Inspired by the BBC series A History of the World in 100 Objects, we decided to ask listeners to suggest objects that tell the story of New York City. We collected a great list of items and then asked listeners to vote for the 10 objects that best tell New York's story—from its first days to 2012.
The top object in our countdown is perhaps the most accidental of New York icons. In its heyday the Anthora cup, with its crisp blue and white Greco design, was the way you drank hot beverages on the go. But, as Leonard pointed out, sometimes the coffee itself wasn’t always that great. Oh, the power of nostalgia. (continue reading)
It might seem odd that our listeners chose an object that hasn’t been used in New York City for nearly a decade as number two on our list. But as Robert Del Bango of the New York City Transit Museum told us, it’s actually “a very smart object” to tell the story of New York. (continue reading)
Eating outside has always been a part of the New York City way of life. “The early colony was downtown,” Fabio Parasecoli of The New School told us. “Food had to be brought to southern Manhattan from the nearby farms.” Often, that food was sold and consumed on the street. (continue reading)
Our listeners chose the lowly oyster—not the exalted bagel— as the only edible object on our list of ten items which define New York City. In a number of ways, the rise and demise of the harbor oyster is the story of the city itself.
“The history of New York is the history of gobbling up everything,” Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster explains. “When there was deer and elk and lynx and all sorts of things on Manhattan, people ate that stuff. The wild fruit trees that once covered New York are all gone too. It reaches the point where the one natural resource that’s left to eat are oysters.” And by most accounts, early New Yorkers ate oysters by the bucketful. They were harvested by the Lenape Indians and loved by the Dutch and British colonists. The bivalve was once synonymous with New York City. “Today, people come to New York and take in a Broadway Show—it used to be that people from all over the world would come here for the oysters,” Kurlansky said. (continue reading)
This object is an example of New York’s past colliding with its present.
“We’ve never seen a boat like this before,” Warren Reiss a maritime historian and archeologist at the University of Maine explained. “There are a number of things about how this vessel was built that we are still scratching our heads about.” Reiss was the principal investigator of a ship the New York Times dubbed the “S.S. World Trade Center.” “We don’t even know if it had one mast or two,” Reiss said. (continue reading)
It was slightly surprising that Frank O’Hara’s 1964 collection Lunch Poems came in at number six on our list, but it turns out to be a very good way of looking at New York City. As NYU professor Lytle Shaw, author of the book Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterieexplains “Lunch Poems is a condensed and highly accessible book that is smaller than a subway map.” That feature makes it easy to take the book anywhere. Shaw described it as having the potential to “acclimatize you to the things New York has to offer.” (continue reading)
The seventh object on our list violates the central rule of our contest that it “must be able to fit in a museum”—but just this once we’ll make an exception. Richard Haw, a professor at CUNY and author of the book, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History, told us that the bridge is a particularly good selection for this project. “It helps illuminate different parts of the history of the New York: political, economic, demographic, social, transport, technological, literary and artistic.” (continue reading)
The Wall Street sign is the first object on our list that is central to both the long history of New York City and the current moment. William D. Cohan, author of Money And Power told us “You can not overstate Wall Street’s importance from either a literal or symbolic point of view. It’s not up there with the Statue of Liberty, but it’s a symbol of what America is all about. That’s why there is so much disappointment about their behavior over the last few years.” (continue reading)
Who knew so many of our listeners were geology enthusiasts? Or that, to use a pun Leonard would probably dream up, they really know their schist? Charles Merguerian, chairman of the Geology Department at Hofstra University, seemed surprised and then pleased that New York City bedrock made the top ten of our list. He said “People always ask: What came first the chicken or the egg? But the answer is rocks. Rocks are so fundamental and basic to us and our existence that there is a natural tendency towards wanting to know about them.” (continue reading)
It’s fitting that we kick off our countdown of the 10 objects that tell the story of New York with an object that, quite literally, lets us explore the city. Even the most savvy, life-long New Yorker ends up consulting the subway map regularly. That's probably the case because — for better or worse — a subway map is the map that explains much of the city’s geography to us. (continue reading)