In an effort to get back to my roots by combining my passion for history and NYC, while also lightening the mood given the onslaught of negative news about our real estate market, I thought I would share some of my favorite books about New York City's rich past and eclectic neighborhoods (some nonfiction accounts and a few of the many well-known New York-based novels). Visiting the actual locations found in the books is a fun way to trace the city's evolution, and these recommendations span more than 120 years of history in our always-exciting city.
I've also included a recap on the 2018 real estate market and a look at what's ahead.
by Patti Smith
"I had no concept of what life at the Chelsea Hotel would be like when we checked in, but I soon realized it was a tremendous stroke of luck to wind up there. … To dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education."
In this fantastic 2010 autobiography, Patti Smith details her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe in the heady New York City of the 1960s and 70s. Intrinsically tied to Downtown bohemian chic, the couple's romance blossomed after an encounter at Tompkins Square Park, the East Village capital of the anti-establishment movement. The couple did a requisite turn at the Hotel Chelsea where their neighbors included Sam Shepherd, Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs and Salvador Dali. Their path took them to apartments and studios at 160 Hall St. in Clinton Hill and at 24 Bond St. in the East Village, and of course, the well-known performance venues of the day — St. Mark's Church in The Bowery, CBGB, Max's Kansas City and The Bitter End — are center stage (pun intended). Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, "Just Kids" is a must-read for any fan of Smith's music, Mapplethorpe's art or New York City's enduring appeal.
by Caleb Carr
"Absolutely nothing brings out the killer instinct in the upper crust of New York Society like a charity function."
Caleb Carr's historical novel begins in 1896 as troubled psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler joins forces with John Moore, a crime reporter, and Sara Howard, the first female employee of New York police department, to solve a gruesome series of child murders. The trio dabbles in the nascent investigative tools of the day, including fingerprinting and criminal profiling, while real historical figures, such as then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and financier JP Morgan, make appearances.
The book's many turn-of-the-century scenes and locations are a goldmine for history buffs. The team's exploits take them from gritty Lower East Side tenements and brothels to Gilded Age brownstones in Greenwich Village. They dine at Delmonico's and entertain themselves at the old Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and the defunct Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street. The Battery's Castle Clinton, once the site of the New York Aquarium, and the Croton Reservoir that once stood in the heart of Murray Hill also take a starring turn in this engaging murder mystery.
The 1994 book and its 1997 sequel were both New York Times' bestsellers and the series gained a new fan base recently thanks to a well-received and visually stunning television adaptation.
“Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City”
by Anthony Flint
"The peace that the residents of Greenwich Village viewed as comfortable and unpretentious was to Moses another city park that had fallen into disrepair. The plantings had withered, and the benches were broken. Moses cites this decline as a rationale for major changes. Like so much of the city, Washington Square Park needed to be upgraded and modernized."
History buffs who'd like to inject some girl power in their New York reading can do no better than this 2011 portrait of the inimitable activist and writer Jane Jacobs. The book chronicles Jane's fight to save her beloved Greenwich Village from multiple assaults by the "master builder" Robert Moses. Among Moses’ wish list was a plan to extend Fifth Avenue directly through Washington Square Park and a mammoth project called the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would connect the East River bridges with the Holland Tunnel by decimating SoHo and Little Italy. Jane joined fierce community opposition to the projects, enduring criminal charges for inciting a riot, criminal mischief and obstruction in the process. In his 1969 re-election bid, Mayor Lindsay cancelled plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, citing lack of community support. Jane's own book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is also a recommended read.
Sharp-eyed fans of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" — a frothy, but historically flawed glimpse at 1950s New York — may have noticed portrayals of Jane Jacobs in both seasons of the Amazon series.
"Bonfire of the Vanities"
by Tom Wolfe
"He could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets!"
While there are dozens of magnificent novels that skewer 1980s-era New York City greed — "Bright Lights, Big City" and "American Psycho" to name two — "Bonfire of the Vanities" earns a spot on this list in acknowledgement of Wolfe's passing last year.
