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Metropolitan Diary: Sam Roberts Discusses His New Book

The Brooklyn-born author's citified voice is true-blue in his new book, "A History of New York in 101 Objects."

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Sam Roberts

Photo By Thais Llorca

New York City subway tokens.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

“That’s so New York” can be praise or an insult, depending how it’s said, but Sam Roberts’ citified voice is true-blue in his new book, “A History of New York in 101 Objects.”

He would know. The Brooklyn-born Roberts has been anchored at The New York Times for 31 years, currently as urban affairs correspondent. Prior to that, he worked for 15 years at the New York Daily News, and has lived in three of the city’s five boroughs. Save for his college years at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., his work has kept him within the city limits.

All that know-how has been poured into his new book, which also has a companion exhibition at the New York Historical Society. Roberts hopes the combination will leave people with “a new appreciation of history and what New York City is all about, and that they will look at history and that kind of historical perspective in new ways.”

The writer said the book’s premise actually stemmed from his last one about Grand Central Terminal. After leaving his publisher’s office with the agreed-upon subtitle of “How a Train Station Transformed America,” he wondered, “Am I really going to be able to live up to that?” Roberts continued, “But when you look at its impact on the civil rights movement, urban planning, how it shifted the cultural impact on films, the landmarks preservation movement, and the air-rights concept in terms of urban planning, surely it had an enormous impact. But then I said, ‘Can a single object have that kind of impact?’ and I started to think about the wheel, the crucifix, the credit card or the computer chip.”

The British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” triggered some one-upmanship. “The conceit in the book was that if the British Museum did the whole world in a hundred, then we couldn’t possibly do that for New York City. It would at least take 101,” Roberts said.

Due out Sept. 23, his Simon & Schuster book is an offshoot of a 2012 piece he wrote for the Times about 50 New York-centric objects. Living up to the city’s whaddya-talkin’-about reputation, hundreds of readers jumped all over him for not including the New York City subway token, so it wound up in the book. The backstory to that object, as well as the 100 others, is what helps to bring the text to life, just as it did with the city itself. Roberts said, “We forget that the Statue of Liberty had nothing to do with immigration until Emma Lazarus wrote the poem ‘New Colossus’ [#36] and it was enshrined at the Statue of Liberty. She made it this symbol of the diversity of America and its willingness to open its arms to every size, shape, color and heritage.”

Like Columbia University’s Ken Jackson, Roberts said he, too, believes that “America begins in New York,” especially in light of its nearly 400-year-old Dutch heritage, role in the American Revolution and how the philosophy and exports from New York set the stage and tone for a lot of what went on in the rest of this country. And what was exported back home from immigrants who settled in New York “created the image of what this country was all about.”

Beyond no-brainers like the bagel (43) and the Checker cab (76), more symbolic selections made the list, like New York’s birth certificate (5), Milton Glaser’s original “I Love New York” doodle and the AIDS button (91). Roberts also illustrates how “East Side Story” (71) was Arthur Laurents’ original title for what became “West Side Story” and how Audrey Munson, the model for “Civic Fame” (42), the statue atop the Municipal Building, once appeared nude in a movie and attempted suicide a few years later.

A Third Avenue trolley ticket (24) offered more enlightenment. “When you think that [in 1854] a hundred years before Rosa Parks, a black woman, Elizabeth Jennings, boarded the Third Avenue trolley, gets thrown off, winds up suing, gets a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur and wins the case, then a Third Avenue trolley ticket becomes one of these emblematic objects,” Roberts said.

As for whether Roberts will celebrate the victory, so to speak, of his new book, he said, “I do it every day. I just go out and take a walk.”

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