Two books go a long way toward showing how it got that way: "Gotham" is a massive yet readable history of the city, while "Writing New York" From the Library of America makes an amiable companion with its collection of stories and memoirs.
"Gotham" takes 1,350 pages to tell its story, starting with the Lenape Indians roaming the fertile lands and closing at the end of the 19th century when the five boroughs voted to bind themselves together. In between is a kaleidoscope of characters, incidents, good times and bad times, and Burrows and Wallace succeeded in crafting a history where you can dip into it at random, be enthralled or appalled and not lose your way.
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While Gotham is fact-laden (with a critical apparatus that includes a bibliography and two indices--one for names, another for subjects), the prose admirably achieves both clarity and style. "What is our take, our angle, our schtick?" ask the authors, setting a distinctly New York tone in their introduction. No matter what it's called, their method of weaving together countless stories works wonderfully. The startlingly detailed research and lively writing bring innumerable characters (from Peter Minuit to Boss Tweed) to life, and even those who think they know the history of New York City will no doubt find surprises on nearly every page. Gotham is a rarity, reigning as both authoritative history and page-turning story. --Robert McNamara