These book recommendations come directly from the knowledge bank of erudite architect/historian Abby Suckle, who presides over the nonprofit cultureNOW and has designed a bounty of cultural and historical maps of NYC. So add these five to your cart if you (or someone you know) need to brush up on the history of Lower Manhattan.
The Island at the Center of the World
This is Russell Shorto’s novel about Dutch Colonial Manhattan. His thesis is what made America great is its openness to different cultures and that Manhattan Island was the first multi-ethnic, upwardly-mobile society on America’s shores. It also is one of the few books that is told in such an engaging manner that the narrative comes alive.
Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City
Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson led a team which imagined what Manhattan would have been like had no one come. Everything is carefully documented, from beavers to fires, to paint a picture of the island’s ecological landscape and what it was like before Henry Hudson arrived.
Charlotte: A Tale of Truth
Susana Rowson’s 1791 novel about a young girl who elopes to the United States only to be abandoned by her fiancé was the first blockbuster bestseller in American history. Even though it’s a clear work of fiction, Charlotte’s tombstone rests at Trinity Cemetery not too far from Alexander Hamilton. Suspecting that the tombstone really housed a woman of ill repute, the grave was exhumed in 2006. (Nothing was inside.)
The Power Broker
This is the great Robert Caro’s epic on controversial master-builder Robert Moses. Moses, in partnership with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, fully 20 percent of all government funding allocated to the New Deal went to New York City and in the process forever reshaped it.
The Greatest Grid
In 1811, the Commissioners Plan was produced to lay out the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to 155th Street. In part a response to multiple yellow fever epidemics (as well as some old-fashioned real-estate chutzpah), the map was overlaid onto the mostly-agricultural island. Thus the “land of many hills” was duly flattened. The operation was both inspirational in its scope and highly disruptive to its citizenry — all laid out in this chronological history, compiled from several NYC historians.