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New book explores ‘History of New York in 101 Objects’

Brooklyn BookBeat: Author Sam Roberts, of NYTimes, Discusses Book at BPL

December 4, 2014 By Ben Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sam Roberts (r.), New York Times urban affairs correspondent, spoke about his new book “A History of New York in 101 Objects” at the Brooklyn Public Library on Tuesday. Joining him was author Kevin Baker. Photo by Gregg Richards, courtesy of BPL

What objects do you associate with New York City? In a metropolis so full of distinctive objects and so densely populated — with people each bearing their own opinions — picking 101 of the most significant ones would be nearly impossible. Unless, of course, you happened to be Sam Roberts.

Roberts, The New York Times urban affairs correspondent, appeared at the Brooklyn Public Library Tuesday evening with author Kevin Baker, addressing people who wanted to know more about his new book, “A History of New York in 101 Objects.” There were enough interested parties to fill most of the seats in the room.

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“This is not the list,” Roberts said, adding that picking the objects featured in the book was a highly subjective affair. The author noted that people often suggested items that would certainly have qualified for numbers 102 or 103 had the list gone on that long. “This list is intended to be provocative, to make people think, to make people see history in a different way.”

The Coney Island Parachute Drop, the stone lions that guard the entrance to the New York City Public Library and the large inflatable rat that follows scabs around the city as they fill union jobs during strikes were among those that did not make the final cut.

But among those that did were the sterling silver subway controller used on the inaugural subway ride in 1904, a Dutch-English dictionary that helped usher in English as New York’s dominant language in the 17th century and the Checker cab.

The objects are depicted in the book using full color photographs, but it is their individual significance and the stories behind each one that allowed Roberts to achieve his purpose of casting history in a different light.

The subway controller, for example, is an interesting curio on its own. Crafted by Tiffany & Co. for the opening of the subway, it was meant as a prop to be held by Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. (son of the Union Civil War general). But, according to Mr. Roberts, the mayor quickly departed from the scripted presentation, taking control of the train and driving it all the way up to 145th street himself, luckily without incident.

The Dutch-English dictionary came about in the mid-1600s, when immigrants to the then New Amsterdam colony were beginning to outnumber its original Dutch inhabitants. But although the language changed, there are many words in use today that came from that time — stoop, Bowery and coleslaw, for example. 

The Checker cab — which has been cast in countless movies and television shows as an icon of New York City, was not a surprising choice. But Roberts said his selection of the subway pass, which he found natural, drew the ire of many readers of an article he wrote about it for the Times. He said many more people remembered the classic subway token — the one with a Y cut out of its center — as a nostalgic reminder of the city’s transit system.

“Believe me, I would not make that mistake twice,” Roberts said.

There were a number of other curious objects on the list, including the statue atop the municipal building in Manhattan, whose face, along with the faces of a number of other statues in the city, was modeled after Audrey Munson, a model who appeared nude in a silent film in 1921, attempted suicide at the age of 31 and died in a mental health facility when she was 104 years old.

Other selections include the artichoke, which was banned for sale by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in an attempt to take down Ciro Terranova, a mob boss known as the Artichoke King; Woody Guthrie’s original manuscript for “This Land is Your Land,” which shows that the singer-songwriter crossed out “Staten Island” to replace it with “the New York Island”; the Greek-style disposable coffee cup designed by a Hungarian Jew who had survived the Holocaust; and many others with equally intricate histories.

A jar of dust from 9/11 was one of the few objects representing the 21st century.

“It’s very hard to think what objects will be iconic in 25 or 50 years,” Mr. Roberts said. “I don’t know what’s in that jar — I don’t want to know — but it seemed to capture the enigma, the horror of that time.”

He said he chose a weathered concrete statue of the Madonna as one of the objects, because it had been through fires, terrorist attacks and storms. Like the city it watches from its anonymous perch, Mr. Roberts says it has showed resilience.

“But if I’d had 102 objects, I would have included the inflatable rat,” he said.

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