Whether you are new to the city or have been living here for the majority of your life, it’s important for all New Yorkers to have a grasp on the basics of the city’s history. I know that every history teacher you’ve had from elementary school through high school has probably said that the past informs the present and that events from long ago still have an effect on our lives today, but they were absolutely right. Reading up on NYC history can give us some context on the city today, like why the MTA always seems to be in crises mode, why Staten Island thinks of itself as the forgotten borough, and why our neighborhoods seem to be ever-changing. So if you are curious about where all of that stems from but don’t know where to begin, pick up one of these introductory books to NYC history.
Introductory Books to General NYC History
I know that Kenneth T. Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City is the end-all be-all of NYC directories, but it’s also 1,400 pages long. New York Magazine’s take is a little more manageable, but still informative. This is the book to get if you’re flirting with the idea of learning more about New York history and culture, but you don’t want to commit to hearing the whole 400-year tale yet. Read it cover to cover or flip to random pages and read the entries there.
Full of photos, graphs, and timelines, this book is a crash course in NYC history. Similar to a textbook, The Historical Atlas of New York City uses short essays to give you enough background on the city’s history that you’ll be prepared when a TikToker inevitably stops you on the street to quiz you.
If you breezed through reading The Historical Atlas of New York City but you’re not ready to spend the next few months wading through Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham, then this book is the perfect in-between for you. It’s nearly 400 years of history condensed into 250 pages.
Introductory Books to Brooklyn History
Part of a project by the Citizens Committee for New York City to document every neighborhood in New York, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn provides essential background knowledge on ninety Brooklyn communities. Keep in mind that the information is a little outdated, as it was published in 2004, but it’s still a good resource.
From the moment it was published in 2019, this book became the definitive book on Brooklyn history. Brooklyn: The Once and Future City captures the not only the story of Brooklyn, but also its essence.
Introductory Books to the Bronx History
Lloyd Ultan has been the Bronx borough historian for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Over his decades-long career as a historian and an academic, Ultan has written at least nine books on the history of his native borough. Any of his books would be a good starting point for your introduction to the history of the Bronx, but I especially recommend The Northern Borough: A History of the Bronx.
Introductory Books to Queens History
Also part of the series by the Citizens Committee for New York City, The Neighborhoods of Queens breaks down the city’s largest borough neighborhood by neighborhood, giving you an overview of each community’s story.
Introductory Books to Manhattan History:
Entertaining and informative, Chronicles of Old New York tells you a historical tale from nearly every neighborhood in Manhattan. You’ll learn about how Washington Square Park transformed from a potters field into neighborhood hub, what it was like in the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, and how Fifth Avenue became associated with wealth.
Introductory Books to Staten Island History
City Councilmember Joseph Borelli is on a mission tell the story of his beloved borough to a modern audience, and this is the second book of his endeavor. This short volume traces the history of Staten Island following the American Revolution through its consolidation with New York City in 1898.
What other books would you recommend as introductory books to NYC history? Share them in the comment section.
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