Rendezvous with Manhattan History

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As Borough Historian, Michael Miscione digs into the rich past of New York City

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

In 1998, Michael Miscione was a television producer, when he decided to make a documentary in honor of the centennial consolidation of the five boroughs. This project was the beginning of his life as a New York City historian.

“This was a life-changing moment because it made me realize how much I loved New York City history, said Miscione.

Miscione has a position few New Yorkers even know exists's he is the official historian of the borough of Manhattan. The position is state mandated and each borough has an historian appointed by the borough president.

When Scott Stringer became Manhattan borough president in 2006, Miscione met him at a debate and told him he would love to be the new borough historian if the then-current borough historian, Caledonia Jones, stepped down. When the vacancy became available, Miscione became the seventh historian to hold the position.

“I like the terms ‘position" and ‘appointment" better than ‘job," because the word job implies a paycheck, Miscione said.

The position is unpaid, which means that borough historians have day jobs. “I and my fellow historians sort of fit it into the cracks of our lives, the Upper East Side resident said. Miscione also works as a tour guide.

Borough Historian Michael Miscione. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

In Miscione"s role as borough historian, he holds press conferences to commemorate important anniversaries, gives speeches and answers questions from media, the public and city institutions.

Two big anniversaries coming up this year include the 200th anniversary of the creation of the street grid and the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

“I am getting assaulted with triangle fire everything, and the actual anniversary isn"t until weeks from now, said Miscione.

Last year, Miscione held an event in honor of the 75th anniversary of the creation of the urban legend of alligators in the sewer. The myth stems from an incident Feb. 9, 1935, when several teenagers in East Harlem were shoveling snow into an open sewer manhole and found a 7-foot-long, 125-pound alligator.

Although Miscione will answer questions to the best of his ability on most topics, he has limits. Very soon after Miscione was appointed, he received a phone call from somebody asking him about a great-grandfather who had lived on the Lower East Side.

The job description specifies that borough historians don"t do genealogies. “So I had to break this man"s heart and tell him I didn"t know anything about his great-grandfather.

Another area Miscione doesn"t like weighing in on is disputed neighborhood boundaries.

“There are very, very few officially definable neighborhood boundaries, and yet for some reason people get so wrapped up in this, said Miscione. “When you tell them that it is blurry or undefined, they get upset.

Miscione grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and has lived in Turtle Bay for his entire adult life. The origin of Turtle Bay, he said, has nothing to do with animals and is thought to be an Anglicization of a Dutch word.

“Being a native New Yorker and having lived through some of the history I talk about is a real asset. It makes me personally familiar with some of the things that have happened and it has given me exposure to the five boroughs. It"s very easy to become provincial if you just stay on your little island, but that is a bad way to be.

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