Author Pete Hamill | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Author Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill, author of "Downtown: My Manhattan," discusses what makes New York home.

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So you've lived in New York City all your life—seen it go through a lot of phases—what is your favorite time?

Well, I've lived in other cities—Rome, Dublin, Mexico City—but I was born in New York City and I always lived in those other places as a New Yorker. But for me, [my favorite time] is right now. I think that we have addressed certain questions, primarily race, that were not in good shape in the 1950s. The 1950s were wonderful on other levels but they didn't find a way to make race more just, you know? I think right now it is—not perfect—there are always going to be dumbbells of a number races who will always use some kind of racialism to make a point but I think it is infinitely more just now than when I was a kid.

If you were going to show me the town and give me some New York City experiences to take home, what would we do?

We would take the Circle Line and go around Manhattan so you understand from the first morning that it’s a city of islands. The only borough of the five boroughs on the mainland is the Bronx. And when you take that ship you understand why the place is here—because it had one of the great natural harbors on the whole continent. And its economy was based on the waterfront. Now a lot of that has begun to fade away. If you read Melville, you see how the waterfront was so crucial to his generation and then you couldn't get access to the waterfront for a long time and now you can again. You can walk from 59th Street or something to the Battery and never lose sight of the Hudson River. I would then take you to the Battery because that’s where it all started. That's where the Dutch set up their little trading post, facing north. From there, the island began to grow. We'd wander around looking at some of these monuments—too many of them make up a necropolis for guys dead, old and worse—but there's also some interesting stuff, and walk up Broadway all the way to Chamber Street, cut over to Chinatown and have a great lunch.

And what are some things that we would avoid like the plague in New York City?

I think the Upper East Side, where there are a lot of people walking around with tiny dogs and falling nose jobs, you know, from plastic surgery 35 years ago, you probably should not bother. I mean, go to the Metropolitan Museum and that is technically on the Upper East Side and the Museum of the City of New York and the Jewish Museum…all of Museum Row is worth looking at because there is amazing stuff up there. But walking the streets is kind of boring. There's no sense of the past. The past is the 1940s. When they tore down the old mansions and put up these big buildings that house too many people where the ceilings are too low…it's alright if you are 4'9" or something. I think anyone who hasn't been here before should get out of Manhattan. Go out to Brooklyn or go to Coney Island and get to Queens.

Tell me about growing up in New York City. How was Brooklyn back then? How has it changed?

After the war, though I was 10 when the war ended, there was an enormous sense of exhilaration because it wasn't just the war that ended. It was the war plus the Depression. And in our neighborhood they didn't profit from the war, they fought it. They were the kinds of young people that went off to fight in these places and so when they came back, the agent for the amazing optimism was, what I think is the greatest piece of social legislation we ever had, which is the G.I. Bill of Rights and it changed everything. It meant that the son of the factory worker could go to Yale, too. You know? He or she wasn't going to be kept out of it because their father didn't go there. You could go, you had the right, and it unleashed the energy of blue-collar America and made all of the subsequent prosperity possible. Instead of saying, "you're the son of a mechanic—you gotta be a mechanic," it allowed everything to be possible. You had this impossible sense that you could be anything you wanted to be, except maybe you couldn't play in the NBA, if you were 5'3" or something, but who knows.

Well, that's what dreams are for. So why did you leave school at 16 to work at the Navy Yard? Did your mom smack you?

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