Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review - New York

There used to be a time not that long ago where I read numerous books related to planning quite often. My shelf is full of classics like The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Suburban Nation, trade books like New Transit Town, planning related books like How Cities Work and Asphalt Nation as well as historic books like Cities and People or various Dallas or Fort Worth accounts. That also doesn't include the requirements of a Masters course in planning, which adds quite a bit more to the shelf. Yet in the year and a third that I have had this blog, I have added only one book related to planning to my collection.

And despite this being a book review, that won't change. The reason is that New York, by Edward Rutherfurd, is not a planning book. It is a fictional novel, related to, that's right, New York.

What's that you say, why am I reviewing it? Well quite simply it is a book that can appeal to lots of different audiences, including planners.

The hook is a clever one, though not entirely original. Similar to the blockbuster movie Titanic, the story revolves around a fictional family placed in historically accurate settings. As the family grows and passes from one generation to another, so too does the story. We begin near the founding of New York with Dick van Dyck, a dutch native who trades in furs. He would meet Tom Master, and eventually Master and van Dyck's daughter marry, setting the family line until the end. Several generation of Masters pass as they navigate the English taking control of New York, the Revolutionary War, the Draft Riots during the Civil War, the stock market crashes in the early 20th Century, the post World War II years and right up until the September 11th attacks. Along the way, various other "side" families, like the Irish immigrants O'Donnell's,the German immigrants Keller's, the Italian immigrants (catch a theme?) Caruso's and the conservative Jewish Adler's make seamless appearances in the story. And somehow, they all had business at the World Trade Center that fateful day.

This was a well told story with lots of moving pieces that must be paid attention to or else the reader can become lost (I speak from experience). As Bridgette Weeks at the Washington Post said in her review:

Page by page, detail by detail, Rutherfurd has magically captured this spirit. His readers, even if they have never set foot on the island of Manhattan, will understand this crowded and multicultural city better than many who have spent their lives on Fifth Avenue, Broadway or Wall Street.

It is that reason that I put this in my planning blog. Planners, both amateur and professional appreciate cities and their workings. That usually means an appreciation for history, and one of many reasons I liked this book.

At the beginning, we can be in the wilds of Manhattan eating native strawberries. Then we meet the family that helped build the water pipeline from the Catskills Mountains. A successive generation of Masters builds in an "rural" area near 86th Street. One of the Italian immigrants helps construct the Empire State Building.

New York was one of the pioneering cities with regards to planning and when the Triangle Factory burns, we see why some fire and building codes came about. The worry about aesthetics that ushered in the Art Deco movement and the buildings that successively tapered back as it rose above the street garner a mention. The planning of Battery City Park holds a spot. In an essence, planners are indirectly mentioned, and therefore are directly engaged in this book. The same may be true for any number of professions like builders, merchants, bankers or stockl traders.

This was an absolute wonder of a book by Rutherfurd. A highly recommended novel to planners and non-planners alike.

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