Our books for 2014 look back and ahead at cities’ history, design, destruction and revitalization, and their not-well-kept secrets. Something happened on the way to assembling this year’s book suggestions. Themes emerged, not planned and simply a coincidence: how places like Paris and Berlin are continuously in flux if we look over centuries; of what has been lost – both natural features and built ones –through haphazard and often-corrupt development (Washington DC, New York City) and a continuing sense of discovery as we mine the past (Pompeii, Rome, Athens).
Some of our selections are new, others a few years old, but nothing is out of date. Whether you buy these books online, used, in paperback or treasured hard copies, you can look back and ahead at how cities were shaped and will be in the decades to come.
If you want more books on cities: Green News Update recommended 23 titles for Holidays 2013. Here’s the link to read those reviews, excerpts and author interviews.
NEW YORK CITY
A History of NY in 101 Objects, Sam Roberts (Simon & Schuster) 336 pages hardcover $30. Urban affairs writer at the New York Times, Sam Roberts spied a good idea when he looked at A History of the World in 100 Objects, a radio series and 700-page tome by British Museum director Neil McGregor (Viking, 2010) and decided to polish the Big Apple with his own selection of 50 objects that represent NYC’s vibrant history and material culture. His article drew readers with other suggestions, and hence the book – as well as an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. Roberts says, “The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia.”
What will you find ? A trove that includes the distinctive cylindrical water tank found on building roofs, a Checker cab, bus token, sewing machine, and more. Watch the video Read the article
Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric Sanderson (Abrams Books) 352 pp, 120 full-color illus. A beautiful re-creation of Manhattan as a “green new world” in the 17th century – a place of forests, meadows and wetlands – is what awaits you as a window into the past.
Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson painstakingly reconstructed the ecological origins of Manhattan using early maps, historical and scientific data. It’s the closest you can get to seeing “New Amsterdam” the way Henry Hudson didin 1609. The Mannahatta Project Youtube video with Sanderson Weilikia mannahatta
Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, Ted Steinberg (Simon &Schuster) 544 pp $30. Well known for his 2007 book The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, Steinberg shares “the four-century history of how hundreds of square miles of open marshlands became home to six percent of the nation’s population. “
It’s a thrilling ecological history of “an estuary once home to miles of oyster reefs, wolves, whales, and blueberry bog thickets” to the perils of Superstorm Sandy.
A lot of people figure in how New York became one of the most densely developed places on earth – including Henry Hudson, Robert Moses, Donald Trump, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Steinberg’s web site and Video with 5 points about Gotham Unbound Book review Cleveland Plain Dealer
JUST OUT! Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City, Catherine McNeur (Harvard University Press) 312 pp illus $29.95. You can practically smell the odoriferous state of New York City in the decades that Catherine McNeur closely observes in her new book (For comparison, see also our book picks on Paris and Washington DC!).
“Rotten food such as corn cobs, watermelon rinds, oyster shells and fish heads,” Ms. McNeur writes, “joined with dead cats, dogs, rats and pigs, as well as enormous piles of manure.” While she ends with the Draft Riots of 1863 (a particularly vicious set of events that left many blacks dead), McNeur’s insights stretch across the decades to observe the largely-same inequalities that existed in the 19th century still exist today! Read the review and the book.
Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, Elizabeth Mitchell (Atlantic Monthly) 310 pp $27. Looks like Frederic Bartholdi had his own agenda in creating the Statue of Liberty – today recognized as a symbol of New York City, the United States and democracy.
His purpose, says Mitchell, was “to make the largest statue in the world more than he cared to espouse an ardent political view or lavish praise on America.” Here’s the full story of the genesis, construction and installation of Lady Liberty. Along the way he was helped by no less than Gustav Eiffel, Victor Hugo, Joseph Pulitzer, and even President Ulysses S. Grant. Did you know that Bartholdi’s statue was considered for placement in Boston thanks to tepid interest by New Yorkers? It was Grant who helped secure Bedloe Island as the site for Lady Liberty — dedicated Oct 28, 1886 — that has since towered over New York harbor. Read the review
NEW ORLEANS AND WASHINGTON DC : A remarkable pairing
Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, Gary Krist (Crown) 416 pp. $26. Our book choice last year for New Orleans was The Accidental City, by Lawrence N. Powell (Harvard) 448 pages, that demonstrated a city full of paradox and complexity from its earliest days. New Orleans survived the French, the Spanish (and the French again!), Catholicism, yellow fever epidemics, hurricanes recorded just four after the city was established, storm surges, slavery and corruption. Did you know that the city’s founder was not French, but French Canadian ? (Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville).
