I thought I knew plenty of New York history both epic and trivial. But now I’ve been schooled by a master, and it’s been a pleasure. Sam Roberts’s The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City is an ingenious social history of Gotham rendered in deft profiles ... Mr. Roberts, the author of nearly a dozen books about New York and other subjects, is an ace at compact biography ... And he is an industrious researcher, mining fascinating nuggets—some profound, some just fun—from sources familiar and obscure. The result is a sometimes dense but always rewarding panorama of the shrewd, driven, crooked, brilliant, gifted, lucky and unfortunate folk responsible for the city that likes to think of itself as the capital of the world.
There are reasons, nowadays, to wonder at the boosterish claim of Roberts’s subtitle ... The city’s obsession with itself is nowhere more starkly signaled than in an ever-expanding bibliography of books aiming to trace its history through everything from iconic objects and the names of its streets ... Roberts knows his New York, in the way both of a scholar who’s read everything ever published on the city’s past and of a reporter who’s spent his career engaging its people. None of this prevents his idiosyncratic compendium of New York lives from falling short of its larger aims. But for the reader as obsessed by the city’s biography as its author, it’s a book that abounds in rich portraits of unheralded New Yorkers whose lives — and, in some cases, deaths — are worth recalling ... The need to justify a subject’s inclusion can prompt overreach ... Given that one in four New Yorkers speak Spanish, and nearly 15 percent are Asian, it’s disappointing not to see a single chapter on a figure from Latin America or Asia ... Roberts’s focus is almost entirely on the city’s history before 1965, when that year’s Immigration Act removed the old quota system, allowing for the precise ethnic mix that’s emerged since. But surely a book called The New Yorkers should endeavor to reflect the city we know.