Pete Hamill, |
Downtown: My Manhattan
(Time Warner, 2004)
New York. For most people, that name invokes images of the city, not the state. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it also brings up memories of the Twin Towers and the sudden shift in the way Americans live their lives (especially noticeable every time you fly anywhere).
For Pete Hamill, author of Downtown: My Manhattan, New York City is home. It is a place he has witnessed constant change over the last seven decades. Despite the often negative image NYC has, Pete is like most residents -- there is no place he would rather live. Listening to the six-hour audiobook version of Downtown, which Pete also narrates, you can hear a hint of pride as he describes not only the history of the city, but also parts of his own life.
While the book popcorns back and forth from borough to borough, topic to topic, century to century, there are a few common threads. The main thread is "nostalgia." If there is one thing long-time residents have in common, it is a nostalgia for things lost to time, whether it is monumental buildings, entertainment, a sports team or even a favorite restaurant or bar. Pete also brings up the New York "alloy" on a fairly regular basis. This city is nothing if not a melting pot of all the world's ethnicities. A final thread I will mention is "velocity." The pace of NYC is quick. Change is always just around the corner. Yet this will always be old New York in many respects.
As someone who has not spent any time in New York City, I was unsure I would relate, or even care enough to get past any preconceived notions I had about Pete's home town. Fortunately, while Pete has a somewhat monotone voice, his writing style is such that I soon didn't care that I couldn't draw out a map showing the relationship between Times Square, Fifth Avenue or Five Points. I found myself responding to little factoids. "I didn't know tap dancing started in New York!" "So that's how the term 'Knickerbockers' came into being!" (If you don't know the reason, you'll have to listen to or read the book to find out). "So that is how Broadway started!"
Pete Hamill has written many books, including A Drinking Life. For 40 years, give or take, he worked in the newspaper industry either as a reporter or as editor in chief (of both the New York Post and New York Daily News). Needless to say, this man knows how to write. As a reader, you can tell that he is comfortable with his own words. While he does sound like he is reading, there is a definite sense that he knows what he is talking about.
I found this book engaging despite my limited familiarity with the topic at hand. Whether Pete is describing the history of some part of the city or reminiscing about his own experiences, I found myself captivated. If you ever find yourself about to visit NYC, this might be a perfect guide in many respects. It won't tell you where to go or how to get there, but it will breathe life in to the places you plan to visit.