This year brings Empire of Sin, the story of “an all-out civil war” in the fight of the city elders against the booze and sex trades in New Orleans. It was, as the Boston Globe reviewer notes, “…an ugly 30-year dispute with few winners, one that coincided with the rise of jazz — we meet, among other musicians, Buddy Bolden, who pioneered the form, and a young Louis Armstrong — and the oppressive reign of Jim Crow restrictions.” Book review Philadelphia Inquirer
Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, D.C., J.D. Dickey (Lyons) 301 pp. $26.95 Stepping into DC history is like walking through a pile of mud (or worse). In its early years, streets were unpaved and soaked with wastewater, animals roamed freely, slavetrading was common (on what is now the Mall), there was fighting, dueling, cockfighting and unchecked disease. Pierre L’Enfant, architect and planner, envisioned much more, and gave us a ceremonial federal city of boulevards and diagonals, the greenward from Capitol to White House, and much more. There is no shortage of grist and detail in this book, including for those who believe in representation, the sometimes poorly known fact that US Grant took away DC’s charter (and that of Georgetown) in the 1871 Organic Act, did away with their mayors and councils and appointed a governor. Dickey writes, ““In exchange for a bold modern city, Washingtonians lost the right to choose their local leaders, mired themselves in webs of debt and corruption, and relinquished the power to shape their city’s image and infrastructure.” Washington Post review
Lost Washington, D.C. John DeFerrari (History Press) 160 pp $19.99. Sad but true, “Washington has been a serial victim of what longtime Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt called ‘criminal urbicide,’ or as DeFerrari puts it, ‘our collective failure to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.’ ” If you’re under 50 or just an occasional visitor, you won’t see the missing teeth: the five-story European-style townhouse mansions on Pennsylvania Avenue a block from the White House; or the remnants of the 18th-century Rhoads Tavern where the British dined after they burned the White House in 1814. Buildings that were physical evidence of the Civil War, and of World War II too, have been removed from downtown, curious in a world capital that has witnessed so much history. City “elders” have failed to provide the kind of solid public interpretive program that demonstrates how buildings, places, and even roads had key roles in events such as the Lincoln assassination. We are poorer for what we have lost! Read and learn. Washington Post book review
AMSTERDAM: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto (Doubleday) 357 pp illus $28.95.This great tome is one half of a superb bookend set. Shorto wrote The Island at the Center of the World (2004), a well-received work on how the Dutch helped create Manhattan. Now comes Shorto’s Amsterdam history. Which among many Dutch achievements wouldn’t we praise ? The city’s Canal Ring, shipping, world trade, tulips, Rembrandt and Golden Age painters, and, as Shorto says, liberalism, which “has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has.” (We must remind readers that the Dutch were also slave traders and Colonial rulers in Indonesia, Suriname and South Africa!). Here are words from Shorto that are well worth considering, ” I do find it compelling,” [he says of] Matthijs van Boxsel, that he “and other Dutch writers see the historic struggle against water as formative to a cultural ethic of cooperation that created a society strong enough for it to impel, curiously, a commitment to value the individual.” If you spend time in parts of the Netherlands, especially places prone to flooding and water disasters, his words ring true. But as the New York Times suggests in its review, “If liberalism means both right and left, making money and not doing so, individualism and communalism, it’s perhaps no surprise that all roads in Amsterdam led to it.” New York Times review
If you like the Paris books we have selected this year, you may want to check out the dozen books in our Homage a Paris– history, memoirs, travelogue, culinary arts etc. – published in Green News Update July 2014.
Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, 256 pp. (Availability and price, wide range) Considered one of the most talented photographers of the 19th century, Charles Marville (1813-1879) was named official photographer of the city of Paris in 1862. Marville was commissioned in 1865 to record the streets and buildings that the urban planner Baron Haussmann (see below, Paris Reborn) had slated for destruction. Today we may long for the pre-modern Paris, but Haussmann’s purpose was pragmatic – to document how unsanitary and cramped the city’s medieval areas were. Marville, on the other hand, created an evocation of the city that is matchless for its mystery and beauty.
