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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 » User review

Vivid history about the town so nice they named it twice

  • Feb 3, 1999
  • by
Washington, D.C., may be the nation's capital, but New York City is the nation's soul. The fact that we use it as a standard of measurement indicates how we feel about the city. We compare our art, our politics and the sizes of our cities to it. We sneer at it. We tell jokes about it. Glance at a map, and its place names (Coney Island! Brighton Beach! Bedford-Stuyvesant!) pop out, impressed on our collective memory from movies, plays, literature, television shows. America belongs to New York City and we're just paying rent.

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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More Gotham: A History of New York ... reviews
review by . March 24, 2000
This isn't the book you throw carelessly into your suitcase to take along and read while relaxing at the beach. It's weight alone would give your arm a cramp, and often its meticulous detail does the same for your mind. It's rather like "Everything you've always wanted to know about New York, and much, much more!" Finishing it, you feel as if you've just completed the New York Marathon: exhausted, but elated. All of the above being said, it's still well worth making the effort to read.
About the reviewer
Bill Peschel ()
Ranked #476
Bill Peschel was born in 1960 in Ohio, and grew up there and in North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism. At The Avalon Hill Game Company … more
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About this book


Like the city it celebrates,Gothamis massive and endlessly fascinating. This narrative of well over 1,000 pages, written after more than two decades of collaborative research by history professors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, copiously chronicles New York City from the primeval days of the Lenape Indians to the era when, with Teddy Roosevelt as police commissioner, the great American city became regarded as "Capital of the World." The sheer bulk of the book may be off- putting, but the reader can use a typically New York approach: Those who don't settle in for the entire history can easily "commute" in and out to read individual chapters, which stand alone nicely and cover the major themes of particular eras very well.

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

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ISBN-10: 0195116348
ISBN-13: 978-0195116342
Author: Edwin G. Burrows
Genre: History, Reference
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
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