“Delightfully surprising….A portable virtual museum…an entertaining stroll through the history of one of the world’s great cities” (Kirkus Reviews), told through 101 distinctive objects that span the history of New York, almost all reproduced in luscious, full color.
Inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, Sam Roberts of The New York Times chose fifty objects that embody the narrative of New York for a feature article in the paper. Many more suggestions came from readers, and so Roberts has expanded the list to 101. Here are just a few of what this keepsake volume offers:
-The Flushing Remonstrance, a 1657 petition for religious freedom that was a precursor to the First Amendment to the Constitution. -Beads from the African Burial Ground, 1700s. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827, although many free blacks lived in the city. The African Burial Ground closed in 1792 and was only recently rediscovered. -The bagel, early 1900s. The quintessential and undisputed New York food (excepting perhaps the pizza). -The Automat vending machine, 1912. Put a nickel in the slot and get a cup of coffee or a piece of pie. It was the early twentieth century version of fast food. -The “I Love NY” logo designed by Milton Glaser in 1977 for a campaign to increase tourism. Along with Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover depicting a New Yorker’s view of the world, it was perhaps the most famous and most frequently reproduced graphic symbol of the time.
Unique, sometimes whimsical, always important, A History of New York in 101 Objects is a beautiful chronicle of the remarkable history of the Big Apple. “The story [Sam Roberts] is telling is that of New York, and he nails it” (Daily News, New York).
Dense, dark green to black, banded, grainy-textured, it punctuates the unseen underbelly of Manhattan. It was formed hundreds of millions of years ago in a crucible of immense heat and pressure, a tectonic upheaval as volcanoes erupted and the continental plates of Pangaea, the supercontinent, ground against each other. They divided, creating a vast gulf that would separate the Eastern Seaboard from North Africa. It is a rock. It is an island.
• • •
Manhattan is a geologist’s dream. But sophisticated on-site analysis of what lies beneath the surface is a relatively recent phenomenon. Construction of Water Tunnel No. 3, as deep as six hundred feet below street level, the Second Avenue Subway, the Flushing Line Subway Extension, and the Long Island Rail Road’s East Side Access project to Grand Central Terminal under Park Avenue opened a basement window for geologists to confirm their vision of how Manhattan was formed and why skyscrapers sprouted downtown and in midtown but not in between.
Depending on where you live in Manhattan, you can’t honestly say it’s not your fault. What geologists found was a wide variety of metamorphic rock—formed as tectonic plates collided—and distinct geological fault lines along Dyckman Street, 125th Street, Morningside Drive, and Canal Street, suggested by water coursing through the paths of least resistance, fractures and fissures that reached across the spine of Manhattan between the East and Hudson Rivers. While Manhattan schist is the best known of the rock formations that form the city’s subbasement, the island is also defined by amphibolite, by Inwood marble farther uptown, and by Fordham gneiss, which predominates in the Bronx, on Roosevelt Island, and on the Lower East Side (and protruding on “C-rock” opposite the Columbia University athletic complex).
Gneiss (pronounced “nice”) dates back a dazzling 1.2 billion years, when earth-shattering continental collisions caused sedimentary rock to recrystallize into contorted black-and-white-banded metamorphic rock. It is the oldest natural New York object. (The oldest objects in New York are 4.6-billion-year-old meteors and 10-billion-year-old stardust—actually, presolar grains in primitive chondrites—at the American Museum of Natural History. The oldest handcrafted object in Manhattan is considered to be the obelisk known as Cleopatra’s Needle, dating from 1450 B.C. and installed in Central Park in 1881.)
The interlayered rock formations belowground are analogous to the intermixed neighborhoods on the surface. The granites are folded into tunnel walls exposed by monstrous rock-boring machines. The undulating formations are the bedrock that defines Manhattan’s skyline. In midtown, bedrock is just below the asphalt. To build the World Trade Center, seventy-five feet of fill, glacial till, and muck had to be excavated until bedrock was reached. In between downtown and midtown, the bedrock surface dips into a deeper trough and the ground is relatively squishy, which means that a century or so ago, building a skyscraper there would have been too challenging for contemporary engineering. Today, while it may be prohibitively expensive, such construction is technologically possible. Good rocks, geologists like to say, make good foundations and good tunnels.
Underground Manhattan is laced with unseen, taken-for-granted tunnels, the latest of which is the East Side Access, 170 feet below Park Avenue. It stretches from the East Sixty-Third Street tunnel under the East River, which it shares with the subway from Queens, and terminates at East Thirty-Sixth Street, just below the Union League Club. (A Manhattan portion of the sixty-mile-long third water tunnel, which has been under construction for four decades and is scheduled for completion around 2020, opened in 2013; the Long Island Rail Road’s direct East Side Access is now expected to start around 2020.)
Legally, landlords own the land beneath their property to the center of the earth, so tunnels require easements, which, in the case of government agencies, can be obtained through negotiation or by exercising the right of eminent domain. An advance team of geologists mines the excavations to verify topographical details of the original shoreline and underground water courses still derived from the pre-development 1865 map of Egbert Viele (a civil engineer and congressman), to adjust engineering specifications to the conditions that are discovered, and to leave a geological record for posterity. Finding amphibolite and similar rock formations migrating like baked taffy—one geologist likened the pattern to a Charleston Chew—in both Manhattan and Morocco provides evidence substantiating Alfred Wegener’s once ridiculed theory of continental drift.
Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times. He is the host of The New York Times Close Up, an hour-long weekly news and interview program on cable channel NY1 that he inaugurated in 1992. He is the author or editor of eight previous books, including a new edition of The Brother. He lives in New York City. Follow @ObjectsofNYC or visit ObjectsofNYC.com.
“Sam Roberts’s lively, entertaining book—A History of New York in 101 Objects—not only serves as an original and knowledgeable guide to the history of New York but reminds us of why we continue to love and treasure this endlessly fascinating city.”
– Francine Prose
“Lively and deftly written, full of surprising tidbits and enticing illustrations, a total treat, this book contains the Rosetta Stone of New York identity. Who better than our maven of the five boroughs, Sam Roberts, to have compiled it?”
– Phillip Lopate
“Sam Roberts’ A History of New York in 101 Objects is a delight, not only for anyone—like me—old enough to have ridden in a Checker cab, used a subway token, or to still crave a black-and-white, but for all those who love the city, past and present, and revel in exploring its mysteries and hidden treasures.”
– Kevin Baker
“Sam Roberts has given us a wonderful object lesson in the rich, irreducibly concrete history of New York – or rather a hundred and one of them: a list large enough to start and avoid innumerable happily heated arguments – small enough to hold in the heart and mind – and of course the smallest number that still means inexhaustible. Personal favorite: a faded green ticket for Abraham Lincoln’s watershed campaign speech at Cooper Union on February 27th, 1860.”
– Ric Burns
“A must-have gift for anyone who loves New York, who loves to hate it, or who thinks they already know everything about it.”
– Gay Talese
“Sam Roberts’ History of New York in 101 Objects is the best thing to happen to New York since Nathan’s hot dogs and Junior’s cheesecake.”
– Marty Markowitz, former Borough President of Brooklyn
“A portable virtual museum. . . . An entertaining stroll through the history of one of the world's great cities. . . . Delightfully surprising.”