Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers
By James and Michelle Nevius
The problem with reading a good nonfiction book is that I spend the next few weeks reeling off fascinating facts to friends and family whose patience quickly grows thin.
“Did you know that monuments in Central Park can’t be erected until five years after the person they commemorate dies?”
“Did you know that Edith Wharton was a first cousin of the Mrs. Astor?”
“Did you know that at one time, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was going to be a bridge?”
This is how conversations with me have gone ever since I finished reading James and Michelle Nevius’s excellent Footprints in New York.
Their method of tackling New York history — and neighborhoods — is ingenius; each chapter tells the story of a person (or family) or two, linking it to a bigger local or national moment and to the buildings that once stood or still stand in that area. The Neviuses also published another book, Inside the Apple, that promises step-by-step instructions and maps for a variety of do-it-yourself walking tours. While I haven’t read that one, Footprints in New York does give you a good foundation for planning your own, if you don’t think you need that much guidance.
The focus for the first chapter is Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, who first took power in what is now New York in 1647. While Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam would have looked quite different from our modern New York, and not many landmarks from the period survive — the oldest house in Manhattan is the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built over 100 years later in 1765 — the names that pop up in this chapter will be familiar to New Yorkers and even some casual visitors.
Stuyvesant himself lent his name to Stuyvesant Park and Stuyvesant High School, among other places; his wife Judith belonged to the Bayard family (there’s a Bayard Street in Chinatown); the Bowery neighborhood got its name from the Dutch word “bouwerij,” meaning farm, which gives you a hint of how different that neighborhood looked 400 years ago.
At the other end of the chronology, the last chapter discusses the visions of New York portrayed in the films of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, both native New Yorkers. In between are chapters on everyone from the Astors to J. P. Morgan to Alexander Hamilton to Bob Dylan to Langston Hughes.
It is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that the book spends so much time on wealthy, white families. The authors have clearly made an attempt at gender parity, but only one chapter, on the Harlem Renaissance, discusses the city’s black residents in much detail, and Native Americans are wiped out of the narrative almost entirely (as indeed they were in history).
Morgan and Rockefeller (not to mention Olmstead and Vaux) left behind landmarks that still exist today, and those provide perhaps the most visceral connection to the past for modern readers and visitors. (The Neviuses, who are professional tour guides, mention a number of times clients’ disappointment upon discovering that a building they hoped to see was long ago torn down.) Still, it would have been nice to have exposed some more of the history that’s hidden not because of passage of years, but because its principals were deliberately kept from the limelight.
Like I said, though, I haven’t been able to stop talking about this book since I turned the first page. It’s crammed full of interesting information and interesting places — so many that I had to start a list to remember everywhere I want to go.
James and Michelle are still operating tour guides, and you can book one of their preplanned private tours or request a custom itinerary. They also occasionally do public events, which anyone can book a ticket for; most recently, they did a Columbus Day tour of Central Park. I haven’t caught a tour with them yet, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for upcoming public tours!
Recommended. Buy on Amazon.