A series of biographies of significant New York City buildings that “have been transcendent in some way.”
Despite the title, this is the history of 27 structures, although a great deal of New York’s past makes an appearance. “Can collective conglomerations of bricks, glass, wood, steel, and mortar reveal the soul of a city?” Definitely, writes Roberts (Only in New York: An Exploration of the World's Most Fascinating, Frustrating and Irrepressible City, 2018, etc.), the former urban affairs correspondent of the New York Times. The author offers a solid education in New York architecture that pays close attention to the personalities, politics, economics, and natural disasters that inevitably accompany it. Eschewing the commonplace, Roberts begins with the oldest house, which is in Queens. Built in 1661 when the city was Dutch, it was home to John Bowne, a Quaker preacher and source of a petition, signed by a group of neighbors, objecting to director-general Peter Stuyvesant’s order banning Quakers. The author points out that this is a foundational document of American freedom written over a century before the Bill of Rights (also born in New York). Even educated readers will identify only a minority of Roberts’ choices, including St. Paul’s Chapel, City Hall, the Flatiron Building, Tweed Courthouse, Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, and the Apollo Theater. A laundromat was once a branch of Bank of the United States. Notwithstanding the name, it was a private institution whose collapse in 1931 launched the banking crisis which, perhaps more than the 1929 stock market crash, converted a normal recession into the Great Depression. New York’s poorest district, the South Bronx, hosted the huge American Bank Note Plant, which churned out currency, stamps, and stock securities for nations around the world. It moved away in the early 1980s; the building remains as a landmark, and the area is prospering.
Though not a cohesive narrative, these isolated journalistic essays provide an entertaining picture of New York through the centuries.