Thursday, November 10, 2016

A History of New York in 101 Objects

A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts, Simon and Schuster

When I was a girl growing up along the Niagara River, I was fascinated by the depiction of New York City I saw in old movies. New York was exciting, vital--the hub of the world. In 1964 or 65 my friend went to the World Fair and I envied her. I did not get to New York City until my husband took a position in Philadelphia; later he worked in New York on Riverside Drive!

Our first visits we took the train, bringing a bag lunch to eat in Central Park. We went to the Empire State Building and saw the Statue of Liberty. We ate in China Town. We saw Yentl off Broadway, The Fantasticks, and the New York City Opera. I'll never forget The Pearl Fishers! We walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musem of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and I visited the Guggenheim. I shopped at Macy's, thinking of Miracle on 34th Street.

Reading Roberts' book is delightful. His mini history lessons revolve around an artifact that illuminates the city's history, but also the history of our nation.

He begins with the very rock layer that made possible the construction of Manhattan skyscrapers and ends with a Madonna statue that survived Hurricane Sandy and a fire, "a symbol of what we've been through, but also of our resurrection."

In between we read about inventions that altered life--the sewing machine, the Otis safety brake, the Erie Canal, Levittown homes. There is tragedy--the Triangle factory fire monument, which Francis Perkins called "the day the New Deal Begin," and a jar of dust from 9-11.

The arts are represented: A stamp commemorating the iconoclastic Armory Show, Leonard Bernstein's baton, the skeleton of the King Kong movie figure, the mask from The Phantom of the Opera. And of course New York's food history: An oyster, the bagel, jello, the black and white cookie, and the Horn and Hardart Automat.

Roberts' admits to being subjective in his choices. Each object had to be emblematic of historic transformation, and of enduring relevance. He writes, "history, after all, isn't really about the past. Our history is about who we are right now and where, as a society, we're headed."

I connected with many of these objects. I grew up at the end of the Erie Canal and Levittown type houses were built around me at my birth. When I saw parts of King Kong at a friend's house it terrified me. Oh, the bagels! We can't get anything like them in the Midwest. Other objects I have heard about, and some are new to me. I have been enjoying learning about them all.

I won Roberts book on Goodreads.