5 Books That Will Transport You to Yesterday’s Creative Cities

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5 Books That Will Transport You to Yesterday’s Creative Cities
Many cities pride themselves on their technological advancement and modern architecture. But even the most forward-thinking cities can harken back to a bygone era—one that still draws travelers inspired by the legacy of the tight-knit communities of artists, musicians, and thinkers that once thrived along these particular cities’ streets.

We’ve selected five recently released books that bring to life yesterday’s scenes. These authors have cast a spotlight on true stories of the vibrant arts and intellectual communities that have come to define many of our favorite cities: the smoky cafés of Paris’s Left Bank when existentialism flourished; cosmopolitan Shanghai before the outbreak of WWII; San Francisco’s punk scene in the 1990s; bohemian Berlin after the fall of the Wall; and New York’s East Village over decades.
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    The epicenters of creativity so well described in these books may no longer be the same, but the marks these people left on their cities are impossible to forget. Take one of these books off the shelf—you may find your next getaway within its covers.
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    Existential Paris
    At the Existentialist Café
    by Sarah Blakewell

    As Sarah Blakewell explains in her newest work of nonfiction, the birth of modern existential philosophy can be traced to a night at the turn of 1932-33, when Simone de Beauvoir and her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, met their friend Raymond Aron for apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Montparnasse in Paris. Aron is said to have advised his friends to “disregard intellectual clutter, pay attention to things and let them reveal themselves to you.” Sartre in turn produced a new philosophy, a blend of German phenomenology, ideas from Kierkegaard, and his own French literary influences.

    At the Existentialist Café drops the reader into the Parisian milieu that incubated the new philosophy—from the Flore, Deux Magots, and other smoky cafés to cheap Saint-Germain hotels and Left Bank jazz bars—providing an essential introduction to the intellectual movement—and its players—that came to epitomize a timeless city.
    Courtesy of Other Press
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    Prewar Shanghai
    Shanghai Grand
    by Taras Grescoe

    Award-winning journalist and author Taras Grescoe (Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile) moves away from public policy travelogues for his sixth book. Shanghai Grand is the engagingly told story of Emily Hahn, a remarkable young American traveler who arrived in Shanghai in the mid-1930s and stayed for eight years, writing about the city for the New Yorker.

    The glamour of prewar Shanghai, epitomized in the foreign-owned Cathay Hotel and the surrounding Bund waterfront neighborhood, drew adventurers and writers from all over—Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them—but Grescoe also spotlights Shanghai through the local eyes of Shau Xunmei. The Chinese publisher and poet was Hahn’s lover and a key figure in the city’s cultural life (and political intrigue) in the days before the Japanese occupation of China and the outbreak of World War II. Grescoe stayed at the still-standing Cathay Hotel (now called the Peace Hotel) while researching the book and meeting with Shau Xunmei’s children. When you visit, Shanghai Grand is the perfect book to pack.
    Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
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    Punk Rock San Francisco
    The Spitboy Rule
    by Michelle Cruz Gonzales

    California’s Bay Area was a punk-rock mecca for young kids across the United States in the early 1990s. The Gilman Street all-ages performance space in Berkeley, which epitomized the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock, nurtured the underground scene. Bands that went on to stardom, like Green Day and Rancid, played their first shows at the youth-run center.

    Michelle Cruz Gonzales, drummer from seminal feminist band Spitboy, has written a heartfelt memoir about the trail-blazing band that “rocked as hard as men but sounded like women.” The Spitboy Rule is an inspiring story of self-discovery by a proud Xicana [Ed. note: Gonzales’s use of the alternative spelling of “Chicana” is a nod to indigenous roots of the Chicano/a political identity] artist and a defiant look back at the San Francisco punk rock underground that continues to inspire outsider youth and musicians around the world.
    Courtesy of PM Press
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    Postwall Berlin
    All Tomorrow’s Parties
    by Rob Spillman

    Rob Spillman is the founding editor of the renowned literary magazine Tin HouseBorn in Germany in 1964, Spillman grew up listening to his parents, American ex-pats and classical musicians, perform in the concert halls of West Berlin.

    As an adult, he returned to Germany mere months after the fall of the Wall to a Berlin reborn, a city where everything felt possible. Anarchists squatted in abandoned buildings and waged street-battles with gangs of fascist skinheads; galleries and bars appeared from nowhere; artists and musicians and ravers were creating a new city of dangerous beauty and authentic experience. With a powerful, musical beat, All Tomorrow’s Parties recounts Spillman’s exhilarating search for the artistic life, from that chaotic Berlin to New York City.
    Courtesy of Grove Press
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    New York’s East Village
    St. Marks Is Dead
    by Ada Calhoun

    St. Marks Place, a Manhattan street in New York’s East Village, occupies just a few short blocks, but its history could fill a book. Calhoun, who grew up in the neighborhood, has given us that book; St. Marks Is Dead is peopled by the stars of many an American cultural moment.

    The iconic street has hosted them all: communist workers in the early 1900s, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats in the ’50s, hippies in the ’60s, and punks like Joey Ramone in the 1970s and ’80s. Calhoun walks us through the life and times of this uniquely New York community, one that has been declared “dead” by countless resident bohemians and yet has, all the same, been welcomed by each successive group of artists, musicians, writers, and outsiders as their own new home of cool.
    Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company
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