorite that everyone knows for good reason!"
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
Traces the experiences of New Yorkers who grow and produce food in bustling city environments, placing urban food production in a context of hundreds of years of history to explain the changing abilities of cities to feed people.
Staff says: "This interesting collection of micro histories tells the story of such New York food industries as beekeeping, fishing, urban farming, brewing, winemaking, and butchering. The author profiles people currently involved in each industry and then traces the origin, rise, usual fall, and then resurgence of that field. It was fascinating to learn about the methods of the different food industries within the unique environment of New York City."
Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, And Became The World's Most Notorious Slum
Details the notorious neighborhood that was once filled with gaming dens, bordellos, dirty streets, and tenements, that welcomed such visitors as Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln, and brings to light the hidden world that existed beneath the squalor—a world that invented tap dancing and hosted the prize-fight of the century.
Staff says: "An accessible and broad work looking at the notorious downtown slum's population and sociology."
The Island at the Center of the World: the Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
A history of the Dutch role in the establishment of Manhattan discusses the rivalry between England and the Dutch Republic, focusing on the power struggle between Holland governor Peter Stuyvesant and politician Adriaen van der Donck that shaped New York's culture and social freedoms.
Staff says: "The book is well-researched, the stories are well-told, and it will flesh out that point of history that most people only remember as song lyrics: 'Even old New York was once New Amsterdam…'"
In this memoir, singer-songwriter Patti Smith shares tales of New York City: the denizens of Max's Kansas City, the Hotel Chelsea, Scribner's, Brentano's and Strand bookstores and her new life in Brooklyn with a young man named Robert Mapplethorpe—the man who changed her life with his love, friendship, and genius.
Staff says: "I rather enjoyed the descriptions of Patti and Robert are discovering New York, especially Brooklyn, together. She writes prose like a poet, with detail and care and without an overabundance of imprecise words."
Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, And The Battle For The Soul Of A City
A kaleidoscopic portrait of New York City in 1977, The Bronx Is Burning is the story of two epic battles: the fight between Yankee Reggie Jackson and team manager Billy Martin, and the battle between Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch for the city's mayorship. Buried beneath these parallel conflicts—one for the soul of baseball, the other for the soul of the city—was the subtext of race.
Staff says: "During the 1977 World Series, Howard Cosell really did say "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning" as flames licked up in the distance from Yankee Stadium. 1977 was the crux of the "bad ol' days" of New York City—white flight had taken its toll; unemployment was outrageous for everyone, but close to 80% for young blacks and hispanics; infrastructure was in disrepair; crime was outrageous. This was the New York that inspired movies like "Death Wish" and "The Warriors." NYC had bottomed out in 1977 and this is the history of that fateful year."
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
Luc Sante's Low Life is a portrait of America's greatest city, the riotous and anarchic breeding ground of modernity. This is not the familiar saga of mansions, avenues, and robber barons, but the messy, turbulent, often murderous story of the city's slums; the teeming streets—scene of innumerable cons and crimes whose cramped and overcrowded housing is still a prominent feature of the cityscape.
Staff says: "This book sparked an interest in shady urban histories for me. Now that I know a lot more about the city and the context of the time frame, I even read it again. Fun, even if sensationalistic."
Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin people of New York
Evan T. Pritchard
A comprehensive and fascinating account of the graceful Algonquin civilization that once flourished in the area that is now New York.
Staff says: "New York history from the Native point of view, and it will make you confront every sentimental myth you may have heard before. Everyone should read it."
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
The story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. A pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.
Staff says: "Absolutely fascinating. I was surprised when I found myself at the end already. Unlike a modern forensic science drama on TV, the chemistry is all there—yet still readable and interesting. The era (late 1910s-mid 1930s) and setting are both equally captivating. So many times I thought I knew something that I clearly didn"t. This book taught me tons and still read quickly like a mystery novel, only the mysteries were all actual cases and hence more interesting than usual literary invention."
Up in the Old Hotel
Saloon-keepers and street preachers, gypsies and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady and a 93-year-old "seafoodetarian" who believes his specialized diet will keep him alive for another two decades. These are among the people that Joseph Mitchell immortalized in his reportage for The New Yorker and in four books—McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret—that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their graveyard humor, and their offhand perfection of style.
Staff says: "Mitchell, in an incredibly vivid writing style, tells the tales of some of the people he met in NYC in the '20s - '50s. The people are the history of New York."
Do you have a favorite NYC nonfiction book that we missed? Let us know in the comments!