While the novel's luxe Park Avenue co-ops and dizzying Wall Street wealth still exist in the city, new readers will be struck at the utter transformation of a then-derelict neighborhood that's at the crux of the Bonfire's opening event: Bond trader Sherman McCoy gets into serious trouble in the Bronx while transporting his mistress from JFK into Manhattan. In the 1980s, much of the South Bronx had been flattened to make way for the Cross Bronx Expressway, leaving a swath of abandoned blocks and crime in its wake. McCoy gets lost in the unrecognizable landscape and runs over a black teen in his panicked attempts to flee. Modern-day Mott Haven, where the opening events unfold, is a far cry from the barren wasteland described in the book. Today, the district has become a literal haven for young professionals and families seeking value, and the waterfront neighborhood's luxury high-rises offer amenities on par with what one would find south of the Harlem River.
"The Catcher in the Rye"
by JD Salinger
"New York is terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night."
Holden Caufield spends a weekend traipsing through Manhattan, encountering "fakes" and "phonies" at every turn in this 1950s classic known for epitomizing teenage angst and alienation. Like a tourist on methamphetamines, Holden manages to take in a dizzying number of sights in this slim volume. He visits two different hotels, two different private schools, and takes in a Broadway show, a performance at Radio City Music Hall and a jazz set at a smoky Greenwich Village nightclub. He visits both Penn Station (the original) and Grand Central, and both the Natural History Museum and The Met. In Central Park, he finds time to visit the carousel, the ice rink and the pond, where he famously wonders where the ducks go in winter. (The answer is nowhere; most stay put in the park).
Perhaps the most famous of all novels set in our fair city, JD Salinger's enduring 1951 novel has sold more then 65 million copies worldwide and still sells hundreds of thousands annually to this day. For those with abundant energy and curiosity, the New York Public Library has put together a detailed interactive map of Holden's exploits.
"The final quarter of 2018 displayed all the inconsistency which hallmarked the entire past year." And so begins Warburg CEO Frederick W. Peters' opening to Warburg's Q4 2018 market report. It was definitely a year filled with strengths and weaknesses. Fred points to quick sales in classic brownstones and park-adjacent homes as highlights, but in other areas, home sales are propelled by pricing that's in-line with our new "buyer's market" normal. Smart pricing is critical for sellers these days, and for buyers, I wholeheartedly agree with Fred's caution against trying to "buy at the bottom."
While there were plenty of year-end headlines focusing on price drops and slowing sales, for most industry experts, 2018's market slowdown was both expected and far from cataclysmic. The last nine years or so have been quite strong, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, so I like that Jonathan Miller, of Miller Samuel appraisal firm, describes current conditions as a normalization. "Sales are not low — they are just not unusually high," he says. "It’s like we came off the autobahn: It feels very slow relative to the last three to four years, but historically it’s not."
The name of the game for the year to come will be further normalization and added inventory across every borough, but the New York Times is also quick to point out the potential positive impact of a shortened L-train headache as well as Amazon's arrival, Google's downtown expansion, and fingers crossed, an ongoing strong economy and job market.
With buyers likely to remain in the driver's seat throughout 2019, though, my advice to sellers is to make sure that every facet of your marketing plan positions your property ahead of the (ample) competition. And, in my opinion, few things are more important than staging when it comes to creating an indelible impression among potential buyers. From photos to open houses, great staging truly makes your home sing. As I told The New York Times in their recent article on staging, "I don’t think, in this market, we can guarantee that if you stage you will get X amount more dollars or a bidding war or even the asking price. It’s just that this is a buyer’s market with a lot of competition, and we need to check every box we can."
My advice to buyers in the coming year? You have more selection and bargaining power than in recent memory. While you're considering your options, remember to do the math, and by that, I mean don't be intimidated by monthly charges that appear high, but could actually work out to a better total deal. Fred Peters explained further in a recent blog post.
Whether buying or selling in 2019, I'd love to chat about your goals and how we can make them a reality.