A People’s Guide to New York City

When I was growing up in Chappaqua, a suburb north of New York City, in the 1970s, my parents would take my five sisters and me to visit our Uncle Leo and Aunt Ruth. A bachelor for a good part of his younger life, Leo married Ruth sometime after the war, and they ultimately settled in Co-Op City in the Bronx.

I vividly remember the drive there, the big dip on the Bronx River Parkway that made my stomach leap into my mouth, and then the view of Co-Op City from afar, a towering Oz of white buildings that stood out from the surrounding marshes and waterways of the Bronx. I also remember the parquet floors of their apartment, though I wouldn’t have known at the time that that’s what they were called.

All these memories, especially those floors, came flooding back to me as I read the entry on Co-Op City in A People’s Guide to New York City, a sumptuous guidebook of history, art, economics, and politics that is like no other I’ve seen. Instead of the dutiful march from one tourist trap to another, expert scholars and long-time activists take you to places like Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic, deep in Brownsville, Brooklyn; an evocative spread of unfinished mansions and broken-down cottages and cabins, next to the Raritan Bay in Staten Island, where Dorothy Day lived the last days of her life; the Steinway Piano Factory in Astoria, from where you can launch yourself to another musical mecca, the Louis Armstrong House, across Queens, in Corona.

Edited by Carolina Bank Muñoz, Penny Lewis, and Emily Tumpson Molina—three brilliant sociologists who also happen to be close friends and colleagues of mine at CUNY—A People’s Guide to New York is a book of presence and absence. Leading you through Long Island City, the editors point out what’s there and not there—like 5Pointz graffiti, which featured the work of nearly 200 artists in the 1970s but was torn down and painted over in the decades that followed. They tell you about the labor and cultural struggles behind icons familiar, like the Brooklyn Bridge, and forgotten, like the former site of the Board of Education, in downtown Brooklyn, that witnessed the largest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s. They follow the trail from indigenous laborers in Brooklyn to the Empire State Building. And give you their version of tours you might take in New York City—a Chinatowns tour that goes from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens; an immigration tour along the 7 line; an alternative tour of Wall Street; and more.

The book is also versatile. When friends from Britain came to visit me, they bought it and used it jet themselves around the city for days on end. When I have fifteen minutes to spare or need a break from what I’m doing, I open up the book, which sits just to the right of me on my desk shelves, and dip into the story of the construction of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Either way, it’s travel, of body and soul.

It’s now available. Get it, and transport yourself to another world and the world we live in.

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