Book Reviews

Downtown -- My Manhattan

by Pete Hamill

Review by Richard Sheppard


For someone who wanders the streets of Manhattan in wonder, at the people, energy, and scale and beauty of its architecture, reading Pete Hamill's ode to Downtown promised an appealing psychic connection with Mr. Hamill, a well-known newspaperman, author, and raconteur man-about-town. Hamill, who presents a hard-bit image, made the impressive leap of imagination and reality from his Brooklyn tenement upbringing to his "Oz" of Manhattan Island. He's succeeded in merging his modest roots with his professional success to ascend into Manhattan literary royalty, with it's media salons, churning creativity, beautiful people, and occasional intellectual pretensions. 

He is the street ambassador to this set, and true to his roots, not a bad representative; you can tell he's at ease in both worlds. Sometimes you want to knock the knockabout Hamill for his leftish politics, but you can't deny his gritty success and story-telling, which are on exhibit in this post-9/11 told-from-the-streets story of what is likely his final neighborhood, Lower Manhattan. Hamill, first-generation son of Belfast, Northern Ireland parents, comes from old Democratic Party roots. You don't think he's even a Reagan Democrat, but he has the flavor of an Al Smith, New Deal Democrat about him. He reveals in his youthful intellectual pursuits an exposure to farther left - even communist - ideas, but one supposes it was a dip not a soaking bath. This reviewer can't lay a glove on Hamill for his politics, as disagreeable as they might sometimes be. One admits he's arrived at them honestly through intellectual pursuit and he's entitled to defend and cherish them. And bandy them as needed in elite-ish salons.

In Downtown: My Manhattan, Hamill extends the traditional Lower Manhattan boundaries beyond the conventional - though not set-in-stone - definitions of "below 14th Street," or "below Canal Street." His reasoning, not unjustified, is that there are places and events beyond those geographical constraints which carry throughout Manhattan the Downtown values and mores that were embedded by the earliest Dutch and British colonists. So Hamill pushes his Downtown up into what would ordinarily be considered firmly in Midtown, "42nd Street." This map-stretching takes nothing away from the book's Downtown-centric themes, and allows Hamill to comment on his wider Island he has inhabited for most of his life.


 Interview with Pete Hamill by Vinnie Scelsa

"Idiot's Delight" from Dec. 2004

Sit back and listen to this delightful 2-hour interview as Pete discusses Downtown


The book offers some neat walking-tour type minutiae and details for the curious, and a compact summarized history of the Dutch and English periods, their melding into a class called "Knickerbockers," and their expansion north up Manhattan from Downtown.

Throughout that expansion, waves of immigrants teemed into New York, predominantly into Manhattan and Lower Manhattan, adding to what Hamill describes as the "New York alloy." Hamill is of that alloy and you can tell he feels deeply about the promise of the American Melting Pot. He avoids, as he might in a book of this nature, any present-day politics of immigration, or municipal politics of any kind.

Hamill anchors his recollections on Broadway, the Bowery, and on up through 14th Street to Times Square. He describes not just the civic history but the entertainment, literary, artistic, and cultural flavors of these physical neighborhoods; presenting too their geography of "the mind." Hamill's reveries strongly reflect his intimate residential familiarity with the places and times he describes. 

Before becoming an author and city-centric literary notable, Hamill began his working life in Lower Manhattan, a history he shares with this reviewer. Hamill worked in the "old" New York Post building at 110 Washington Street, where this reviewer would later start his professional career with the Bank of New York. So as I finished Downtown: My Manhattan, I was a left a little under-nourished with tales from this particular neighborhood, which is directly south of the World Trade Center site. These streets are familiar to us both about fifteen years apart. Hamill worked there in the early Sixties, even before the World Trade Center complex and Towers were built. He must have been intimately acquainted with this previous neighborhood that was demolished to make way for those doomed structures, and more description of those long-gone streets would've been (selfishly) evocative for me. Hamills' recollections are not centered on, or even favored towards the World Trade Center, which was such a dominant physical, economic, and psychic presence for all of Downtown. This was not his intention in this book, to write a story of 9/11 or post-9/11. His Downtown includes mentions that painful day but tells a wider, longer story of the expanded Lower Manhattan he knows, has lived in eventfully throughout his life, and so clearly and dearly loves. 

Mr. Hamill presently resides in the Triangle Below Canal Street - "Tribeca" for New Yorkers. It's one of the celebrated and celebrity-laden neighborhoods on Manhattan Island; it offers Hamill a well-situated launching pad for his ruminative and appreciative walking tours. Because, as Hamill emphasizes throughout Downtown: My Manhattan, Manhattan is a walking town. You should only take the subway when time-constrained or a little weary. Cabs are expensive and you can often outpace them afoot when traffic congeals. Perhaps on one of my own solitary lunch-time ambles, which carry me randomly through all of Lower Manhattan's pedestrian byways, I'll encounter the author, and share a few moments of Downtown splendor and sociability, and have a moment of psychic connection writ real.