Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Five best books on the seamy side of long-ago New York

Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize. His new book is A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States.

One of Ward's five best books that capture the seamy side of long-ago New York, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
Five Points
by Tyler Anbinder (2001)

The Five Points—named for the five-cornered intersection in Lower Manhattan of what are now Moscow, Baxter and Park Streets—was routinely denounced as the wickedest neighborhood anywhere, the home of "all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed," according to Charles Dickens. In this crisply written, clear-eyed and entertaining study, Tyler Anbinder separates myth from fact. "By the 1830s," he writes, the area "had become a concentration of vice, disease, crowding and bloody conflict unparalleled in American history." But it was always "far more than a collection of pathologies." Nativism and bigotry, he says, influenced outsiders' depictions of a place where blacks and whites and Asians lived next door to one another and sometimes even dared to intermarry and where working-class residents helped wrest political power from the old Knickerbocker families who thought the city would always be theirs to run. Most Five Pointers survived its squalor to build better lives for their families than they could ever have led in Ireland or Poland, Italy or China. The people of the Five Points were often portrayed as somehow alien, but Anbinder shows that their story is quintessentially American.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see--Five best books on New York City history.

--Marshal Zeringue