History Books » American History

The best books on New York History

recommended by Louise Mirrer

Like several of the great cities of the world, New York's openness to people born elsewhere and relative tolerance lay at the foundation of its success, though darker episodes in the city's 400-year history also need attention. Historian Louise Mirrer, President of the New-York Historical Society, recommends books that are essential to understanding the essence of the Big Apple.

Interview by Eve Gerber

New York is unique, you often assert as president of the city’s two-century-old historical society. Your first selection, Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, begins to make the case as to why it came to be a unique city. Please tell me about the book and what it reveals about the history of New York.

The Island at the Center of the World was a path-breaking book when it came out in 2004. People think of New York as originally British; Russell showed that, in fact, the seeds that the Dutch planted when they came here nearly 400 years ago preceded the laying down of British roots and survived the British takeover. We were New Amsterdam before we were New York.

It’s really the Dutch whom we should thank for the spirit of tolerance that New York has always had—and continues to have—and the sense that New Yorkers have always had of ourselves as open to newcomers and thriving from the contributions of the immigrants. The Dutch are also responsible for the enduring sense that if it can happen anywhere, it can happen here. The Dutch came here for commercial reasons and others have followed for economic betterment ever since. The sense of New York as a place of upward mobility took root when this was New Amsterdam. That’s why I see this book as essential, because the first Europeans who made Manhattan their own were Dutch and the mark of their presence remains.

Your next recommendation is a book about 18th-century NYC, by Harvard’s outstanding Jill Lepore. Tell us about New York Burning.

New York Burning is certainly not an uplifting book (as Island at the Center of the World, in most respects, is). It tells us about a five-week period in the 18th century when New Yorkers descended into fits of paranoia-driven violence against enslaved people and their associates. It’s a period that shows that New York was as culpable for slavery as Southern states.

There was a kind of witch hunt, a persecution very similar to what had happened to women in Salem at the end of the 17th century, in 1692. In 1741, there were baseless accusations against enslaved people, and some white people as well, that they were plotting an uprising—even though there is no historical evidence that any uprising was ever planned. People were pressed to make confessions or to make accusations, virtually all of them specious. People were considered suspect for the flimsiest reasons. For instance, one enslaved person called Dr Harry was considered suspect because enslaved people were prevented from practising medicine, so his nickname put him in the crosshairs.

It tells us a story that is literally embedded in New York City. The dozens of Black Americans who were burned or hung as a result of these specious accusations are interred in burial grounds at the tip of Manhattan. This period is part of our physical landscape. It is essential, in order to understand ourselves and our history, to know that New York is a complicated place; in as much as we see ourselves as tolerant, there were periods during which New Yorkers committed the same kinds of crimes as Southern places which we don’t see ourselves as comparable to at all.

Next, you name a book based on an exhibit you helped engineer. Tell us about Slavery in New York.

In the same vein as New York Burning, our exhibition and this book look at the history of enslavement in New York City. Few people at the time of the exhibition, which was 2004, identified New York with slavery. Yet, there were nearly as many enslaved people in New York City as in Charleston, South Carolina. Although we did not have plantations in New York City, one out of every five inhabitants of New York in the colonial period was enslaved. So, a huge number of enslaved people were part of the population of New York City; we dealt with that in the exhibition.

Slavery ended in New York in 1827, but leading up to the Civil War, New York City continued to be heavily implicated in slavery. The book also goes well beyond slavery in New York to a different period, which we also followed with a follow-on exhibition called “New York Divided.” The cotton produced in the South was sent to New York. To some extent, there was fabrication of cotton goods in New York, but for the most part, it was shipped overseas. New York companies took enslaved people as collateral. So, New York continued to be heavily involved in the slave economy up through the beginning of the Civil War. It was only after the attack on Fort Sumter that New York began to see itself as a northern city with union sympathies. In fact, Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York City just before the Civil War, suggested seceding on the grounds that in the absence of slavery “the grass would grow on Broadway.”

“We were New Amsterdam before we were New York”

In our exhibition, we also looked at how much of what we have come to associate with New York City, in the cultural arena, originated in the early Black population of the city. In many respects, there was a lasting positive benefit, in terms of the culture that was bequeathed to us by people who were brought to this country unwillingly and who lived in horrific conditions, but nevertheless achieved culturally, perhaps, as much as other immigrants.

