I am a New Yorker. I’ve lived in Britain for more than 35 years and in London for a quarter century. But New York is my hometown; New York is my soul. It’s been nearly two years, however, since I’ve sniffed the subway’s distinctive perfume or gazed at the starry roof of Grand Central Station; two years since I’ve eaten wontons from White Bear in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens, or one of Juliana’s perfect pizzas in Brooklyn Heights. I have begun to have an inkling of what it used to mean to be an immigrant: to leave home knowing you might never see it again.
Thomas Dyja’s and Craig Taylor’s new books reconjured the city for me. Both writers have already proved themselves adept at the literary recreation of a metropolis and its people: Dyja’s last book The Third Coast (2013) is a compelling evocation of the culture and politics of mid 20th-century Chicago; Taylor’s Londoners (2011) gives voice to the people of the British capital through interviewing them: his technique is to allow those he talks to – some of whom he seeks out, some of whom he meets by chance – to speak for themselves.
It is somehow very New York to learn that Dyja’s mammoth undertaking – a whirlwind history of the city from the late 1970s to the present – began with the kind of small yet profound sorrow that can reveal what a city means to us. Dyja lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; in 2013, his favourite burger place, a scruffy hole-in-the-wall called Big Nick’s, shut its doors. The progressive Bill de Blasio would succeed the business tycoon Michael Bloomberg as mayor the following year; yet this local loss left Dyja with “this slimy feeling… that while so much had gone right in New York, way too much had gone wrong”.