BOOK REVIEW: Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York by Daniel S. Levy

55332359Title: Manhattan Phoenix; The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York

Author: Daniel S. Levy

Book Length (Audiobook) 18 hours and 51 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Nonfiction, History

Read Start Date: March 22, 2022

Read Finish Date: March 26, 2022

Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads: On a freezing December night almost two centuries ago, a fire erupted in lower Manhattan. The city’s inhabitants, though accustomed to blazes in a town with so many wooden structures, a spotty water supply, and a decentralized fire department, looked on in horror at the scale of this one. Philip Hone, a former mayor of New York, wrote in his diary how the progress of the flames, like flashes of lightning, communicated in every direction, and a few minutes sufficed to level the lofty edifices on every side. By the time the fire was extinguished, a huge swath of land had been transformed from a thriving business center into the Burnt District, an area roughly the same size as was devastated during the September 11th attack. In the end, nearly 700 buildings were destroyed. So vast was the conflagration that it was immediately and henceforth known as the Great Fire of 1835.

Manhattan Phoenix reveals how New York emerged from the disaster to become a global powerhouse merely a quarter of a century later. Daniel S. Levy’s book charts the city’s almost miraculous growth during the early 19th century by focusing on the topics that shaped its destiny, starting with fire but
including water, land, disease, culture, and politics, interweaving the lives of New Yorkers who took part in its transformation. Some are well-known, including the land baron John Jacob Astor. Others less so, as with the Bowery Theatre impresario Thomas Hamblin and the African-American restaurateur Thomas Downing. The book celebrates Fire Chief James Gulick, who battled the Great Fire, examines the designs of the architect Alexander Jackson Davis who built marble palaces for the rich, follows the abolitionist Arthur Tappan, chronicles the career of the merchant Alexander Stewart, and reveals how the engineer John Bloomfield Jervis succeeded in bringing clean water into homes. The city’s resurrection likewise owed much to such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park, creating the refuge that it remains to this day.

Manhattan Phoenix offers the story of a city rising from the ashes to fulfill its destiny to grow into one of the world’s greatest metropolises–and in no small part due to catastrophe. It is, in other words, a New York story.

My Review: I received this book from Netgalley as an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Although the book was extensively researched and informative, I found the subject matter to be a little dry and at times found myself wandering off into other thoughts which is why I can only give this book 3 stars. I think that this was also because the audiobook narrator was a little monotone. I had to increase the speed of the reading to 1.25x the normal speed so as to get rid of the monotone issue.

I lived in Manhattan for about 10 years, so it was interesting to learn about its past. As I mentioned above, the author seems to have done extensive research on this subject and gives a lot of information about the past of the City. I was immensely impressed — I imagine it took a lot of work to get this book compiled in the cohesive manner in which it is presented.

On the other hand, this is not the typical nonfiction book that I read (I’m more interested in natural disasters, science topics such as viruses and genetics, women’s issues, etc) — I was expecting this book to be more about the fire of 1835 (which is why I had picked it up), but instead it was 90% about the growth of Manhattan which came after the fire.

That being said, I think that this book would be great for history buffs who also have a love for the City.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.


One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York by Daniel S. Levy

  1. My New York history is lacking. I didn’t even know there was a huge NYC fire in 1835. That’s sad. At 469 pages (or 18 hours), it does seem long. Maybe that’s why it got a little dry. Levy probably had learned so much that it was hard to leave out parts. Good review!


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