With the U.S. Thanksgiving break approaching, you may find yourself having time for a bit of light reading. Professor and director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization Anya Schiffrin shares her recommended book list about New York City and its Upper West side neighborhood:
“New York is the biggest collection of villages in the world,” Alistair Cooke once said of the city, and even in a pandemic that’s true. Its heartbeat remains strong and the rewards for exploring it are as endless as ever. In preparation for in-person courses at SIPA, you may want to learn about the city you are making your temporary home. As a life-long resident of the Upper West Side, I’ve written a short list of my favorite books about our neighborhood and our city.
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick introduces the legendary feminist writer to a new, younger audience. In this memoir, Gornick walks around New York for hours each day and records the conversations she overhears, strikes up with strangers, and has with her friends. As Gornick meanders the city, she reflects on her childhood in the South Bronx and contemplates aging, the drama of life, and the restorative act of walking through New York. She writes, “nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city.”
Insomniac City author Bill Hayes moved from San Francisco to New York, where he fell in love with neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. When even blissful romance didn’t cure his insomnia, he took to walking around Greenwich Village at night with his camera. Insomniac City is his love letter to nocturnal New York—describing the characters he met, his life with Sacks, and the passers-by that Hayes photographed.
Down the-Up Staircase is the story of the Haynes family and the Harlem brownstone they lived in over three generations. Coauthors and partners Bruce Haynes and Syma Solovitch weave together the stories of a house, a neighborhood, and the lives of one black family. Beginning with the Harlem Renaissance, this memoir is an account of the pressures and obstacles faced by the Hayes family and an atmospheric description of Harlem over the decades.
Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint examines the journalist and urbanist Jane Jacobs, who fought master builder Robert Moses over his plans to destroy much of Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan. Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker (1974), shaped the design of modern New York City. A much shorter read than Caro’s, Flint’s book explains how much reason we have to thank Jacobs and the women of Greenwich Village.
A Time to Stir, edited by Paul Cronin, chronicles the massive student protests at Columbia University and their occupation of several buildings on campus in 1968, both landmark moments in the history of the University. A Time to Stir includes essays by the members of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and the Society of Afro-Americans Students (SAS), as well as many others. Many of those student leaders and faculty are still part of the Columbia community and can be spotted around campus today. “People speak of Columbia as a transforming event, a unique time when we bonded intensely and with each other, some of us total strangers. We placed our lives in each other’s hands. We ate, slept, breathed, and loved our political activism,” writes Nancy Biberman of the Barnard Undergraduate Strike Coordinating Committee.
The Morningside Heights trilogy is set in rapidly gentrifying Morningside Heights in the late 1990s. The cast of characters, made up of artists, musicians, and professors, live on 117th street, shop at local bookstores, and meet at cafes. With her focus on domestic lives, alliances, and marriages, author Cheryl Mendelson harkens back to 19th and early 20th century literature of the likes of Jane Austen and Jessie Redmon Fauset. This is perfect escapist reading set in the community we love.”
— Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization