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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 13, 2008

A few years back I read that not too many decades ago, New York Harbor was one of the richest and busiest seaports in the world. These days its chief activity is shipping out crushed cardboard packing boxes. The cardboard packing boxes had arrived earlier in New York full of television sets manufactured in Japan.

How sad.

One fellow who would probably find it sad is Joseph Mitchell, who loved to write about old New York. Mitchell grew up in North Carolina and moved to New York in 1929. He hung around Gotham for almost 70 years, spending 60 of them as a writer for the New Yorker magazine, plugging away until his death in 1996 at age 87.

His essays have been reprinted again and again in books like "Up at the Old Hotel," "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," and "Joe Gould's Secret," which was made into a movie starring Stanley Tucci, a dead ringer for Mitchell.

Mitchell loved New York as only a transplant from the boonies could. He was fascinated at the endless vitality and diversity of the city. And he loved to write about its denizens, where they came from, what they did for a living, what they thought. Unlike most New Yorker writers, he did not take his lunch at some fancy joint like the Algonquin Hotel across the street from his office. He went down to the notoriously stinky Fulton Fish Market and took his lunch at Sloppy Louie's, a fisherman's restaurant of low esteem, but great fish in even greater variety.

Mitchell's fascination with the underbelly of the city is nowhere more apparent than in a recently reissued book of his New Yorker essays,

"The Bottom of the Harbor" (Pantheon, $23), introduction by Luc Sante.

This wonderful book is full of characters and history that characterized the New York waterfront. Sloppy Louie's café. The little Afro-American community on Staten Island. And the water itself.

The water. The water that once had the greatest oyster beds in the world, where tons of oysters were harvested every day. That was all over by 1951 when Mitchell wrote "The Bottom of the Harbor":

The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you bottle in and sell it for poison. The bottom of the harbor is dirtier than the water. In most places, it is covered with a blanket of sludge that is composed of silt, sewage industrial wastes, and clotted oil. The sludge is thickest in the slips along the Hudson, in the flats on the Jersey side of the Upper Bay and in backwaters such as Newtown Creek ... it accumulates rapidly to the full sweep of the tides, it accumulates at the rate of a foot and half a year. The sludge rots in warm weather and from it gas-filled bubbles as big as basketballs continually surge to the surface ...."

Well, you get the picture. Another essay has to do with "The Rats on the Waterfront." As an occasional visitor to New York that came as no surprise to me. Years ago, we ate a big meal in The Village and brought a lobster tail back to the Algonquin Hotel to our friend, the elevator operator. "Oh, good, he said, I'll give it to the cat on the third floor."

"You've got a cat on the third floor?" we asked.

"You bet! How else could we keep the rats at bay?"

Readers with a passion for the Twin Cities similar to Mitchell's for New York will love "Harry Wild Jones: American Architect," by Elizabeth A. Vandam (Nodin Press, $39). It's a beautifully produced coffee table book that chronicles the life of a Minneapolis architect in words and pictures, also providing an historical perspective of the Gilded Age. The architect is Jones, a New Englander, educated at M.I.T., who pulled up stakes and moved to the Twin Cities, where he left an architectural heritage that includes the chapel at Lakewood Cemetery, Butler Square, the Washburn water tower.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of The National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at