New York Night: The Mystique and Its History, By Mark Caldwell, Scribner, 404 pp., $30
What was a night on the town like in 1643? What was it like to go on a date in New York City during the early days of the Republic?
Mark Caldwell's history of nocturnal New York begins boldly, peeling away skyscrapers, brownstones, bridges, subways, and taxicabs. The story opens in 17th-century New Amsterdam: Broadway is a dirt road, the most impressive structure in town is a run-down fort, the tavern is the center of social life, and hostile Indians pose the greatest danger to nighttime revelers. It ends on a spring evening in 2004.
''New York Night" is a study in abundance and variety. Its unruly cast of characters includes gangsters, prostitutes, drunks, gamblers, cops, reporters, actors, and frustrated moral crusaders. Caldwell traces the evolution of all kinds of venues for socializing and entertainment: theaters, restaurants, pleasure gardens, dioramas, concert saloons, brothels, speak-easies, dance halls, and nightclubs. A fair number of disasters fill these pages: massacres, brawls, riots, fires, and murders.
Caldwell looks at the forces that made the New York night possible, from lighting, media, and transportation innovations to population growth and immigration. He notes that the Dutch West India Co. founded New Amsterdam as a business venture, not as an experiment in righteous living, like the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Over the years, corruption and hedonism flourished.
For Caldwell, the fascination of New York lies in its polyglot character, the mixture of high and low that in his view fuels nightlife. He describes pre-Civil War Manhattan, for example, as ''a metropolis of migrants and strangers passing, joining, parting, anonymous; yet a metropolis still small enough that the most furtive of lost lives could cross paths with the most prominent." He sees night as a time of transformation, when duties are set aside and passions released. ''Shelved, hidden, or forgotten selves" emerge after hours, and anything can and does happen.
Caldwell draws on histories, newspapers, diaries, fiction, and photographs. He is at his strongest suggesting the mood of a particular place and moment: the ''spirit of democracy" prevailing in the 1920s, when Broadway, Harlem, and Greenwich Village became ''universal playgrounds"; the eerie ambience of a shabby Harlem nightclub a decade later, as revealed by photographs.
Readers fond of the obscure and offbeat will savor ''New York Night." Others may find Caldwell's approach tediously encyclopedic. The book has an overstuffed feel to it; in numbing detail, the author dredges up forgotten gossip, crimes, and scandals galore but pauses only occasionally to find meaning in these events. And for all the thoroughness of the research, the story does not capture the city's mystique, as the subtitle promises. Caldwell delves into the seamier aspects of his subject but misses much of the romance -- the New York night of the imagination, the locus of yearnings, hopes, and creative energies.