After Covid, you said, “the grass will never grow on Broadway.” Now I understand the roots of that quote extended back to Mayor Wood, but you were referring to the enduring vitality of New York’s entertainment industry. What is important to understand about the role of New York in generating entertainment and popular culture?

That’s a long story, but a large part of the answer is that because New York has always been welcoming to immigrants, the city has been able to capture and package the kinds of entertainment that delights people but did not necessarily originate here. For instance, many of the authors of American musicals had immigrant roots in Eastern Europe, many of them were Jewish refugees who came here and created great music that was celebratory of the nation where they found the opportunity to fulfill their artistic abilities.

One of my favorite social histories is your next choice. Please tell me about George Chauncey’s Gay New York.

Most people date the gay liberation movement, as it was known, to the uprising sparked by the arrests at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. George Chauncey looks back beyond Stonewall to the late 19th century and he finds that a very robust gay culture existed in New York nearly a century earlier. Gay men were able to enjoy intellectual achievement and social freedom and exercise their sexuality in ways that were since forgotten. Chauncey’s work shows, once again, that the fruits of the seeds planted in one period of history can be recaptured in future moments.

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He shows how 19th-century gay culture provided opportunities for men in various quarters to congregate and socialize freely. He also talks about a culture in which gayness, so to speak, was not viewed as deviant (as it would later come to be viewed), but as something that was within a range of masculinities. He focuses on men in the book, not exclusively, but almost exclusively. To think of a range of masculinities, of men who either enjoyed the company of gay men, of men who were gay and able to enjoy their sexual freedom, is a very different environment from the one in which we typically think of prior to the gay liberation movement. He shows us a side of New York that is more consistent with the way we like to think about ourselves today—as open and giving opportunity to all people to express themselves in whatever ways they wish.

That ended, very sadly, with prohibition, and particularly with the condemnation of the Catholic Church which was instrumental in making sexual practices that they did not condone forbidden. In the early 20th century, we began to see legal apparatus to suppress sexuality and crackdowns by police which made it almost impossible to be openly gay. We see something of our city in George Chauncey’s work.

In an interview with me, Fran Lebowitz ventured that people came to New York “so they could be free to pursue their interests and live their lives the way they wanted.” How have LBTGQ+ New Yorkers, attracted by the freedoms of the city, helped shape its history?

Virtually every nook and cranny of New York City has been influenced by people of all sexual orientations. One of the things that George Chauncey points out in his book is the flowering of gay reviewers setting the taste for the rest of New York City. The impact on culture has really been huge, but it’s a stereotype to think only about the impact on culture. New York also made great strides in getting rid of discrimination of all kinds because of LBTGQ activism in the wake of Stonewall. And activists set the tone for many other cities in terms of reversing the discrimination that had been faced by people who were gay or lesbian or trans.

Finally, a comparative history of the preeminent cities of each coast. Tell me about New York and Los Angeles, edited by sociology professor David Halle, and why you’ve chosen it.

Before we talk about this book, I should add that there are a couple of other books that are real landmarks. First, my great predecessor as President of the New-York Historical Society, Ken Jackson, wrote Encyclopedia of New York, which tells you everything that there is to know about the city. Robert Caro’s Power Broker is a work of genius that explains the huge imprint one man had on the landscape of New York. These are both also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of New York.

It’s hard for me to resist putting my own husband, David Halle’s, book on the list because it looks at virtually every aspect of New York City—immigration, education, culture, government—in comparison with another city, Los Angeles. Through comparing those two cities we really come to understand that New York is unique and the book identifies many of the factors that make the city unique. For instance, we have a mayor who has a truly significant amount of power and authority, especially now that we have mayoral control of the schools. We have the largest number of children in our public education system.

If we want to understand the essence of New York and what is essential about the city, our openness to immigrants is central. This comparative study points out that it was Rudy Giuliani, as mayor, who made New York a sanctuary city in 1994. Giuliani said some of the most productive people he knew were undocumented immigrants so he instructed the police force never to ask for documents and suggested that employers turn a blind eye. This book shows the historical context for politicians’ openness to immigrants. That tradition of welcoming everyone and inviting everyone to give it their best shot as Americans is part of what makes this city so great.

Interview by Eve Gerber

November 22, 2022

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Louise Mirrer

Louise Mirrer

Historian Louise Mirrer has been President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society since 2004.

Louise Mirrer

Louise Mirrer

Historian Louise Mirrer has been President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society since 2004.