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Curbed New York’s 12 best longreads of 2017

A love letter to New York’s libraries, the history of the Bowery, and more

Nathan Kensinger

The long weekend is here; It’s time to catch up on all of the good reading that’s slipped through the cracks in 2017, or return to a few of your favorites. In that spirit, we’ve gathered a few of our best-loved features of the year.

These stories run the gamut, from an examination of the EPA’s role in New York City, to an elegy for the city’s disappearing mom-and-pop shops, to one New Yorker’s story of navigating the broken subway system in a wheelchair. Ready to dive deep? Read on.

The death and life of mom-and-pops by Karrie Jacobs

To be a New Yorker is to be deeply and perpetually aggrieved over favorite spots that are no more. All of us have a list of treasured businesses that were driven out by market forces. For example, I still pine for Florent, the convivial 24-hour French diner that, when it opened in 1985, began the influx of nightlife into the wilds of the Meatpacking District. Florent closed in 2008, driven out by a landlord who felt compelled to replace the beloved hangout with her own restaurant; it didn’t last long. Now the storefront holds another outlet of J. Crew-owned Madewell.

Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Ex Libris’ is a vivid portrait of NYC’s libraries by Nathan Kensinger

Between these heady public conversations, the film presents a sweeping portrait of New York City, traveling across the boroughs to visit a dozen different library branches and investigating their day-to-day activities. The New York Public Library encompasses 92 different locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, including research centers and archives, and has over 51 million items in its collection. But as Ex Libris makes clear, it also serves as a de facto social space for a diverse array of New Yorkers, and an irreplaceable facilitator for the free exchange of knowledge.

Robert Moses and the decline of the NYC subway system by Emily Nonko

Start looking at the decline of, and disinvestment in, New York’s rail lines—from the subway to commuter rails like the Long Island Rail Road—and you’ll find that those problems go back much, much further. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they seem to lead to one man in particular: Robert Moses.

How I navigate the NYC subway system in a wheelchair by David Choi

That it is stressful to live under the constant fear that I may not make it home is an understatement. But the impact of the barriers I face while using the transit system goes far deeper. The unreliability of public transportation means moving to the neighborhood in which a new job is located, wrangling with my landlord to negotiate an early termination of my existing lease. It means scheduling dates, brunches, and dinners at restaurants near my home, or in the vicinity of accessible subway stations, which make up less than a quarter of all stations. All while praying the elevator at the nearest station doesn’t go out of service.

The ever-changing Bowery by James Nevius

Today, most New Yorkers view the Bowery as the site of constant construction, home to modern hotels, upscale stores, and $17 million penthouse apartments. However, the street’s former history has proved remarkably durable. From the long-running Bowery Boys film series to Weegee’s famous photographs, from CBGB to Gangs of New York, the public perception of the Bowery is one of toughness mixed with strangeness, as if the lyrics of “The Bowery” still describe the street today. It’s not that unusual to run into someone whose reaction is, even now: “I’ll never go there.”

The curious case of Brooklyn's ‘island of misfit toys’ by Liz Krieger

While the toys were definitely faded, for a long time Underhill matched the feel of Brooklyn before it became curated and twee. And even as the neighborhood’s rents and home prices have soared and previously neglected brownstones have undergone multi-million dollar gut renovations, residents have continued to dig the less polished vibe—the common language of keeping the kids active and happy united us all.

Searching for New York City’s lost soul by Nathan Kensinger

Some say the East Village is dead, Manhattan has been murdered, and New York City has lost its soul. Some say that if you stand in the right place and squint hard enough, it can almost seem like the old city is still alive. Jeremiah Moss likes to think of the city as a crime scene, which he is investigating for clues, searching for the cause of death.

Have you hugged a geode today? by Alexandra Lange

One of my first parenting memories of New York is being at the Museum of Natural History with my toddling son, and happening upon the soft darkness of the (as it’s officially named) Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Memorial Gem Hall. Finally, a place to rest! With no hard corners and no other exits, I could park the stroller and let him wander on feet or knees at his will. Maybe he’d learn something from his explorations, maybe not. When you go to a museum with a 2-year-old, it’s as much for change of location as it is to foster a future scientist. He’d learn something from the geode just as he learned from the sandbox.

A walking tour of 1767 New York by James Nevius

Today, 250 years after Ratzer completed surveying for what would ultimately become two maps—the so-called “Ratzen” Plan and the larger Ratzer Map—his unprecedented explorations give us a unique window into what New York was like on the eve of the Revolution. This winter, I set out on my own walks through Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn using the two maps as my guide. As I tried to peel back two and a half centuries of history—dodging my own share of suspicious glances—I began to empathize with Ratzer’s monumental mission.

Chris Mottalini

Robert Moses’s Jones Beach by Michael Adno

In the LISPC’s first 10 years, they paved 13 parkways and ate up vast tracts of land along Long Island. Moses made a bid for governor on the Republican ticket in 1934, losing in a historic two-to-one loss to Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. In the same year, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia discontinued the distinct borough parks departments and created a single department of parks for New York City, appointing Moses as its commissioner. Moses retained his position with the state park offices and started to collect titles. At one point, he held a dozen concurrently, but he never won an election.

Surveying the EPA’s role in a changing New York City by Nathan Kensinger

In the 47 years since the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the agency has helped repair a nation inundated by pollution, toxins, and industrial waste. Here in New York City, it has cleaned rivers and beaches, removed radioactive waste and hazardous chemicals, and supported dozens of community groups dedicated to improving the environment. But as the current president drafts plans to roll back many of the regulations that empower the agency, many New Yorkers are now contemplating what the future will be for the EPA’s complicated work across all five boroughs.

The manhole in the meadow by Karrie Jacobs

One morning, in my usual state of reverie, I notice that on the grassy slope near the park’s Picnic House, where Memphis and I often linger, there is a manhole cover, a very old one, embossed with an archaic insignia. Intellectually speaking, I understand that the park is a construct—man-made like most everything else in New York City. It was, of course, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same duo who designed Central Park nine years earlier.

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