Our series of Virtual Culture Trips has so far brought us to the City by the Bay, the City of Angels, and the Windy City, and today we land in the City So Nice, They Named It Twice. I have to be honest: I’ve been dreading doing this one. That’s in part because there are so many books and movies and songs about the Big Apple, and in part because I take this one pretty personally. I was born in New York, and while I grew up in the Bay, I’ve spent close to half my life in the five boroughs, including most of the last decade in Brooklyn. I really wanted to get this one right, both out of personal pride and because I’ll be harangued by both my New York–based coworkers and my New York–centric family if I got it wrong. Of course, then I remembered that everyone in both those groups is gonna yell at me no matter what I choose… so here goes. The City That Never Sleeps may have been slumbering the last few months, but these books, movies, and songs can take you there any time.
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Published in 1952, Ellison’s masterwork is not only a foundational work of African-American literature, it’s one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. The unnamed narrator tells his tale from a hidden underground room lit with hundreds of bulbs, and the story takes him from the Jim Crow South to New York, where he becomes a community activist and organizer in Harlem. Every step of the way, Ellison illustrates the entrenched racism and double standards that black people in America face. Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, and Ellison, despite working for many years on a follow up, never published another novel in his lifetime.
2. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
Set mostly in the working-class, outer-borough neighborhood of Sunset Park, Selby’s 1964 novel shows the decidedly unglamorous side of Old New York. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s cast is composed of longshoremen, street thugs, hustlers, and prostitutes, and the book describes their lives in a voice that echoes with the harshness of the streets on which the author grew up. Some of the subject matter is so graphic, in fact, that the book was subject to an obscenity trial in the U.K. Still, it remains a benchmark of modern literature.
3. The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Perhaps no book better explains the formation of modern New York City than Caro’s exhaustive, 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of “master builder” Robert Moses. Caro spent the better part of a decade working on the book, which ran well over a thousand pages and dug deeply into the life of Moses, who was responsible for the construction of most of New York City’s highways, as well as the Triborough Bridge and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. The weighty volume ultimately ruined the reputation of its subject, who destroyed diverse neighborhoods in the Bronx to make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway and famously had the bridges over parkways built too low for buses to pass under them (so as to keep poor people from being able to visit areas outside the city). The effects of Moses’s projects continue to have a massive impact on life in the city, and we owe the widely held knowledge of this fact to Caro’s work.
4. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Brooklyn native Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 2000 detective novel Motherless Brooklyn, but I prefer his powerful 2003 followup. The semiautobiographical novel draws on the author’s experiences growing up as a solitary white boy in pre-gentrification Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Lethem gives the bildungsroman a spin, however, by incorporating a magic ring and a comic book superhero element (the title is taken from the name for Superman’s Arctic sanctuary). The narrative is deeply affecting—a 30-page section in which one of the characters descends into crack addiction is unforgettable—and essential for anyone who resides in or visits New York’s trendiest borough.
5. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill’s 2005 novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, slaloms from the fashion houses of Paris to the suburbs of San Francisco, but it’s most at home in 1980s New York. That’s where the book’s narrator, a former runway model, befriends the title character, an office worker who contracts AIDS. Gaitskill is one of contemporary literature’s greatest writers, and never is she more at home than in deconstructing the power dynamics in relationships—particularly between women. She is equally deft, however, in capturing the way New York City draws in and binds together all kinds of people.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (the Manhattan misadventures of disaffected prep-schooler Holden Caulfield have to get at least an honorable mention); Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (a semi-autobiographical novel in which Baldwin recounts a spiritual awakening that led to his becoming a teenage Harlem preacher); Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight (what kid—or adult!—wouldn’t want to live at The Plaza?); Lush Life by Richard Price (one of America’s greatest crime novelists spins the story of a murder in the gentrifying early 2000s Lower East Side); the entire Marvel Comics catalog (while DC Comics used thinly veiled stand-ins for NYC—Metropolis, Gotham—Stan Lee explicitly set his ’60s classics, such as The X-Men, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Fantastic Four, in his native New York).
Want to pick up one of these books? Consider ordering from one of New York’s great independent bookshops, such as McNally Jackson or the Strand.
1. Taxi Driver
You could pick almost any of Martin Scorsese’s films (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas), but for me, no movie better captures the menacing, ready-to-boil-over vibe of mid-’70s New York than Taxi Driver. In one of his most enthralling method performances, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet and cabbie whose mental stability disintegrates (“You talkin’ to me?”) as his fares take him through the decaying city’s underbelly. Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, and was ranked 47th on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest American movies.
As with Scorsese, Woody Allen’s catalog offers plenty of great New York movies. My favorite has always been 1979’s Manhattan, which follows the amorous ups and downs of a TV writer named Isaac (played by Allen). Neither the plot nor the witty repartee between Allen and Diane Keaton (who’s secretly better in this than in Annie Hall) is really what earns Manhattan a spot on this list, though. Instead, it’s the combination of the black-and-white cinematography and the use of Big Apple landmarks—most famously the Queensboro Bridge—that make the film a truly romantic ode to the city.
