Thursday, June 18, 2009

Books You Should Read About the Lower East Side

PR gal Kate manages all the press & communications for the Museum (including this very blog!) but she also has a background in American history. She’s read what feels like half the books in the Tenement Museum Shop, and here are her top five picks.

There are so many ways to learn about the Lower East Side, and of course my top suggestion would be to visit the neighborhood and tour the Tenement Museum. But you can also get a wonderful sense of the area’s history by reading about it. The Tenement Museum Shop carries the best books, both fiction and non-fiction, about New York, our neighborhood, and the immigrant experience.

Here are my top five books to read to better understand the historic immigrant and working-class experience on the Lower East Side.

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth.
I first read this book in a grad school class on the great American novel. That's how good it is. Essentially a fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and on Avenue D in the 1910s, Call It Sleep beautifully explores what it’s like to be a child; a Jewish child; an immigrant; and a family.
You can read many important and interesting history books about New York, but this is my top pick for immersing yourself in the experience of living here in the early 20th century. It's also a great read.

While the author focuses on women, she explores New York City in ways that are relevant across gender and cultures. My favorite chapters are about the rise of theaters and movie houses; the culture of Coney Island’s Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland amusement parks; and the line between respectability and indecency at the city’s many public dance halls.
Cheap Amusements is chock full of primary source data that gives you a sense of how working-class people in the city really lived – and how their incredibly demanding work led to the creation of an entire industry of leisure-time activities.

How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis; and Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom.
Many people know of Jacob Riis’ 1890 publication, which was acclaimed during the author’s life and then more or less forgotten until it was republished in 1971. Much of Riis’ language and imagery startles modern readers, and this is a fascinating look into the early Progressive era of the 1880s and 1890s.
We sell the 1971 edition at the Shop, which includes many of the photographic images Riis took around lower Manhattan (none of which, by the way, were originally published in the book).
To get a critical opinion of Riis’ writing and his photographic images, you must read Rediscovering Jacob Riis. This small book, published in 2007 by a historian and an art historian, casts an eye on Riis’ methods, as well as giving all-important context to his work.

This novel, set in 1863, immerses you in the different characters who made up New York in the mid-19th century. There are Tammany Hall bosses, hustlers and working girls, stockbrokers, stage actresses and minstrel performers. Identity issues form a core of this book, as the City itself goes through turbulent changes.
What’s great about Quinn’s story is the fact that so many real people are fictionalized in the book – from composer Stephen Foster to politician Big Tim Sullivan – as well as character ‘types’ who represent a broad spectrum of City life.
You may email the Museum Shop to order any of these books, or click the links to order directly online.

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