New York City is one of the world’s most beloved cities for good reason. Its history is rich. Its glamour is lavish. Its people are real. If you’ve ever wanted to dig into some New York City history, from its origins and crimes to its grid and famous hotels, this list will help guide you. But it will likely only be a starting point—they’re all just too good to stop at one.
In this definitive history of New York City during the World War II era, John Strausbaugh showcases the many faces of the Big Apple. It wasn't just servicemen, politicians, and heroes, there were Nazi sympathizers, war protestors, artists, and spies, too. Victory City is the story of those people, from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to Langston Hughes and Joe DiMaggio. Life in the city transformed exponentially after the costliest war in human history and there's no one better than New York City historian, John Strausbaugh to tell that story.
by Julie Scelfo
Illustrated by Hallie Heald
Every history book tells the tales of men. The Women Who Made New York focuses on the other side of history. Julie Scelfo unearths the untold stories of the women behind the magnificence of New York City, from Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde to Fran Lebowitz and Grace Jones and many women who are lesser known, like Emily Warren Roebling, who completed construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her engineer husband fell ill. This book is the perfect feminist history of New York City.
City of Sedition is one narrative thread of the story of New York City's complicated role in the Civil War. John Strausbaugh chronicles the many ways in which the city helped Abraham Lincoln and the Union war effort—and all the ways it got in the way of Lincoln's plans, too. While men, money, and materials came from New York City to aid the fight, so did antiwar protests and draft resistance. Responses to Lincoln's war policies often included deadly rioting while New York newspapers were racist and antiwar; they'd call on readers to revolt and commit treason. Strausbaugh follows the journeys of famous figures of the age, including Walt Whitman, Julia Ward Howe, and Thomas Nast, and how they contributed to the city's growth in this chaotic time.
In 1811, a three-man commission thought up something great and, eventually, defining for New York City: the street grid. The plan was for parallel avenues crossing at right angles with parallel streets. Things like ponds, forests, hills, farms, and property lines became invisible to the grid, which overtook the land and became the new rule. Gerard Koeppel tells the story of the grid's birth and legacy in City on a Grid.
by Julie Satow
Journalist Julie Satow digs deep into the rich history of the Plaza Hotel in her comprehensive book, The Plaza. From 1907, when New York millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt became the first guest to 2007 when a Russian oligarch paid a record price for the largest penthouse suite and everything—some light, some dark—everything in between, Satow covers it all. Not-so-hidden secrets include the murder by construction workers building the hotel and Donald Trump being the only owner to bankrupt the Plaza. The Plaza is the story of the image of wealth and grandeur in New York City's history.
Bernard Whalen compiles 175 years of true crime case files from the NYPD archives—including photos and artifacts—in Case Files of the NYPD. From crimes committed before the police force's establishment in 1845 to September 11, 2001, and beyond, this visual history captures the worst crimes that shocked the country like the bombing of Wall Street in 1920 and Son of Sam, the serial killer who was finally captured after a parking ticket. Case Files from the NYPD covers it all.
Gay New York tells the history of gay life in the city—and shows that it existed before the 1960s. George Chauncey takes from diaries, legal records, and other unpublished documents to bring together this lively history about a part of the world that was kept secret. Until now.
What to Read Next
Ashley Holstrom is a book person, designing them and writing about them for Book Riot. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color.