Where to begin? New York City has been the influence, inspiration, and site of libraries’ worth of fiction, poetry, memoir, history, and drama. For the definitive history of the birth of New York City to the end of the 19th century, there is no better read than the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin R. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Oxford University Press). Another recommended historical look at the growth of New York City, this one told in a breezy narrative tone, is The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History, by Edward Robb Ellis (Kodansha).
Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Vintage Departures) details the bad old days of brothels, drug dens, and gambling saloons in New York in the early 20th century—it’s a lively, fascinating read.
One of master biographer Robert Caro’s early works, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Random House), focuses on how the vision of master dealmaker Robert Moses transformed New York to what it became in the second half of the 20th century.
Downtown, by Pete Hamill (Little Brown & Co.), is as concise a history of the area to the south of Times Square as you will find—and told in Hamill’s typically breezy and gritty style, while Hamill’s 2003 novel, Forever, chronicles the 3 centuries of a man who has been given the gift of eternal life as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. In The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (Simon & Schuster), author David McCullough devotes his estimable talents to the tale of the Brooklyn–Manhattan span.
Speaking of water, you might try Philip Lopate’s Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan, which is a personal look—mixed with historical, architectural, and cultural references—at New York City’s waterfront.
The companion to the PBS series New York, by Ric Burns, Lisa Ades, and James Sanders (Knopf), uses lavish photographs and illustrations to show the growth of New York City.
My all-time favorite book about New York is a children’s classic called This Is New York (Universe Publishing), written and illustrated by M. Sasek in 1960. The book was recently reissued and, with an update added, is as fresh as it was all those years ago.
E.B. White—who else?—captured the soul of the city in his splendid essay, Here Is New York, originally published in Holiday. Thankfully, it has been reissued by Little Bookroom books. If you read any single book or essay about New York—and this isn’t that long—read White’s poem to New York.
New York has been fertile fodder for novelists, short-story writers, and playwrights, and the city is often a character in itself. The novels, stories, and plays with New York as the backdrop are too numerous to begin to chronicle. Here are some of my personal favorites.
You might say it all begins with “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville, which is subtitled, “A Story of Wall Street.” Published in 1853, it contains Bartleby’s wonderful refrain when he is asked to do some work, “I would prefer not to.” Haven’t we all felt like saying that at one time or another? Edgar Allen Poe was living and working in New York City (you can still visit his cottage in the Bronx) when he lost his young wife, the model for “lost Lenore” in “The Raven.”
The 1934 novel Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth, tells the story of a poor Jewish boy and his coming to terms with his old-world parents and the modern world of New York around him.
Much the same emotional and physical geography is covered in Elmer Rice’s forceful 1929 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Street Scene. It captures what that early, turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant life in a tenement building was like, where so much of it was played out on the front stoops.
For a taste of tenement life in the Bronx, read Vivian Gornick’s searing memoir, Fierce Attachments.
Although Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is set in New York, the play he wrote that has an especially strong sense of the city is A View from the Bridge, which is set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
New York native Mickey Spillane's 1947 potboiler I, the Jury, introduces tough-guy detective Mike Hammer as he investigates the dark side of the upper class of New York.
Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby, Jr., takes place in and around what is now the Red Hook/Brooklyn Navy Yard section of Brooklyn, and the 1964 novel is bleak in its portrait of the city, to say the least.
All of the novels in Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones detective series are vivid looks at Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, written, amazingly, when Himes was living in Paris. A Rage in Harlem is one of the best.
We can’t have a list without Holden Caulfield’s sad and funny New York as described in the late J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye (1951). New York is the backdrop for many of Salinger’s works, including “The Laughing Man” from Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey.
Time and Again, a time-travel fantasy written in 1970 by Jack Finney, takes the main character from New York to the city in 1882, where Finney gets the period detail perfectly.
Famous as the author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo gives a more literary, semiautobiographical effort in The Fortunate Pilgrim, about an Italian-American family growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. The book is a masterpiece and was sadly dismissed when it was published in 1965.
Lawrence Block, in his Matt Scudder mystery series, uses New York as a major character. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is my favorite in the series.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos, is about two Cuban musicians who emigrate to New York, specifically upper Manhattan, in the early 1950s, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1990.
I just can’t leave out Irwin Shaw’s magnificent, chilling short story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” which takes place on a walk to Washington Square Park.
Paul Auster produced a series of novels in the 1980s that have since been collected under the rubric The New York Trilogy. They include City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.
Speaking of phantoms, don’t forget Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth. An aging writer emerges from his Berkshires retreat and comes to New York to see if he can recapture some of his literary youth.
In recent years, some excellent younger authors have been publishing very fine novels that take place in New York. You might even say there seems to be a literary renaissance here. Some of these acclaimed books include Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem; Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill; Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann; and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer; and A New York Memoir, by award-winning travel writer (and Frommer's author) Richard Goodman.
