I like to read books about other places, both fiction and non-fiction. And there are several cities that figure prominently in the collection of books I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to pick up books about New York City, Paris and Venice. Mr. Math picks up books about broader swaths of territory, like Russia, Belize and Chile. Last fall, before going to New York City, I did some collecting of appropriate books to read. It was my intention to spend some more time as a tourist than has usually been the case when I’ve gone to Manhattan – I usually spend a lot of time meeting with publishing industry people. This is a good thing, but I was starting to feel that I’d been through Manhattan but never really been there. And I like what I’ve seen. So, I added a couple of days to my trip to play tourist.
One of the books I found at the library was so intriguing that I returned it there and bought a copy. I’ve only just finished reading it. It was a chewy book, one that was both thought-provoking and intriguing. The book is Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate. It’s a beguiling and distinctive mix of memoir, history, observation and travelogue. In a way, it’s a hybrid of genres, both guidebook and memoir, plus a history of the waterfront regions of the city. The author begins his journey at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan and works up the west side in increments, then returns to that same southern tip to work his way up the east side. Along the way, he shares stories about the city and its history, along with his own experiences in certain neighborhoods. He also discusses fiction set in New York, non-fiction and movies, giving a view of the popular ideas associated with each location. All the while, he explores the question of how a city should meet the water, once the industrial port is gone. How do city residents use the waterfront? How should they be able to? What should be there? The discussion of politics and policy and public will is fascinating, and makes me realize how hard it is to create change in a large city.
I grew up in Toronto, another city with a strong relationship to the water – Lake Ontario, in that case – and also one with a once-bustling port that is now much less busy. There are a lot of industrial properties and brownlands where Toronto meets the lake, with some parks and bike trails interspersed. There is a highway restricting both access to the water and glimpses of it, as well as a number of luxury high rise condominiums. Much of what Mr. Lopate observes in New York is also visible in Toronto. Overall, there’s an inescapable sense that opportunity is being lost in this area of Toronto, although there are no obvious answers as to how it could better evolve. I was very struck by the author’s discussions of vibrant streetscapes and his desire to see the bustle of the city extend into these neglected areas. I liked his idea of leaving room for spontaneity on waterfront lands. It got me to thinking about Toronto and how it could evolve, as well as making me want to go back to New York and explore some more.
Overall, Mr. Lopate was a wonderful guide to his native city. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone curious about New York or about the evolution of waterfront lands.
Have you read anything that surprised and intrigued you lately?