This catalogue is beautifully printed, and especially notable for the reproduction quality of the 100+ images that were in the retrospective exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art (Wash DC) and the Metropolitan Museum (NYC) in 2013-14. Five essays accompany the standout photography. Charles Marville information
Paris Reborn Napoleon III Baron Haussmann and the Quest to Become a Modern City, Stephane Kirkland (St. Martin’s) 327 pp. $29.99. Who had the greater vision and impact –Haussmann or President-then-Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte ? This book aims to untangle the web of confusion surrounding the modern remaking of the City of Light, and, first and foremost, it dispenses with any assumption that the pre-Haussman city was clean and well lit, as they say. The city was dirty, the water undrinkable, tenements abounded, it was perilous to walk, and crime made many areas unsafe. Kirkland, who lives in Paris and the U.S., walks you through the great transformation of 1853-1870 – creation of the Opera, the new boulevards, renovation of the Louvre – and at the same time you will learn what was lost with the demise of the medieval city (for that, also see the marvelous photographs of Charles Marville, above). Washington Post review Stephane Kirkland’s web site
How Paris Became Paris: The invention of the modern city, Joan DeJean (Bloomsbury) 307 pp $30 and Paris at the end of the World: The City of Light during the Great War, 1914-1918, John Baxter (Harper Perennial) 402 pp paperback $15.99. Before there was Louis XIV (The Sun King), two of France’s rulers — Henry IV and Louis XIII — were instrumental in creating “an urban ideal” that Paris was to become. So it began with the Pont Neuf – today the oldest standing bridge across the Seine. In 1606, the “new bridge” was dedicated, and it was a miracle: people could walk across this new artery, and see a vista while standing over the water. With Louis XIV came the audacious idea of promenades – today we know them as boulevards — and two “major urban developments of the time, the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges)
and the Île Saint-Louis, each with an ordered layout and new amenities.” This is a highly detailed book that delves into the design of Paris over centuries, as well other aspects of the city – transportation, fashion, sexual mores. Heavy lifting for the reader, but well worth it.
John Baxter’s Paris at the End of the World covers the territory of Paris and other precincts (including some far afield) at the end of the Great War (World War I) including “leading Paris cultural life by, among other things, staging the avant-garde dance, music and visual piece “Parade” with Érik Satie and Pablo Picasso at the Théâtre du Châtelet despite the ongoing war.” It is reviewed jointly with How Paris Became Paris and is worth your attention.
And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Alan Riding (Knopf) 399 pp $28.95. After the Wehrmacht entered Paris in June 1940, artists, composers and writers largely stayed on in Paris under the Vichy government (even Gertrude Stein, collector, muse and Jewish, stayed on without consequences) and the artistic community even traveled to Germany. Theaters and nightclubs did brisk business and offered plenty of entertainment, “from Jean Cocteau and Jean Giraudoux to Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Django Reinhardt.”
This detailed book sweeps through the Occupation years, replete with anti-Semitism, to the liberation, then the épuration (purge) by DeGaulle. But no heavy hitters in the arts (for example Picasso) ever paid a price for their indifference and anti-Semitism. As reviewer Geoffrey Wheatcroft’ notes, “ We’ll always have Paris, but we may not feel quite the same about it after reading And the Show Went On.” Review in New York Times
Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries, Rory MacLean (St. Martin’s. 421 pp $27.99) “Why are we drawn to certain cities?” asks writer Rory MacLean. No single book captures the complex and changing identity of Berlin – a city “built of brick, stone and eccentricity,” explains historian Gerard De Groot – but several new and recent works are worth your attention. MacLean uses some 24 characters, most real and several composites, as Berlin residents across the centuries, with a combination of analysis, fiction and impressionistic writing. Here you’ll find Fredrick the Great, brilliant Jewish economist Walther Rabenau, Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, artist Käthe Kollwitz, playwright Christopher Isherwood, and Marlene Dietrich, along with the almost-archetypes of evil –Fritz Haber (developer of poison gas), filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbals. Esteemed travel writer Jan Morris notes in her Telegraph review, “This grandly ambitious work has a noble intention: to re-create through art and imagination the whole historic presence of a great capital, from its beginnings to the present day…” Scroll down for joint review
Berlin Now: The City after the Wall, Peter Schneider (translated from the German by Sophie Schlondorff) (Farrar Straus Giroux. 326 pp $27). In 1982 German-born Schneider published a novella, The Wall Jumper, about the divided city. In this new work, like MacLean, Schneider looks at people and the creative forces – is it a vortex? – attracted to Berlin. Schneider “seeks to explain why the city became ‘the capital of creative people from around the world today,’ attracting artists, D.J.s and software developers from Tokyo, Tel Aviv and all points in between, says The New York Times. (review below) He also addresses the perplexing physical environment too – sometimes in ruins, places that must be recreated or removed (The Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, the former East German Parliament) and sometimes left untouched.
