Sunday, August 06, 2006

Book Review: Pete Hamill's Downtown

I've been reading journalist Pete Hamill's New York memoir Downtown. Hamill was born in Brooklyn in 1935 to parents who came here from Belfast, Ireland. Hamill has worked at a good number of New York's newspapers as an editor and columnist. He was the editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Downtown is a nostalgic paean to New York that manages to celebrate the present and the look forward to the future as much as it gushes about the past. New York is "the capital of nostalgia" he writes, but what saves it (and this book) from living in the past is that change is relentless here:
Of the city's five boroughs, Manhattan in particular absolutely refuses to remain as it was. It is dynamic, not static. What seems permanent when you are twenty is too often a ghost when you are thirty. ... The engine of greatest change is the cramped land itself. Scarcity can create a holy belief in the possibility of great riches. That's why the religion of real estate periodically enforces its commandments, and neighborhoods are cleared and buildings hauled down and new ones rected, and all that remains is memory.
Hamill cannot get too sad about lost New York because the city moves too fast.

True, Brooklynites really do still lament the Dodgers leaving for Los Angeles some fifty years ago (incidentally, Hamill once called Walter O'Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers, one of the three most evil men of the twentieth century. Hitler and Stalin were the other two. Hamill was only half joking.). And my neighbor still has a "We will never forget" poster mourning 9/11 on his door, five years later. But as much as these New Yorkers remember the past, they can't live in it.

Some of the book is personal -- it's a memoir, after all -- but most of it is narrative history, fascinating and very readable narrative history. Hamill's curiosity about his hometown makes this book compelling. He asks simple questions like "Why was the Bronx called the Bronx?" And the city yields entertaining answers.

The Bronx came from a Swede (a Swede!) named Jonas Bronck -- what we know as the Bronx was his really big farm. Brooklyn and Harlem are two of the countless names that come from the city's Dutch past. their namesakes Haarlem and Breuckelen are still cities in the Netherlands. Wall Street is named after a wall the Dutch built on that site to keep the local Native Americans out. The island of Manna-hata was bought by the Dutch West India Company to become Nieuw Amsterdam for "twenty-four dollars' worth of beads and trinkets." The sellers, the Canarsee Indians, weren't actually the people who lived there, making the sale even more dubious.

The Bowery, that famous skid row in Greenwich Village on which the punk bar CBGB still (just barely) sits, crowded with expensive new development, was a farm, or bouwerie that belonged to Peter Stuyvesant, a director of the island's big Dutch trading post in the 1640s and 50s.

Hamill's scope is personal. "Downtown" encompasses everything below Central Park to him -- it's a device and a way of looking at the city's busiest places, and the ones he's most familiar with. It's a wonderful introduction to the city for a newcomer like myself. Learning the city's past and the sources of its names grounds me here, and contextualizes my move. People like Hamill whose families have been here for a mere hundred years have just as much claim on it as "New Yorkers" as families that have been here for centuries -- that's one of the products of the scarce land, fast pace, and large crowds. As someone who has been here a year, I've learned that I have my own claim on the city as a New Yorker: just over half of the city's denizens weren't born here.

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