Freelance journalist Agovino’s debut investigates how people are shaped by the places they inhabit.
When Co-op City opened in the Bronx in 1968, this series of enormous towers was hailed as a worker’s paradise, a utopia, the future of urban housing in America. It was also called “eminently depressing,” “monumental in size, minimal in planning” and “relentlessly ugly.” Agovino moved to this mythical place with his Italian-American family on a wave of hope and apprehension. But their odyssey began years earlier, before the author’s birth, when his father Hugo had to flee East Harlem after forgetting to place a bet for a high powered “racket guy” who came looking for the money he would have won. Catastrophes, near-catastrophes and big wins would prove to be the defining themes in Hugo’s life. Gambling kept its hold on him after he married Cora from Brooklyn, after they had children, after they moved to Co-Op City and even after Hugo landed a job in the Department of Social Services. The family’s fortune rose and fell with each wave of luck in the bookmaking business he ran on the side. Agovino’s history is rich with the mythology of immigrant strivers, but with its own series of twists linked to his erudite, proud and reckless father. The book also offers a unique portrait of the mutability of class, as his parents visited the Uffizi in Florence after a good streak and fretted over making payments on their son’s tuition after a bad streak. Crafting a joint portrait, Agovino occasionally lets minutiae about his kin—precious when viewed from within, less so from without—overpower the more dramatic chronicle of Co-Op City. For the most part, however, he strikes a nice balance between the histories of a beloved place and a turbulent family.
A generally engrossing narrative of class and mobility in urban America.