Downtown: My Manhattan, by Pete Hamill
I have always loved the energy and vitality of New York City, and although I have never lived there, I have fond memories of my short visits there. A new audio book written and read by Pete Hamill, who has lived and worked in Manhattan for most of the past seventy years, has increased my understanding and deepened my appreciation exponentially about this legendary town. Downtown: My Manhattan is a six-hour exploration into the heart of a place that occupies at least four dimensions. The concrete, brick, steel, trees and grass of a modern city and the presence of a cultural identity that has been evolving since the earliest days of the Greek, Roman, and Song Dynasty empires.
As the author says toward the end of the book, to understand New York, you have to see it as it is NOW. Sometimes you can't really "see" what you are looking at unless you know something about its past, and the author does a masterful job of weaving detailed historical facts with his own deeply personal recollections of this place. There are four elements or themes that appear again and again throughout the book. The first is the velocity of change, growth, and actual physical movement that has helped shape the Manhattan of today. I was particularly fascinated by his discussion of the growth of the newspaper business and his profiles of Horace Greely, James Gordon Bennet, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and Adolf Oakes.
A great deal of the book traces the development of what the author refers to as the NY human alloy. This alloy was forged from the earliest Dutch, English, Irish, Jewish, Italian and Asian immigrants, and I doubt I will ever visit Little Italy or the Hell's Kitchen area of the city without remembering how the author described those places in this book. The author makes a compelling case that Manhattan's growth and vitality is the result of the age-old cycle of retreat and advance, of degradation and re-birth. Some of the most evocative parts of the book lie in the telling of events that happened in parks like Union Square which, for many locals, was "ground zero" for remembrances after 9/11.
Since 1960, the author has worked as a journalist, editor, etc. for publications based in Manhattan. His training and expertise have enabled him to provide his readers with a unique insider's perspective on the evolution of the city. Nostalgia could be defined -- as the author does -- as an ache for times and people who are no longer around. It is also the glue that enables people of different backgrounds and cultures to bond their experiences of life into a community memory. There is a lot of nostalgia in this book, but almost none of the "life was better back then" variety. Elements of this nostalgia that will stay with me include his characterization of the former Lion's Head Tavern in Sheridan Square which became an intellectual hangout from the harshness of the 1960s, the development of the jazz and blues clubs, the rich architectural heritage of the city, and the construction and political intrigue of the subway network.
I have listened to all six hours of this abridged version twice, and I'm willing to predict that Pete Hamill's take on New York City will enthrall you, make you laugh, and, if you are like me, perhaps even weep in a couple of places. Listening to it is certainly time well spent, and provides more awareness of the rich breadth of "the city that never sleeps" than a thousand visits without it.