I’d never noticed them. Not in the years I spent visiting friends on 106th Street and Riverside Drive, not on walks with my dad in the 1990s down that same block, not on long meandering runs in the fall. I’ve lived on the Upper West Side almost my entire life. You’d have to be an idiot not to know that the stretch of rowhouses on Riverside is special. But it took Daniel Wakin’s book, The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block to show me just how special this particular block is.
This book unpacks the strange and surprisingly busy history of seven buildings between 105th and 106th Streets. When these buildings first went up more than 100 years ago, Upper Manhattan was still a lush, misunderstood corner of the world; over the next several decades the townhouses would attract, among others, Duke Ellington, William Randolph Hearst’s starlet mistress, savvy businessmen, a madame, and a scientist whose work would lead to the EpiPen. It’s almost like a version of A Moveable Feast except the characters aren’t Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but buildings number 330-337 on Riverside Drive.
Wakin’s deep dive into the history of these buildings (one of which is gone) is punctuated by chapters recounting the story of the 1934 Rubel heist, in which a group of men carried out what was at the time the biggest armored truck robbery in history. Their haul was almost half a million dollars. But during the getaway, Wakin explains, one of the gang members would accidentally blow off his own kneecap with a shotgun, and would later be carried by his accomplices to the basement of a bordello-safehouse in one of these very Riverside Drive buildings, a stone’s throw from tycoons and artists next door. By the time a doctor arrived on Riverside Drive, the man had lost too much blood and eventually died just across the street from the apartment where I’d spent Tuesday evenings being tutored in math. When the man proved too big to fit inside a trunk, the doctor amputated both of his legs postmortem.
Anyone writing a history of a subject as specific as a single city block risks accidentally producing something dry and boring. It isn’t that these things are inherently dull, but rather that historical accounts such as these, packed with little details, are often interesting only in an academic sense and never make for a great page-turner. But without sacrificing history or craft, Wakin succeeds in writing a book about a few buildings that can easily be read in a single weekend.
Wakin does indeed describe these seven majestic Beaux Arts townhouses in meticulous detail, from staircases to balustrades to brick colors. When speaking about these buildings Wakin does not simply describe them as historical artifacts, but instead as something of a historical movement. Those who lived in these buildings are just as important as the buildings themselves.
The result feels at times like a biography, a living story rather than historical record. From a tycoon’s pied-à-terre to a bordello, these buildings give a sense of the way they existed through time and their importance. I feel the familiar warmth of the Upper West Side in Wakin’s descriptions of Duke Ellington’s Jazz salons. And just as poetic is the notion that years before Duke ever parked himself on 106th Street, a group of men with half a million dollars in cash and a wounded associate would look among themselves and think that this little corner of the world was their best shot.
At the same time as his account is historical and retrospective, it is also somehow contemporary. I can still go out and buy Davis Baking Powder, named after the man whose white-dust empire bankrolled the purchase of his Riverside Drive building. If I have an allergic reaction, I might be saved by the discovery of a Japanese scientist who isolated adrenaline in the basement of one of these buildings. If I run just a few blocks north, I can see the cherry trees he helped plant.
Wakin is an excellent storyteller. Because every other chapter returns to another part of the Rubel heist, Wakin never lets you to get bogged down in the kind of details that actually become something of a pleasure to read when placed between chapters on the heist. Never did I think I could care about a writer’s speculation on the grandeur of an interior that would vanish during a fire decades before I was born. But I do. Similarly, Wakin’s digressions toward moments in history unrelated to these buildings are never unwelcome. Why?
Everything seems to come back to these buildings even if it has nothing to do with them. They begin to feel like the center of the world. In part it’s because the story of these buildings and those who lived in them are all microcosms of the American narrative: land development, science, booze running, newspapers, tycoons, crime, art. But also because while you understand that this book is about a few buildings, it also feels inescapably like a larger story about New York.
These are amazing buildings, but part of their charm perhaps is that they are not uniquely amazing. Their story proves something we suspected all along about New York, which is that with a little digging and a little persistence, a history as vibrant and as bustling can be found on almost any block in this city. In this place where all is dense and fast and new, storefront signs are stacked one atop the other and abandoned train stations appear between stops in a dark, graffiti flash. You may not find a chemist or a man whose legs were amputated so that his corpse could fit in a trunk. But in this game of strange and uncanny archeology, nothing about New York’s history is ever as surprising as how close we are to it.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.