New York is many things, but chief among them, it’s a book town. Take the subway any weekday morning and it’s as quiet as a reading room; walk through Central Park on the weekends and there are folks lying around as though a library has exploded and deposited book lovers all over the grass. And for every type of reader there’s an array of sites across the Big Apple that aren’t to be missed.
For history buffs
Five Points (centered around Columbus Park in today’s Chinatown), and 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st streets
Head down to the Five Points district (east/west: Bowery to Centre Street; north/south: Canal Street to Park Row) and imagine a dangerous, mid-19th century scene, where gangs such as the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits fought for control of a growing metropolis–all described in Herbert Asbury’snow-classic 1926 account (while you’re at it you can also watch the movie, starring a scenery-chewing Daniel Day-Lewis). Once you’ve had your fill of gangs, head to midtown Fifth Avenue . . . and imagine when it was merely a quiet residential district, rather than the chichi shopping tract it has become. In Chris Adrian’s debut novel “Gob’s Grief,” Brooklynite Walt Whitman crosses the East River to take his place inside a machine–constructed inside a tony, five-story mansion on Fifth Avenue, described as “in the neighborhood of the ever-growing Catholic cathedral”–all as part of a desperate scheme to bring back to life the Civil War dead.
For “cool kids”
Williamsburg, Brooklyn/New York University/Astoria, Queens
Published 10 years ago, over the past decade the “Hipster Handbook” has helped define the messenger bag-carrying, thrift-store clad, indie band fan so many of us love to hate. If you want to see them in their habitat, you don’t just have to head to what the book calls the “indigenous zone” of New York, Williamsburg–apparently you can “throw a copy of Final Cut Pro and . . . hit a film student on [New York University’s] Hipster-heavy campus,” too. Time was Astoria, Queens, used to be more Greek than a plate of souvlaki, but in recent years the burgeoning Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden at 24th Avenue has attracted hipsters in droves. Milo Burke, the Astoria native central and character of Astoria native Sam Lipsyte’s novel “The Ask,” is a former painter who works at a university–the perfect resume, surely, for a hipster?
3. Love Story
For romance lovers
Upper East Side/The Chelsea Hotel
Though the lachrymose movie “Love Story” doesn’t immediately scream “New York” (all those early scenes set in Boston, etc.), once the merde starts to hit the fan, the city moves center stage. In the novel, the star-crossed couple move from Boston to 263 East 63rd Street, which is actually in the middle of 3rd Avenue (i.e., it doesn’t actually exist). But while you’re trying to find it, you can imagine the confrontation between Oliver Barrett IV (played by Ryan O’Neal) at a New York hospital, after which Barrett gets to utter his immortal line, “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” For a different kind of love story altogether, check out Patti Smith’s memoir about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids”–and for a neighborhood vibe to go along with the read, head to the once-infamous Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street.
For baseball fans
Yankee Stadium, the Bronx/the former Polo Grounds, West 155th Street and 8th Avenue, Manhattan
The beating heart of sports in New York revolves around the Yankees baseball franchise. Their home stadium on East 161st Street in the Bronx remains vibrant through the October playoffs most seasons–for a retelling of some of the key moments in Yankee Stadium history, look no further than Allen Barra’s book about Mantle and Mays, “Mickey and Willie.” Less than a mile due west (as the crow flies–because it’s New York it takes about an hour by car) lies the site of the former Polo Grounds, the home of the New York Giants until they moved to San Francisco in 1957. It was there that the “shot heard around the world” occurred on October 3, 1951–Bobby Thomspon’s pennant-winning walk-off home run for the Giants, over the Brooklyn Dodgers, is immortalized in Don DeLillo’s novella “Pafko at the Wall” (itself culled from his critically acclaimed novel, “Underworld”).
For the media hound
Bleecker and Cornelia, West Village/Rockefeller Center
Mass media finds a welcome home in New York, be it via books, magazines, TV or theater. In 1984, novelist Jay McInerney blew open the world of editorial offices and controlled substances in “Bright Lights, Big City.” Head to the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia in the Village to see the apartment “you” (the novel is in the second person) and Amanda “shared . . . when you first came to New York.” From there, it’s a short jaunt to Midtown to take in the sights of Rockefeller Center and the NBC Studios, where so many classic “Saturday Night Live” sketches were written and filmed–the best account of the show remains Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s, “Live from New York.”