How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.
Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.
Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:
The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?
Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.
When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”
Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:
The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.
They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.
As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.
Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”
Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.
Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:
Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.
There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:
Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.
In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.
A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.
Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:
That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.
Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.
Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:
The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”
But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:
Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”
The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”
A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.