Downtown by Pete Hamill

I had never heard of Pete Hamill before spotting this book on the N Train one night on my way home from work.  Apparently he’s written quite a few novels, but this memoir is the story of his love affair with the city of New York.  He calls his city Downtown, but uses an unorthodox definition of his own devising, stretching up to Central Park South at times.

I have only lived in New York since 2004, though I grew up visiting my father’s lab in the Bronx frequently, and making visits to museums and Broadway shows a few times a year.  I lived first at 26th Street, a block from Madison Square Park, then in the Financial District for three years before moving to Brooklyn last summer.  Hamill made the opposite move in his young adulthood, from the ethic enclaves of Brooklyn to the gritty streets of 60s Manhattan.

Woven among Hamill’s memories of starting out in the newspaper business on Park Row (my first Financial District address) and visiting the clubs of the Village is an excellent history of the city’s slow climb from its southernmost point up the island.  His narrative intersects my recent reads, House of Mirth and The Emperor’s Children, giving the history of times and places that inspired those works.

For someone without a strong grounding in the geography of the city, the stories can be hard to follow at times, but they’ll make even the casual visitor as nostalgic as a lifelong New Yorker for the old days, whether they were the 1600s or last week.

6 responses to “Downtown by Pete Hamill

  1. This happens to be one of my all time favorite books; even as a native new yorker this book made me want to go out and walk the pages.

  2. Snow in August is an great novel by Hamill. A Malamudesque tale written by an Irish New Yorker.

  3. Bought the book from the remainder table and thoroughly enjoyed. As someone who only visits New York and dreams about living there (not likely), it was a great tour through a New York that I don’t know.

  4. I like your blog but can’t believe you never heard of Pete Hamill! I’d suggest you try his A DRINKING LIFE: A Memoir.

  5. Frank from the Bronx

    I agree with Jeff. But don’t neglect his fiction; it too is steeped in New York: “North River”, his most recent, is set in the West Village and Little Italy of the ’30s. What I love about reading Pete Hamill is that I hear his voice—it’s almost like a book-on-tape. Maybe because he’s such a fixture of the city; he was interviewed on WNYC last week regarding Ted Kennedy. I saw him do a reading from “North River” when it first came out in Madison Square Park. Afterwards, I bought the book and had him inscribe it to my daughter. Then I offered my battered and much read copy of “Downtown”, just for me.

  6. Pingback: Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot « The Subway Book Club

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