Robert Snyder
Toggle caption Photo by Theo Anderson

Professor Robert Snyder Named Manhattan Borough Historian

Professor Robert Snyder may have been raised in New Jersey and taught at Rutgers University–Newark for 20 years, but he’s a New Yorker through and through.

He was born in Washington Heights, near the northern tip of Manhattan; went to NYU for undergraduate and graduate school; worked as a writer for New York Newsday and WNET/PBS; and served as a senior research consultant for Ric Burns’ eight-episode award-winning series New York: A Documentary, which aired on PBS starting in 1999.

A professor of American Studies and Journalism at RU-N, he’s also written numerous books on New York City history, including Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City (Cornell University Press), The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York (Ivan R. Dee), and Transit Talk: New York’s Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories (Rutgers University Press). He is the co-author of Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and their New York (Norton/Smithsonian) and, most recently, All the Nations Under Heaven: Immigrants, Migrant and the Making of New York (Columbia University Press).

Steeped New York City history as he is, Snyder recently received an honor he hadn’t quite expected: He was named Manhattan Borough Historian. Gayle Brewer, who is Manhattan Borough President, had her eye on Snyder for some time before appointing him to the position. “His knowledge is just unmatched,” said Brewer. “He’s written widely on New York City history and issues, as his many books show. He’ll be a tremendous resource in this role.”  

We sat down with Snyder to discuss this latest chapter of his career as he gets set to retire on July 1, 2020, after having served on the RU-N faculty in various capacities for nearly two decades.

How did you end up as Manhattan Borough Historian?
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer sought me out and asked me to apply. I knew her casually and saw her at several uptown events where I spoke, especially at the launch of my book Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York, which took place a few years back at a neighborhood bar named Coogan’s. I was honored when she encouraged me to apply

Is the position paid or not? And did anything else inspire you to apply?
Borough historians are unpaid volunteers. And as much as I’ve enjoyed working at Rutgers-Newark since 2000, I’ve long wanted to make the final act of career an act of service to New York. Over the years I’ve worked with many museums, libraries and news organizations in New York to foster a richer conversation about how history shapes our present. Now I want to build on that work in a concentrated way.

I look forward to learning more about Manhattan, helping others to learn more about the island, and sharing our knowledge with the rest of the world.

What’s your conception of the Manhattan Borough Historian’s role?
As Manhattan Borough Historian, I think of myself primarily as an educator. I want to make historical perspectives more prominent in public debates, encourage the writing of local history, and bring scholars and community historians into a more fruitful dialogue.

Have you been in touch with previous Manhattan Borough Historians to gain additional insight into the job?
I haven’t yet spoken to my predecessors, but I plan to spend the next few months speaking to Michael Miscione, who recently held the job, and other past and present borough historians about what they have done and learned. I’ll also speak to people in Manhattan’s many neighborhood history organizations.

Given your lifelong relationship with New York City, and Manhattan specifically, how does it feel to be in this role?
History is humbling: As much as you know, you always have more to learn. I look forward to learning more about Manhattan, helping others to learn more about the island, and sharing our knowledge with the rest of the world. Manhattan is ever changing, but the past is always present if you know where to look for it. For me, history isn’t about looking backward but about attaining a heightened awareness of the past and present.

What’s your schedule been thus far, and do you have any other projects in the works?
I’ve been going in one day a week at the Borough President’s office, and I’ll build on that once I’ve finished at Rutgers. I’ll also be working on several of my ongoing projects: lecturing, writing a biography of the New York City journalist Murray Kempton, and continuing to write reviews and op-eds about New York.

Sounds like you’ll be keeping busy in so-called retirement. Thanks for sitting down with us.
My pleasure.