New York has inspired the bards, as well. Walt Whitman (who worked as a writer and editor for various New York newspapers), in Leaves of Grass, wrote, “Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son . . .” Nearly a hundred years later, his spiritual descendant, Hart Crane, wrote the stirring “To Brooklyn Bridge,” as part of his book, The Bridge.
Even the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca got into the act, with his Poeta en Nueva York, published the same year as Crane’s book, 1930.
Finally, we can’t forget the feisty 6-year-old girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel—Eloise. In the classic children’s book with the same name by Kay Thompson, we follow the adventures of this irrepressible girl who declares, “Getting bored is not allowed.” For many children at least, Eloise is New York City.
There are not many places as cinematic as New York City. Filmmakers, like novelists, view the city as a character. The list of movies in which New York plays a crucial role are too many to mention, but here are some of the top New York City movies that are worth renting before you visit.
The Empire State Building has never been the same since King Kong climbed it in the 1933 movie of the same name. Who will ever forget Kong futilely swatting at those planes at the top of the building?
There were shantytowns all over America during the Great Depression, and New York had one, too. This is where Carole Lombard finds “lost man” William Powell at the start of the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey. Powell has never been more dry, nor Lombard more bubbly.
The Great Depression produced films that belied the times and gave great doses of escapism to a beleaguered public. One of the most famous was 42nd Street, choreographed by Busby Berkeley and starring the marvelous hoofer, Ruby Keeler. It’s got the famous line, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" Young men and women are still streaming into the city with that dream in their hearts 75 years later—and probably always will.
Possibly the best New York City promotional film is the musical On the Town (1948), with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, about three sailors with 24 hours' leave spent exploring Gotham. Shot on location, all the landmarks were captured in beautiful Technicolor.
Maybe the cattiest film ever made is set in New York, All About Eve (1950), starring Bette Davis as aging actress Margo Channing. She utters the delicious line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock presented his classic voyeuristic thriller, Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewart and a ravishing Grace Kelly, set in an apartment in Greenwich Village. One year later, the musical Guys and Dolls, based on the Times Square stories of Damon Runyon, made its debut with a singing (!) Marlon Brando.
Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for On the Town, and he also wrote the music for the landmark musical, West Side Story (1961) with lyrics by a young—27 at the time!—Stephen Sondheim.
The same year (1961) was also when Audrey Hepburn had her Breakfast at Tiffany’s in her classic role as the winningly eccentric Holly Golightly.
Director Paul Mazursky is Brooklyn born, and New York occupies a special place in his cinematic heart. Next Stop, Greenwich Village is his sweet 1976 film about a young artist’s first taste of this famed part of New York. His Moscow on the Hudson has Robin Williams as a Russian circus performer defecting in Bloomingdale’s. Where else?
Woody Allen is a New York filmmaker and shoots almost all his films—at least until recently—in the city. One of his best—and a good, but maybe a bit dated, look at neurotic New York—is Annie Hall (1977). Don’t neglect his ultimate love letter to the city, Manhattan (1979).
Following in Woody Allen’s footsteps are director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron, who made When Harry Met Sally (1989). It’s sort of a poor man’s Annie Hall but a gorgeous cinematic tribute to New York. The famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene was filmed in Katz’s Delicatessen.
Though no physical combat took place in New York during World War II, there was plenty of espionage. A classic 1945 black-and-white thriller is The House on 92nd Street that tells the story of a Nazi spy ring—right on the exclusive Upper East Side.
“I love this dirty town,” says Burt Lancaster in the gritty, crackling Sweet Smell of Success (1957). In the beautifully photographed black-and-white movie, Lancaster plays malicious gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis is perfectly despicable as the groveling publicist Sidney Falco.
There are a number of Christmas-themed films that are set in New York, and the granddaddy of them all is Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947. The great department store Gimbel’s was still around, and its fierce rivalry with Macy’s is the backdrop for this sentimental favorite about Santa Claus on trial.
The Empire State Building has another supporting role in Elf, a 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell. Dressed in an absurd green costume, Ferrell plays a human who was raised by elves in the North Pole and who comes to New York City at Christmas to find his long lost father (whose office is in the Empire State Building), who is none other than Sonny Corleone—James Caan.
But wait a minute. How is that possible, since the Empire State Building was destroyed by aliens in Independence Day (1996)?
In fact, New York has probably been the most-destroyed city, cinematically speaking, in history. It was creamed four times in 1 year—in Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Siege, and Godzilla, all released in 1998. (And don’t forget about the damage wrought by the Stay-Puft marshmallow man in Ghostbusters !)
It seems like since the beginning of New York time, the city was the place people came to become famous. Joe Buck (Jon Voight) came to New York from Texas to be a big shot in the 1969 Academy Award–winner Midnight Cowboy, but it took a third-rate conman, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), to transform Voight into a pathetic male hustler. The movie is a bleak but realistic look at the timeless New York story.
One character in a New York-based film whose last wish is to be famous is Robert Redford’s in Sydney Pollack’s 1975 suspenseful, convoluted thriller, Three Days of the Condor. Redford plays a CIA analyst who “just reads books” but who is nevertheless being hunted by a rogue cell of "Company" agents. He takes refuge in Faye Dunaway’s Brooklyn Heights apartment. They both never looked better.