“The landmarks of Berlin,” says Schneider, ”are old gasometers and water towers, deserted hospitals, disused airports, onetime docks, vacant train stations, abandoned C.I.A. surveillance facilities and Stasi prisons…moldy bunker and tunnel complexes from two dictatorships and warehouses of all kinds.” Scroll down for joint review
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, Mary Elise Sarotte (Basic, 291 pp $27.99). Sarotte focuses, says reviewer Gerard De Groot, on “the little people who, through collective but uncoordinated action, changed [the] city.” It is Sarotte, a historian, whose “sensitivity to human drama” creates a unique and timely book. It is Sarotte who recounts the tale of crossing guard Harald Jager and of how Merkel’s stroll to West Berlin on that eventful night changed her life and Germany’s as well. Scroll down for the review
Berlin. Portrait of a City, Taschen hardcover 9.8 x 13.4 in., 560 pages$ 69.99
Taschen’s chronicle of the city’s history uses photographs, portraits and aerial views to capture 150 years of Berlin’s history in 560 pages . Here you’ll find the Roaring Twenties, the Reichstag in ruins, and later wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Among the photographs are works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, René Burri, Robert Capa, Thomas Struth, and Wolfgang Tillmans as well as well-known Berlin photo-chroniclers such as Friedrich Seidenstücker, Erich Salomon, Willy Römer, and Heinrich Zille. Tachen Books
What makes Berlin Berlin – Washington Post Gerard De Groot reviews 3 books
Sunday New York Times review (11/02/2014) books by MacLean and Schneider
Telegraph review by Jan Morris of Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Portrait of a City
ORIGINS AND SECRETS: Rome and Pompeii
Rome: Day One, Andrea Carandini, Translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Princeton Univ Press) 184 pp iilus $24.95. In June 1988, the New York Times reported on archeologists’ discovery on Rome’s Palatine Hill what they believed to be “the defensive wall built when Rome was founded.” It turned out the Andrea Carandini, the Pisa-based archeologist who headed the digs, was really on to something.
While the story of Romulus as the founder of Rome and his twin brother Remus (supposedly suckled by a she-wolf in their infancy) is usually dismissed as fable, Carandini makes the case in this illustrated account, “that a king whose name might have been Romulus founded Rome one April 21st in the mid-eighth century BC, most likely in a ceremony in which a white bull and cow pulled a plow to trace the position of a wall marking the blessed soil of the new city. This ceremony establishing the Palatine Wall, which Carandini discovered, inaugurated the political life of a city that, through its later empire, would influence much of the world.” New Yorker review
When did Rome become Rome? While not all of the excavation materials have yet been put to the test, archaeologists are in hot pursuit of the truth. As the reviewer notes, “[u]ncovering the birth of a city that gave birth to a world, Rome: Day One reveals as never before a truly epochal event.” More information on the book
Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History, Robert Hughes 498 pp illus. (Alfred A Knopf) $35. Now available in paperback. A powerhouse art critic (formerly Time Magazine) and prolific writer, Hughes wrote a biography of the city in 2011 – once the center of the “civilized” world – with all of its spectacle, intrigue and physical beauty. Read the lengthy review and you won’t hesitate for a moment to get or read this book. It’s a “guided tour through the city in its many incarnations, excavating the geologic layers of its cultural past and creating an indelible portrait of a city in love with spectacle and power, an extravagant city that, in Mr. Hughes’s words, still stands today as ‘an enormous concretion of human glory and human error.’” For my part, there are far, far too few illustrations – you’ll need a prodigiously illustrated art book or two as a companion while you read. New York Times review and Q&A with Hughes
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, Ingrid D. Rowland (Belknap/Harvard) 340 pages, $28.95. Pompeii was a fashionable seaside resort for patricians from Rome– in the day – before Vesuvius buried the town in lava and white-hot ash in 79 AD. The city became more mysterious with every passing century, because people could only guess at what lay beneath – beautiful villas, frescoes, as well as the voids of bodies frozen in time and later made into plaster casts. The Wall Street Journal reviewer notes, “Her book is a personal, indeed highly selective, account of what many researchers, cultivated visitors, archaeologists and even urban reformers have made of the site and the modern town of Pompeii: It reads, all told, like a collection of entertaining essays. She handles her theme with an ease and authority that should please others….” Book review
The Parthenon Enigma, Joan Breton Connelly (Knopf) 485 pp. $35. Constructed in Athens, the center of the Greek world, the Parthenon honored the Goddess Athena. It was — and remains –one of the wonders of the ancient world; and “ the icon of western art,” says Joan Connelly, “ the very symbol of democracy itself.” Le Corbusier called the Parthenon, “The repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art.”
The enigma that Connelly refers to is the 525-foot-long Parthenon frieze which is scattered among several museums, chiefly at the British Museum. The sculptures are, she says, “part of a complex network of meanings in which geology, landscape, topography, memory, myth, art, literature, history, religion, and politeia are intricately interwoven.” They should not be “fetishized as masterpiece objets d’art.” For the citizens of ancient Athens, “Democracy [was] no mere political arrangement but ultimately a spiritual one.” Washington Post book review