As a reporter, I spend a lot of time reaching out to people who’d rather not talk to me. It’s not necessarily that they have something to hide. It’s more that their best default strategy is insipidity, to say nothing that jeopardizes their jobs or, especially, their boss’s.
That’s yet another reason I’m grateful for the opportunity to write about history. Historians, archivists, curators and librarians, as a group, are not only generous with their time, but also magnanimous about sharing their accrued wisdom, their collections and to steer me to resources I never imagined even existed.
One of my frustrations writing for a daily newspaper haws always been that it is the proverbial first draft or the second hand of history (what does that make the digital edition?). Things always seem to be happening in isolation, for the first time, as if there were no contextual beginning or end. That’s why I often try to inject some historical perspective: this is not the first time New York dealt with homelessness or considered impeaching a governor or a legislator lost his seat because he courageously voted his conscience or a Cuomo declined stonewalled a reporter.
And that’s why my latest book was so enjoyable to research. It’s all about history: A History of New York in 101 Objects. Inspired by the British Museum-BBC collaboration about the history of the whole world, it began with a conceit: You can’t tell the history of New York in a mere 100. It takes at least 101. And to find them, the first sources I tapped were the historians, archivists, curators and librarians who had proved so invaluable in the past, but whose contributions I could typically incorporate into only a paragraph or two. Now, I had an entire book.
They delivered. My criteria for choosing objects were simple. They could be iconic, but preferably unpredictable and quirky (why an artichoke or a mechanical cotton picker in a book about New York?). They should be ironic: for instance, the original title to “West Side Story” (it was to be called “East Side Story,” a Jewish-Italian version of Romeo and Juliet, which says a lot about changing demographics). The object had to exist (only one, Bobby Thomson’s 1951 pennant-winning home run ball, does not, as far as I know). They couldn’t be human (that ruled out Ed Koch, for one).
And they couldn’t all be about food. So many people suggested pizza, empanadas, egg creams, bialys, bagels, knishes, hot dogs, seltzer bottles, that, given the declining crime rate, perhaps the city’s motto should become: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
The challenge wasn’t in finding the full complement. It was in winnowing them down to 101.
The book began as an article in The New York Times and, ultimately, readers weighed in, too. It’s great that in the last decade or so, brilliant biographies, and now digestible lists of objects, have reinvigorated a public clamor for history. Last summer, when the Smithsonian asked Americans to choose the most iconic object in its collection, more than 90,000 votes were cast. The problem with relying on the public, though, is that, sometimes, is sentimentality intrudes. The Smithsonian’s first-place winner was only one-year-old: a panda born in 2013 at the National Zoo.
In contrast, the historians I consulted were particularly helpful because their perspective reached well beyond the past few decades. They responded eagerly last year when Michael Miscione, the Manhattan Borough Historian, interviewed me at the New York State Historical Association conference in Cooperstown.
Why explore history through objects in the first place, much less limiting them to a contrived finite number? In a chaotic world, a list just makes things more digestible. In a materialistic world, imbuing an ordinary object with worth, even though no one may have been willing to invest a gazillion dollars in it, is a reminder of what we value over the ages. In a virtual world, a three-dimensional tangible object conveys a reassuring authenticity. Morever, as Richard Kurin, who edited the Smithsonian’s A History of the World in 101 Objects, observes, a focus on artifacts defies the conventional chronological order of events: A need arose; someone or something was created to fill it; after trial and error it endured as civilization searched for something superior. Think of the mousetrap, or the wheel, the crucifix or the credit card.
A History of New York in 101 Objects is not the history of New York. It’s not even a history. It’s my history. It’s supposed to be subjective and provocative, to encourage ordinary people, and professionals, too, to appreciate history imaginatively. Send your suggestions to ObjectsOfNYC@gmail.com. Let the parlor game begin!