Every day, you fly just under the radar.
Nobody bothers you because they don’t know who you are and that’s just fine. As long as you can keep your head down and get stuff done, you’ll survive and thrive to work another day. You don’t need fame or fortune to have a good life. As in “The New Yorkers” by Sam Roberts, they might come someday anyhow, though.
Through the years, as a writer of “quirky accounts” of New York City, Sam Roberts has come to know many people whose names have been mostly forgotten – people who, in merely living their lives, made an impact on history, America, and The City That Never Sleeps. Here, Roberts presents thirty-one freshly-awakened tales, beginning with a mystery.
It was a dark and stormy night in September, 1609, when John Colman bled to death in a small rowboat in New York Bay. Nobody knows for sure where, exactly, his body was hastily buried; eyewitnesses all agreed that Colman was felled by a Native American arrow. His remains were never recovered, making his death New York City’s first cold case.
In many of the city’s earliest years, women generally couldn’t own property but Anneke Jans Bogardus did. It was a nice piece of land, too, until the British seized it, then it was seized back, and somehow Bogardus lost her property to a church. Well into the last century, her descendants launched lawsuits to regain control over what is now very valuable land.
Capitalist John Jay claimed to despise New York City, but the city wouldn’t be what it is today without him. Elma Sands was found dead in a city well, becoming part of America’s first “media circus.” Thomas Downing, the free son of slaves, built a reputation as a restaurateur in the city, years before the Civil War. John Randel created the city’s street grid. Thomas Jennings received one of America’s first patents given to a Black inventor. And Philip Payton “transformed the sparsely populated swath of Manhattan… into a fertile destination for mass migration by Black people..”
Sometimes, in the whirlwind that this time of year seems to be, it’s easy to think that one small life can’t make an impact on anything. “The New Yorkers” tells not just a different story, but thirty-one of them.
You don’t have to be a New Yorker or even a big-city dweller to be delighted by the tales that author Sam Roberts offers. Many of these accounts happened when the Big Apple was little more than a seed, back when pigs wandered freely around Manhattan and property was counted in acreage, rather than dollars-per-square-feet. Stories as varied as these really capture the imagination; it helps that Roberts’ tales show readers what New York looked like and smelled like, and how it operated during the lives of each of his subjects.
This is history at its most enjoyable, no matter where you live or hail from. If you love a book full of surprises, put “The New Yorkers” on your radar.
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For another different look at New York City and history in a unique kind of nutshell, pick up “A Block in Time: A New York City History at the Corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street” by Christiane Bird (Bloomsbury, $28.00). This is a look at a small patch of earth, once trod upon my ancient peoples, now one of the most expensive groups of addresses in the nation. It’s another book full of delightful surprises for the curious and history buff alike.
By Sam Roberts, c.2022, Bloomsbury, 384 pages