Photos courtesy of Assouline
The backstory of a new book that’s a “joint love letter to the greatest city in the world”
by wendell jamieson
It was a frantic day on deadline at The New York Times when the email popped into my in-box. It almost had a French accent.
“I am a publisher based in NY.
I would be very happy to meet you to explain an important project that we are starting now for next year.
I think that you will like it and be the best writer for it.”
The writer of the email was Martine Assouline, and she ran Assouline publishing, a company she founded in France with her husband, Prosper, that produces gorgeous, very heavy art and design books, as well as luxury items for home libraries. (It’s pronounced Ah-soo-LEEN.) I’ve admired their books many times. But what would someone like that want with me, an ink-stained wretch? So I went to meet her. Also, she said I could have a nice coffee.
And that’s how my new book, “New York By New York,” was born, and how the impeccably stylish Paris-raised publisher of state-of-the-art luxury books teamed up with the Brooklyn-raised Metro editor of The Times to create our joint love letter to the greatest city in the world. She’s a transplant: this is her home now. I’m a native. But we are both New Yorkers all the same.
Flashback to September, 2017. Sipping that espresso, admiring the view of the Chrysler Building from her office, I listened as Martine explained her vision in person: A series of essays touching on various moments in 20th century New York history. I’d write 15,000 words. Her team would then go to the ends of the earth to collect practically every iconic image of New York. I suggested we do a chapter on the Gilded Age. She loved it. How about Dutch times? Not so much. We agreed to not only focus on Manhattan but on the boroughs as well, where many of today’s hotspots and fast-growing communities thrive.
I got cracking. I’ve covered New York City since I joined New York Newsday in April, 1991. I have bookcases filled with tomes about the city where I was born in 1966 in New York Hospital. I dug into my books. I hit the public library. I did deep dives online. On weekends and at night I walked the streets of the neighborhoods I sought to describe. And I enlisted the help of some of my colleagues at The Times who had expertise in areas where mine was lacking – immigration, Broadway, skyscrapers.
This wasn’t my first book. In 2007 I published a non-fiction memoir called “Father Knows Less” about answering the wacky questions of my then-young son, Dean. That got me on Martha Stewart. But this was different. How could I capture all of this boiling, broiling, onrushing city in just 15,000 words?
By writing 30,000 words, that’s how.
And adding more chapters: ocean liners, Film Noir, the 1980s. The book got bigger and bigger. I added plenty of grit, too. Martine wanted a real vision of New York City, not something white-washed and sugar-coated. That I could do. Back when I was a police reporter, I wrote about roughly 600 homicides. So the crime of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when arson lit the sky because landlords found that torching was more lucrative than selling, was included. So was the terrible treatment of immigrants from China in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. And so was the scourge of crack cocaine, and the horrible December night was John Lennon was shot and killed.
Not your average fare for a coffee table book.
I wanted “New York By New York” to be personal, too. So I added my own stories here and there. How my parents took me and my sister to SoHo on Sundays in the mid-1970s to see the art galleries. How my girlfriend and I went to a place on the Lower East Side in the 1990s called Lansky Lounge that harkened back to the Prohibition era. How living in Brooklyn, as I do, was looked down upon – cabs wouldn’t even take you home at night when I was growing up — until it became the coolest thing.
And I didn’t want it to be only about the past. I visited those places today that I wrote about, like Ladies Mile on Avenue of the Americas in the West 20s where shopping first became a pastime and still is. I wanted to bring the reader into the present. I spent nights in Chinatown. I strolled up and down Park Avenue so I could describe the incredible sense of diminishing perspective just right. I stood outside the shuttered Chelsea Hotel, peering into the dark interior, to see if I could feel the literary and musical ghosts lingering within.
I handed in my text and let the designers go to work. They held nothing back. And then Martine’s and my baby was born at an astonishing 11 pounds. It was quite an experience to see my words, words I’d banged out on a laptop on the kitchen table, on such beautiful paper, among such spectacular images, cossetted within such a beautiful cover.
But the thought didn’t change. It was the same thought that propelled me as Metro editor. New York City is the greatest city in the world, a city of contradictions that is always changing yet always the same, and that’s the great contradiction of them all.
Wendell Jamieson is a former Metro editor of The New York Times. If you would like to contact him, please visit his website. “New York by New York” and “Father Knows Less” can be purchased on Amazon.