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Michael Miscione: Investigating Manhattan's History

Monday, August 16, 2010

WNYC

All this summer, we've been catching up with the five keepers of the city’s past, the historians in charge of studying and preserving the stories of New York’s neighborhoods, all for no pay. This week, in our final installment, WNYC's Kathleen Horan catches up with Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione on the Upper East Side.

Michael Miscione is sitting on the marble steps of the Museum of the City of New York. He's just helped to organize an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the assassination attempt of Mayor Willam J. Gaynor.

"He was a pretty good mayor," the historian says. "We've had a whole bunch of clunkers, but he was a very honest guy, very reform-minded -- a very feisty fellow."

In the summer of 1910, Gaynor was shot in the throat on the deck of a steamship as he was about to leave on vacation, by a dock worker who resented being laid off. The mayor was taken to St. Mary's hospital in New Jersey and nursed back to health. Miscione recently found the bronze plaque that Gaynor presented to the hospital in gratitude for his good care, a memento that was lost when the building was torn down.

"Knowing that there wasn't any other sort of marker to commemorate the shooting, I went looking for it," Miscione says. "I like to do that. I like to go on these little history detective hunts. And after a little bit of digging and a lot of phone calls I eventually traced it to a residence of sisters who live in Brooklyn."

Miscione looks a bit like a sleuth like in his spectacles, baseball cap and trousers. At 51, he's the youngest of the city historians. Of living mayors, he's partial to Ed Koch, who was at the city's helm while he was still a student at Stuyvesant High.

"I admire him as he's become sort of an elder statesman of city politics. I admire his spunk, and I love the fact that it was during his administration the pooper law was instituted, which to me is a crowning milestone of civic betterment," Miscione notes.

Miscione combines an appreciation for low humor with a respect for epic monuments. In his post as borough historian, he's been fighting to make sure that important events and people in history receive their due.

He leads the way down a narrow footpath to one of his favorite markers, the Andrew H. Green bench in Central Park. Green was a city planner who was instrumental not only in planning Central Park, but was also a key player in the creation of the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Public Library and the consolidation of the five boroughs.

"Andrew Green in many ways, changed my life," Miscione says. "I was a TV producer working for the city of New York. We were coming upon the 100th anniversary of the boroughs." So Miscione pitched an hour-long documentary to explain how the five boroughs joined to become one city. And he ended up finding his patron saint of New York City history. "He didn't just have this one shining moment of glory," Miscione says of Andrew Green. "He was literally the Robert Moses of the 19th century."

The historian was shocked that this hidden bench was the only public monument to Green. So he has been making it his mission to see that this city planner gets more recognition. He's been told by the city that a park along the East River, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, will be named for Green. 

After re-discovering the city planner, Miscione decided to step into his own little corner of history by applying to be the Manhattan historian. He says he wants to be more of a history "booster" than a collector of records and papers.

"We don't need to write with our quill pens in a leather-bound ledger who died today and who was born," Miscione says. "What they need me to do is to give a face and a voice to historical causes."

He says unlike some others in the historical community he aims to do more than simply be nostalgic about the past. "The good old days weren't always good. The city had tenements, dire poverty, deep racial problems and incredible political corruption."

Miscione says he'll keep on being a historical detective, as the city continues to be reinvented.

The convent where the Manhattan historian recovered the plaque to Mayor Gaynor. It was stored in the basement residence in Brooklyn Heights after St. Mary’s Hospital in N.J. was torn down.
Photo by Michael Miscione

The convent where the Manhattan historian recovered the plaque to Mayor Gaynor. It was stored in the basement residence in Brooklyn Heights after St. Mary’s Hospital in N.J. was torn down.

Andrew Haswell Green bench in Central Park
Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Andrew Haswell Green bench in Central Park

Bronze Medal commemorating the consolidation of the five boroughs into one city. It was Minted in 1898, and called the “Greater New York Medal.” Miscione found it on E-Bay when he was producing a docu
Photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Bronze medal commemorating the consolidation of the five boroughs into one city. It was minted in 1898, and called the “Greater New York Medal.” Miscione found it on E-Bay when he was producing a documentary on the consolidation.

The back of the bronze medal commemorating the consolidation of the five boroughs into one city.
Photo by Stephen Nessen/WNYC

The back of the bronze medal commemorating the consolidation of the five boroughs into one city.

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Comments [4]

ken green

Hi
I have a bronze medal commemorating the 'Golden Anniversary of the City of New York 1948' it is 2.5 inches in diameter and on the obverse it gives the names 'Clement B Livingstone 9-16-49' and 'William O'Dwyer, Mayor'
Is it rare, or of value?
I would like to know more, can you help?

Regards
Ken Green
Chichester
England
kaagreen@talktalk.net

Jan. 23 2012 10:44 AM
Warren Howie Hughes from Staten Island

It appears Michael's Miscione in life is to booster Manhattan's historical history, and as one among numerous New Yorkers who find this field so extremely interesting, I say let's rally round Michael in his selfless enlightening endeavors!

Jan. 10 2011 07:24 AM
Beth from CT

The interview I heard with this man and Amy Ettings on Friday 8.20 had a line that I found rather ridiculous. Mr. Miscione was irritated with people's focus on buildings as part of history instead of people or events. He may be a historian but seems to know little about human behavior; we tear down and build over the places where those events happened and those people lived, and we'll lose all history save textbooks, and no one has ever gazed upon a text book and had his imagination set on fire by that great picture of the Revolutionary War site--no, it's a trip to Valley Forge, where you can walk through George Washington's headquarters. Can we learn nothing from countries whose citizens have a real sense of history (and I suggest Americans do not)?

Aug. 21 2010 10:22 AM
John from Brooklyn

Correction: the second paragraph refers to the "100th anniversary of the assination attempt of" the Mayor. I'm assuming you meant "murder" and not some new form of ridicule.

Aug. 16 2010 08:23 AM

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