Pete Hamill

"Downtown: My Manhattan"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JAN 16, 2004)

"Meanwhile the island is vivid with energy. In that sense Times Square has once again become our most perfect symbol: noisy, plural, brash, vulgar, shifting, slightly dangerous. We have other symbols. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler. But all are static. All are remote from the people themselves, too often these days closed to visitors. Times Square, like the city itself, is open to all." 

"That openness is essential to living here. It is based on choice. You can choose to look at the Vermeers in the Frick or walk around Chinatown. The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes. That's why I always urge the newcomer to surrender to the city's magic."

I'm a Manhattanite and can't think of another city where I'd rather live than this melting pot mix of a metropolis. To my mind, Pete Hamill is the quintessential New Yorker. A lifelong resident, former editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and New York Daily News, author of eight books, among them the best selling memoir, A Drinking Life, and The Subway Series Reader, Hamill knows more than most about the five boroughs, especially downtown Manhattan. He has certainly paid his dues, or rent, with 14 different residences during his lifetime; unusual, as New Yorkers usually hold on to their apartments, forever.

A cynical newspaperman, from the old school more than the new, Hamill was born in Brooklyn, the son of Irish immigrants. He is struck by those who, like his parents, fought for a brighter future while remembering what they left behind. "That rupture with the immediate past would mark all of them and did not go away as the young immigrants grew old. If anything, the nostalgias were often heightened by the coming of age. Some would wake up in the hot summer nights of New York and for a few moments think they were in Sicily or Mayo or Minsk. Some would think their mothers were at the fireplace in the next room, preparing food. The old food. The food of the Old Country." As a child, looking with wonder for the first time at the gilded spires of Manhattan, from the pedestrian ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, Hamill asked his mother in an awed voice, "What is it?" "Sure, you remember, Peter," she said. "You've seen it before." And then she smiled. "It's Oz."

Hamill's fast paced, fascinating narrative meanders with readers on a tour of lower Manhattan. His view of the city is a pedestrian's - which is the best view, if one doesn't need to be in the driver's seat. Hamill never learned to drive until he was 36. I have to laugh. How typical! What Manhattanite drives their car in NYC?? From the tony haunts of the "Knickerbockers" to the "lost cities" of Five Points, we travel with a most worthy guide. We are still able to see remnants of the British colony, the mansions of the robber barons, and the speakeasies of the 1920s. We wander with the author along the winding streets of Greenwich Village, to the grimy alleys of the meatpacking district, to the cobblestones of South Street Seaport, where the Fulton Street Fish Market and Dock once stood. I was surprised at how far uptown Mr. Hamill's "downtown Manhattan" ventures. But hey, it's his city redefine or define. The author defends himself, "Broadway in my mind is an immense tree," Mr. Hamill explains, "with its roots deep in the soil at the foot of Manhattan, which is why I insist so stubbornly to my friends that the uptown places I cherish on Broadway are actually part of downtown." And if the old Thalia movie theater, at Broadway and 95th Street, is also part of his "downtown" experience, well, he's not the only one who got a first glimpse of Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman there. So...that counts enough to place the old cinema below 14th street. Right??

In this extraordinary book, which is both a personal and historical portrait, Hamill pays tribute to fellow New Yorkers like: Alexander Hamilton, who was shot dead in a duel with Aaron Burr across the North River in Weehawken, NJ, in 1804. Hamilton's grave graces gothic Trinity Church's centuries' old cemetery; Pearl Street's Captain William Kidd, who was hanged for piracy in London in 1701, "would not be the last New Yorker whose friends insisted he was framed;" John Jacob Astor, who emigrated from Germany in 1784 and became America's first millionaire; architect Stanford White, who designed the Washington Square arch and was the victim of New York's "murder on the rooftop garden" as a result of his love affair with the infamous Gibson Girl, Evelyn Nesbit; and authors like Henry James and Edith Wharton, who chronicled their times from a New York perspective.

Nostalgia is a major theme that runs through the book. Nostalgia, proclaims the author, "is the city's ruling passion, after greed, anger and resistance to authority." (I smile, with nostalgia)! He says, and it's true, that New York changes so quickly. "That every generation watches its own past being demolished - a very acute observation! The Dodgers left us. Penn Station is gone...and so are so many small, neighborhood restaurants, cafes, movie theaters, that were important, in an intimate way, to our individual lives. Hamill is at once awed by the city's energy and haunted by her losses. As with all New Yorkers, September 11, 2001, weighs heavily on his heart. He lives in Tribeca, in the shadow of the former Towers, and witnessed the horror of that day, and its terrible aftermath, up close and personal. Hamill explains that the New Yorker's version of nostalgia is much more than a remembrance of lost buildings or the presence of those who lived in these places years ago. "It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss." "This makes New Yorkers tougher," he argues, "less sentimental. It has helped them move on after the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Hamill narrative vibrates with life. Any way one looks at it, much ground is covered in this wonderful biography of a city. Hamill is able to give us a first hand impression of the abstract expressionists who thrived here in the 1940s and 50s, as well as bebop, jazz, the Beats who made Greenwich Village the "Village," and many old landmarks and legends. He integrates personal recollections along with historical observations for an outstanding mix of a memoir...and make no mistake, this is a memoir, of a city and a man who lives and breathes the city. While he waxes nostalgic, Hamill also believes that the city's changes make her stronger.

Mr. Hamill's prose is sharp, clear - beautifully written. His plain-spoken narrative vibrates with life. And it is obvious how heartfelt the writing and observations are. Mr. Hamill is not an objective observer - no way! He is heart and soul a New Yorker, writing about the hometown he loves. And I loved every minute I spent reading Downtown: My Manhattan.

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About the Author:

Pete HamillPete Hamill was born in Brooklyn, N. Y. in 1935. He is the oldest of seven children of Irish immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland and attended Catholic schools as a child. He left school at 16 to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a sheetmetal worker, and then went on to the United States Navy. While serving in the Navy, he completed his high school education. Then, using the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights, he attended Mexico City College in 1956-1957, studying painting and writing.

For several years, he worked as a graphic designer, while studying at Pratt Institute. Then in 1960, he went to work as a reporter for the New York Post. A long career in journalism followed. He has been a columnist for the New York Post, the Daily News, and New York Newsday, and has won many journalistic awards. As a journalist, he has covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. From his base in New York he has also covered murders, crime, the police, along with the great domestic disturbances of the 1960s. His work has also been published in all the major magazines, including Esquire, New York, the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel/Holiday, Vanity Fair and others; he is currently on the staff of the New Yorker. Most recently, his essay on the Second Amendment for stirred controversy and argument on the Internet.

Hamill also has published eight novels and has written a number of screenplays, most recently a film biography of the Mexican revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, for Edward James Olmos.

Hamill is married to the Japanese journalist, Fukiko Aoki. He has two grown daughters, one a poet, the other a photographer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. He and his wife divide their time between New York and Cuernavaca, Mexico. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014