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The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the…
by Katharine Greider
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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.The premise for Katharine Greider's book on an apartment building on Manhattan's Lower East Side is fantastic: understanding a place at a specific point in time (the forced eviction due to structural problems with the building) by tracing its history. She starts before the Dutch settled the island, and in that regard I was reminded of James Michener books. This starting point held my interest greatly, as did the more subjective asides about the meaning of home and our connection to a place (making me think of Gaston Bachelard), but her writing could not do the same when she presented the minutiae of early residents, for example. Perhaps some editing was required, or maybe a different style in those sections, to make the voluminous amounts of research tell a better story. I agree with another reviewer that illustrations would have helped to make this urban history stronger...and more enjoyable. ( )
I couldn't get through it. The writing is lovely, but so calm that it fails to communicate emotion. The story suffers from being a bit too chronological - we learn information as the author does, but it this often-effective style results in a choppiness in the text that makes the story difficult to follow. Not recommended.
This book is full of information, much of it unique to me despite being fairly conversant in the history of New York. Her historical information is well sourced, and though teeming with detail, the book never seems dry. However, this detail is both a blessing and a curse to the overall book. By trying to be so comprehensive about the building's occupants, Greider ends up actually blurring the picture somewhat. A multi-household dwelling holds so many people over the course of a couple hundred years that it impossible to remember much about any one family. The little details do much to add flavor to the overall narrative, but after a while they begin to become a bit wearying.
Greider really shines in the more memoir-like portions of her book. Her descriptions of her own tenants and her struggles with contractors, city officials, and bankers are vivid and engaging. Perhaps this book would have benefited from a reversal -- if it was mostly about her present day experience with bits of historical details here and there, I'd give it 5 stars easily.
When Katharine Greider was told to leave her house or risk it falling down on top of her and her family, it spurred an investigation that began with contractors' diagnoses and lawsuits, then veered into archaeology and urban history, before settling into the saltwater grasses of the marsh that fatefully once sat beneath the site of Number 239 East 7th Street. During the journey, Greider examines how people balance the need for permanence with the urge to migrate, and how the home is the resting place for ancestral ghosts. The land on which Number 239 was built has a history as long as America's own. It provisioned the earliest European settlers who needed fodder for their cattle; it became a spoil of war handed from the king's servant to the revolutionary victor; it was at the heart of nineteenth-century Kleinedeutschland and of the revolutionaryJewish Lower East Side. America's immigrant waves have all passed through 7th Street. In one small house is written the history of a young country and the much longer story of humankind and the places they came to call home.
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Katharine Greider's book The Archaeology of Home was available from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)974.71History and Geography North America Northeastern U.S. New York New York (city)