If you want to really understand New York City, talk to Sam Roberts. A reporter at the New York Times for over 30 years, urban affairs correspondent for the past 11, and host of the NY1 show The New York Times Close Up, Roberts knows the city like the back of his hand. In 2012, he curated "A History of New York in 50 Objects," a multimedia NYT project featuring 50 objects of historical significance to the city. The project generated so much enthusiasm—readers from across the world sent in suggestions—that Roberts decided to turn it into a book. A History of New York in 101 Objects was released in 2014, and the book is now out in paperback. Gothamist recently spoke to Roberts about the origins of the project, our favorite objects, and how he thinks the 2000s will be remembered in 100 years.


Why tell New York's story through objects?

I was looking to pick objects that captured people's imagination and got them to look at history in a different way. There was an Alan Bennett play not long ago called The History Boys in which one of the kids is asked to define history and he says, "It's just one damn thing after another." We learn history as a chronology, or sometimes about people, and I thought, let's look at objects, sort of inspired by the British Museum series. I was inundated, when this started as a New York Times series, with reader recommendations. I was trying to find things that were offbeat, transformative, not living (a number of people suggested Ed Koch).

Can you describe the selection process and how you went about choosing objects for the book?

I recruited historians and librarians and curators to come up with that 50 in the Times. Some were my own; I’d say most came from other sources. Then we got hundreds and hundreds of inquiries from all over New York, all over the country, and all over the world. People had so many good ideas of objects that the real challenge was getting them down to a reasonable number. The idea was not to pick something obvious like the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty, but something that was more imaginative, more provocative.

Tell me about object 26, the Otis Safety Brake.

There were elevators going back to ancient times, but it wasn't until Elisha Otis developed the safety brake that they were practical and safe. It enabled New York to create a vertical city. The skyline would be completely different if this had not been introduced. They demonstrated it at the Crystal Palace, and there goes P.T. Barnum letting Elisha go up in this elevator, and in typical Barnum style, hands Otis a pair of what looks like giant pruning shears, and he cuts the cable, and the crowd gasps. Otis holds up his hands and says, "No, no! Don't worry!" And, in fact, the elevator drops a foot or two and then it stops as the safety mechanism catches the gears—and there he is, safe. From then on, builders could build skyscrapers: 12, 15, 20 stories, and eventually, 100 or more. Otherwise we would only have buildings as tall as anyone was willing to walk up.

Object 55, the air conditioner—this one surprised me. Most people would say they couldn’t live without AC in New York, but that’s not what you had in mind. Can you explain its significance?

The air conditioner allowed for indoor spaces like movie theaters and department stores. But, more importantly, it allowed people to make that demographic shift from northern cities to the South, resulting in a massive shift of population in the 50s and 60s. It precipitated white flight, which prompted a massive political change, as places like New York lost political clout to the South and the Southwest. You wouldn't think of blaming that on the air conditioner, but without question that played a part in all of it.

Many of the objects in the book are important not just to the history of New York, but also to the history of the United States. How much did broader impact factor into your choice of objects?

One of the things I think as New Yorkers we forget is how important history is to this city. Ken Jackson, a Columbia professor, likes to say America begins in New York. The first Congress, the first capital, the Zenger Trials. Our history in a sense has been hijacked by places like Philadelphia, like Boston, like Jamestown, when so much of American history began right here. As New Yorkers we're so consumed with the present, we're looking so much towards the future, that we overlook our past. One of the items I included, one of my favorites, is that Third Avenue trolley ticket. Elizabeth Jennings is trying to get on the Third Avenue trolley down at the Bowery to go to her church service on a Sunday morning, and she gets thrown off the trolley because she's black and sues in Supreme Court in Brooklyn. The judge says you can't throw a black woman off public transportation just because she's black, and she wins. This is a century before Rosa Parks. Nobody even knows about this case. So it had broader implications for both the city and the country, and is something that winds up being totally forgotten in our history.

Sam Roberts (Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

Object 80, the blue and white coffee cup, is such a classic New York thing, but it never would have occurred to me that there’s a story behind it, or even that it has a name—the Anthora. What’s the history of this cup?

It was designed by a immigrant from Eastern Europe who fled the Holocaust, initially for Greek coffee shops. Anthora is a made-up word for a Greek vase. There never would have been an episode of Law & Order without a cup like that for every cop and assistant DA to be holding and drinking. It's kind of become emblematic of New York in so many ways. To some extent, it's been displaced by Starbucks. But there is that blue and white cup, still around. Now the kids of the Greek coffee shop owners are becoming doctors and lawyers and investment bankers, as that ethnic succession moves on as it has with every generation of immigrants.

And there goes the cycle...

That's right, so we'll see what the next cups look like.

You write in the introduction that you wanted to avoid larger objects, but you snuck some into the book. What was your thinking there?

It was easy to put a skyscraper there, it was easy to put a building foundation, it was easy to put a picture of the World Trade Center. But if you put Fordham Gneiss, that original big rock on which the skyscrapers are built, it gave the sense as to why there are so many skyscrapers in New York, and some sense as to why they are where they are. That's where builders built them without having to dig giant foundations and structures that supported them, because Manhattan had that rock formation.

The jar of dust that was collected on 9/11 is so enigmatic. What is in there? I don't want to know what's in there. It just makes you think. And there's something unknown about it, which I think piques the imagination in ways that a picture of buildings before or after could never have done.

You've mentioned a number of times that you've considered compiling a second volume. What were the objects whose exclusion really haunted you?

There were a bunch of them. A few people suggested Bella Abzug's hat, for one. A Delaney card, that used to be in elementary schools, which showed where you sat and what your grades were. My favorite one, actually, is the inflatable rat at non-union construction sites. This is not just symbolic physically, but also metaphorically a symbol of the air going out of organized labor.

If you were writing this book 100 years from now, what would you use to represent our current era?

That was the hardest part of the book, thinking of the last 10 years, because what are we going to look back on that we would consider transformative? The only things in there are that jar of dust, which we know, whatever happens decades from now, we will remember that incident, and the concrete Madonna that survived the Superstorm Sandy and showed that, through natural disasters, through disasters of our own making, this city, at least for 400 years, has proven to be remarkably resilient. Let's hope it keeps going on that way.