Julia Wertz’s Triumphant Illustrated History of New York City

Full disclosure—I have been a fan of Julia Wertz‘s amazing graphic work long before the publication of her recent smash hit entitled Tenements, Towers and Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, so let’s forget objectivity. I discovered Julia’s prodigious talent through her work in the New Yorker. Although I have never met Julia we have exchanged emails and we are kindred spirits, bonded by our mutual love for New York City and its rich past.

Perhaps the biggest gulf separating us as writers is Julia’s prodigious talent as an illustrator, which makes her book such a joy to read from beginning to end. (My drawings make my students either laugh in ridicule or cringe.) It is not just how she sketches, but what she draws that makes her book so close to my heart. She has done excellent renderings of many of the quirky places in New York that I love and teaches me things about those places I never knew.

Greenpoint Then/Now by Julia Wertz, for The New Yorker

To read the book is to enter into Julia’s secret world of New York. Many of her drawings were the result of amazingly long walks which she maps out for us. On these many walks she discovered so many of the amazing hidden gems that make her book such a vehicle for discovery. Her passion for the city and her humor seem to shine through on every page.

Julia Wertz
Julia Wertz

I have read a lot of New York City history, yet Julia’s work opened my eyes to facts and stories I did not know. Who knew that a New Yorker invented toilet paper? Who knew that the potato chip was also invented here as an act of revenge? Who knew that the bloody mary is also a New York invention. Many of the charming characters whom we discover in the book are women whose drole stories have been forgotten in the rapidly gentrifying city, but retold in Julia’s book.

Did I even mention that Julia lived in Greenpoint and that many of her drawings are local streetscapes? Julia tells us the harrowing tale of being a Greenpoint renter and reveals that ultimately she was driven out by high rents. Other people might tell this tale with anger and bitterness, but in all of Julia’s stories there is a lovely element of humor. She conveys an amazing ability to laugh at herself as well as her plight. Her humor makes her work a page turner.

One of the things that makes Julia’s work so universal is her ability to appeal to all ages. She captures something childlike and magical with her sketches. I would imagine that children would be very much taken with her fine drawings, although some of her stories, like the one about the abortionist, are only for adults. If there is one quality that makes this amazing book so hard to put down though it is its amazing capacity to delight. There is fun on every page, and if you love New York you will love Tenements, Towers and Trash.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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