Before there was the hit musical, there was the movie The Producers (1968) starring Zero Mostel and, in his first lead role, Gene Wilder, as the timid but eventually larcenous accountant Leo Bloom. There is no funnier film set in New York—or, in my humble opinion, anywhere.
Another filmmaker identified with New York is Martin Scorsese. He has made many films where New York plays a central role, from Mean Streets (1973) to Gangs of New York (2002), which was actually filmed in Italy. But the one film in which New York is a character, and not a very flattering one, is Taxi Driver. The Academy Award–nominated 1976 movie about an alienated and psychotic taxi driver is tough and bloody, but to see images of seedy Times Square as it was before its recent reincarnation, there is no better film.
Though long, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America (1984), about Jewish gangsters in the first part of the 20th century, evokes the period masterfully and features stunning New York City locations.
Al Pacino could have his very own New York–based film festival. The movies he’s starred in that are set in New York include The Panic in Needle Park (1971); Serpico (1973); Dog Day Afternoon (1975)—remember “Attica! Attica!”?; Sea of Love (1989); Scent of a Woman (1992), for which he won an Academy Award; and Donnie Brasco (1997).
The fourth-largest city in America, Brooklyn, has also been a colorful location. John Travolta’s strut under the elevated train in Bensonhurst to the tune of the Bee Gees' “Stayin' Alive” in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Gene Hackman’s frenetic and dizzying car chase under the same tracks in The French Connection (1971) are two of the best Brooklyn-centric movies.
The best history of New York on video is the Ric Burns documentary New York: A Documentary Film (1999), which aired on PBS. The seven-disc, 14-hour DVD (also available on VHS) is a must-see for anyone interested in the evolution of this great city.
The list goes on and on. I can hear the film fans crying out now—why didn’t you mention The Pawnbroker, The Odd Couple, Funny Girl, Rosemary’s Baby, The Way We Were, Network, Kramer vs. Kramer, Wall Street, Do the Right Thing, Men in Black, Spider-Man—and what about The Lost Weekend, for gosh sakes?
I just did!
A New York City Playlist
The energy of New York City’s streets provides inspiration to songwriters and musicians. New York is probably the most vibrant city for music in the world. From songsmiths crowding such storied places as Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, to the folkies wandering Bleecker Street, the styles of music and songs about New York are countless. Everyone has a song that means “New York” to them, so here are my top 10 . . . no, New York’s too big for a top 10, here’s an even dozen songs!
1. “Autumn in New York”: This 1934 jazz standard has been performed by greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong. My favorite rendition is the one performed by the Modern Jazz Quartet.
2. “Downtown”: This 1965 megahit, performed by Petula Clark, is an early anthem to the thrill of nightlife “downtown.” It’s as timely today as it was 45 years ago.
3. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”: Harry Nilsson wrote this song in 1968 for the movie Midnight Cowboy, but the director of that movie, John Schlesinger, used Nilsson’s other song “Everybody’s Talkin” instead. He really couldn’t go wrong with either.
4. “On Broadway”: This 1963 hit for the Drifters, another theme about making it in New York, has been covered by many, including guitarist George Benson, who had a huge hit with it and did not “catch the Greyhound bus for home.”
5. “Spanish Harlem”: This hit for Ben E. King in 1961, from songwriters Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, had a distinctive Latin beat, evoking the influx of Puerto Ricans to the city at the time. The red rose in Spanish Harlem became a “black” rose when Aretha Franklin covered the song in 1971.
6. “Summer in the City”: This 1966 hit by the Lovin’ Spoonful captures the raw grit of a stifling New York summer. It really is “a pity the days can’t be like the nights in the summer in the city.”
7. “Take the A Train”: The signature tune by Duke Ellington and lyrics by Billy Strayhorn refer to the A train that runs from Brooklyn, through Manhattan, and up to Harlem. And the A train is still the “quickest way to get to Harlem.”
8. “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes . . .” This 1982 hip-hop classic by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five masterfully re-creates the urban rage of the time.
9. Theme from “New York, New York”: Start spreadin’ the news: This Kander and Ebb classic was the theme song for the Martin Scorsese movie of the same name. Liza Minnelli sang it in the film, but it’s the Frank Sinatra version that has become synonymous with the city and all its challenges.
10. “New York, New York”: From the great Broadway musical and, later, movie, On the Town. With those wonderful lines, “The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down. The people ride in a hole in the ground.”
11. “Walk on the Wild Side”: Lou Reed’s 1972 classic was produced by David Bowie and was a big hit despite its obviously dark and downright perverse undertones. With “A hustle here and a hustle there/New York City is the place where they said . . .”
12. “Empire State of Mind”: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys created a new NYC anthem in 2009 with a song that topped the charts and tips its lyrical hat to “New York, New York” with Jay-Z declaring: “I'm the new Sinatra/And since I made it here/I can make it anywhere.”
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