This 1984 classic, starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Sigourney Weaver, has been a lot of things: the highest-grossing comedy of its time, the inspiration for an animated TV series and a 2016 reboot with an all-female cast (with a 2021 sequel), and the vehicle for a theme song that reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100. But it is, above all else, a New York movie. Who can forget the opening scene at the New York Public Library? Or Rick Moranis banging on the windows at Tavern on the Green? Or the final line of the movie—Ernie Hudson’s Winston shouting “I love this town!”
4. When Harry Met Sally
Written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, this 1989 hit drew the blueprint for the contemporary rom-com. Sally (Meg Ryan) gives Harry (Billy Crystal) a lift from Chicago to NYC after they graduate college in 1977, and at first they’re oil and water; a few years later, they meet again by chance and become the perfect platonic friends … until, of course, they catch feelings. Ephron’s dialogue is pitch-perfect Upper West Side, and Reiner films scenes at hallowed New York institutions including Washington Square Park, the Met Museum, and Katz’s Delicatessen. The restaurant still hangs a sign over Harry and Sally’s table that says “Hope you have what she had!”
5. Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s masterpiece hit theaters on the same day as When Harry Met Sally, but it tells a story of a very different New York. Do the Right Thing is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, on the hottest day of the summer, a day that sees tensions grow between the predominantly black residents of the neighborhood and the Italian owners of a corner pizza joint, ending in the death of a young black man at the hands of the police and the destruction of the pizzeria. More than 30 years later, Do the Right Thing remains the defining movie about race in America—as the events of the past few weeks have sadly illustrated. In 2015, the city renamed the block where much of the movie was filmed (Stuyvesant Avenue between Lexington Avenue and Quincy Street) “Do the Right Thing Way.”
West Side Story (I hate musicals, but it’s impossible to ignore the Jets and the Sharks); Midnight Cowboy (“I’m walkin’ here!”); The Godfather (an immigrant family makes… good?); The Warriors (a campy 1979 classic about a gang fighting its way from the Bronx to Coney Island, this film sums up the anxieties all of America had about riding the subway in the ’70s); Kids (this disturbing, NC-17 film about feral NYC teenagers should be remembered as one of the best movies of the ’90s).
1. “(Theme from) ‘New York, New York’” by Frank Sinatra
While this song has served as a clarion call for generations of transplants to the big city, it’s much newer than most people think. What would come to be Ol’ Blue Eyes’s signature tune was written for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York (after Robert De Niro rejected the first attempt at a theme song), and in the film it was sung by Liza Minnelli. Sinatra, then in his early 60s, recorded his version, with Minnelli’s blessing, in 1979. Four decades later, anyone who wants to “wake up in the City that Never Sleeps” knows the lyrics by heart.
2. “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel
If Sinatra sings of the New York people think they’ll experience, Paul Simon wrote about what arriving here is actually like for so many: cold, lonely, with no comfort but what one may find on Seventh Avenue. And yet, as depressing as that picture is, Simon’s tale is ultimately one of perseverance; the titular boxer may be battered, and he may cry out, “I am leaving,” but in the end, “the fighter still remains.” That’s all of us who are making it here, one day at a time. As my father, who grew up in the Bronx, once told me while we watched Simon & Garfunkel sing lie la lie on a TV replay of their 1980 concert in Central Park: “That song is home.”
3. “I’m Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground
Andy Warhol was a dominant figure on New York’s culture scene for much of the ’60s and ’70s, and one of his most recognizable works remains the suggestive banana print on the album cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico. While that groundbreaking record is chock full of landmark songs, its signature track is “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Lou Reed’s account of a trip uptown to buy drugs. With its frank, paranoiac lyrics and driving instrumentation, the song sums up the feeling of life on the edge in late-’60s NYC.
4. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Hip hop was born in the Bronx in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and no song from that era resonates today quite like “The Message.” Released in 1982 on Sugarhill Records, it was the first prominent socially conscious rap song, with its stark descriptions of ghetto life and its refrains of “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head” and “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” Rapper Melle Mel’s lyrics provided a template for everyone from Public Enemy to 2Pac, and the rhythm track has been sampled by Ice Cube and Puff Daddy. In 2012, Rolling Stone declared “The Message” the greatest hip hop song of all time.
5. “You Said Something” by PJ Harvey
English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey spent a large part of 1998 and ’99 living in New York (in part to film a movie with Hal Hartley), and during that time she wrote many of the songs for her acclaimed 2000 record Stories from the City, Stories from the City. The deceptively simple “You Said Something” sketches the outlines of a romance that starts on a rooftop in Brooklyn and (perhaps) concludes on a rooftop in Manhattan. The lyrics are oblique, and yet they somehow manage to capture a certain magic that’s particular to New York, and the feeling of being in love in New York.
“Gloria” by Patti Smith (Smith became one of the city’s defining musicians and writers, and the lead track from her 1975 debut record, Horses, gave a taste of what was to come); “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones (you don’t have 1970s New York, or punk music in general, without CBGB and The Ramones); “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G. (“It was all a dream” for Brooklyn’s own Biggie Smalls); “Last Nite” by The Strokes (the New York band’s record Is This It encapsulated the sound of indie and pop rock in the early 2000s); “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys (the hip hop generation’s answer to Sinatra’s “New York, New York”). And for more New York songs, check out the full playlist.