Tenements, Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz


Tenements Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz

Cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz gives a tour of her adopted hometown in Tenements, Towers and Trash.  It’s far from a guidebook, and doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional history.  Instead, it’s a passionate and irreverent look at a city that’s always changing. 

Wertz revels in lesser-known aspects of the history and character of the five boroughs.  Instead of lessons on Tammany Hall or Ellis Island, we learn about pinball machine prohibition (in effect until 1978!) and the contested genesis of the egg cream (a once-popular soda shop concoction).  Instead of tours of Central Park and the Empire State Building, we get an inventory of the city’s best independent bookstores and detailed directions to Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard.  A large portion of the book consists of Wertz’s highly detailed black and white illustrations comparing city blocks then and now.  We see how select parts of the city have transformed (for the most part) from the utilitarian city neighborhoods that urban activist and author Jane Jacobs inhabited in the mid twentieth century to a homogenized playground for the 1%.  Wertz also shows us the route of a typical “Long Walk,” a meandering 15-mile stroll through Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. 

History buffs and architecture aficionados will get a kick out of Tenements, Towers, and Trash.  Fans of Roz Chast, another female cartoonist who wrote a guide to New York City in 2017 (the fantastic Going Into Town) should pick this book up as well.  Both books admirably showcase the small pieces that make up a big city.

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