On February 15th, New York Times Urban Affairs reporter and 2015 GANYC Apple Awards nominee Sam Roberts spoke to a capacity audience at the mid-Manhattan Public Library. He spoke on his new book “A History of New York in 101 Objects”. Roberts demonstrated how history can be viewed through the lens of physical objects. He talked about how the British Museum wrote a similar book about seeing the entire world through 100 objects.
Roberts laid ground rules for the objects in his book. They had to be transformative. No humans or icons could be included. He mentioned he received hundreds of suggestions by New York Times readers including a lot of suggestions for food. Interestingly he didn’t think pizza was emblematic of New York City. He said pizza was more of a national dish. The bagel, however, screams New York.
The Times writer indicated the list is really artificial because you’re only dealing with objects that survived the test of time. His research included a trip to The Hague in The Netherlands to do some archival research. This included a 17th century letter from Peter Schaghen to the Dutch West India Company informing them of the purchase of Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians.
The talk was very engaging due to the many great stories and anecdotes told by Mr. Roberts. One included writer Washington Irving putting a missing item of a manuscript on every newspaper in the city only it was really to be a hoax concocted by Mr. Irving, the author of A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker. Robert’s said it would be the first real publicity campaign in American history for a book.
Some stories include Elijah Otis demonstrating the elevator safety break at the World’s Fair. A ticket from the Third Avenue trolley led to a little known story of an African-American woman who sued the trolley company for being thrown off of it due to her race. A lawsuit she won a hundred years before Rosa Parks. A funny story recounted was the making of the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land.” The original lyrics were to be “Staten Island” but instead became the well-known “New York Island”. At the same token, Mr. Roberts extolled that the words “outer boroughs” are not in his vocabulary.
He discussed the Flushing Remonstrance and how that became the defining moment in how America gained her freedom of religion values that is cherished today. And another peculiar story was how New York gained the nickname Gotham. It came from a fabled town in England where it’s twelfth century inhabitants behaved rather oddly.
There were some objects that he liked that were mentioned to him after the book was published that he would have used in the book including the ever so increasing inflatable rats that striking unions employ today. The artichoke that Mayor LaGuardia banned to get rid of mafia influence.
This was an extraordinary presentation and adds to the dynamic speakers that the mid-Manhattan Library seems to invite.
Sam Roberts is nominated for an Apple Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing (books published in 2013-2014). Come to Symphony Space on March 2nd at 6:30 P.M. to see if he wins.