NYC Chapter Team — Rob Snyder

Robert “Rob” Snyder
Working Group Member

On December 3, 2019, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic blanketed the city, Rob Snyder was sworn in as Manhattan Borough Historian by former borough president Gale Brewer. Each of the city’s five boroughs boasts its own official historian—an honorary role that dates back to 1950—and Manhattan is lucky enough to have Snyder, a distinguished academic, author, and journalist with a lifelong passion for the city and its history.

At his swearing-in ceremony, he expressed the desire to knit New Yorkers, including the historians in our midst, into a stronger community. He also advanced the idea of an annual conference on contemporary issues affecting the city, such as climate change and the woeful lack of affordable housing. As he sees it, history is a collective undertaking and a crucially important way to understand the present.

That’s precisely the spirit he brings to the Living New Deal’s New York City Chapter, a spirit that draws on the New Deal as a classroom, a lens, and a source of inspiration for the reforms and the values that are so urgently needed today.

Snyder is professor emeritus of American studies and journalism at Rutgers University. Beyond the academy, he has devoted his career to writing and teaching about the history of New York—the city proper along with its environs. He writes for both scholars and the general public in books such as Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York and All the Nations Under Heaven: Immigrants, Migrants and the Making of New York. He’s currently editing an oral history-based documentary book about the COVID-19 pandemic in New York.

The passionate New Yorker actually grew up in Dumont, New Jersey—a small town just across the bridge from Manhattan. By his teen years, he had imbibed a general sense of what the New Deal was all about from his father, whose praise for public institutions, including parks, public schools, and libraries, as well as for the Democratic Party, never wavered. “Why are we Democrats?” asked the young Snyder. “Because Democrats believe in spending money to benefit people,” his dad replied, “while Republicans funnel money to the rich and assume it will ‘trickle down.’”

Snyder also inherited another gene from his parents: his love of the outdoors. That’s where his family got to be fully and truly themselves, Snyder says, mostly in the interstate park system to the north of the city.

In a recent article titled “Making History at Bear Mountain: Family Memories, the Palisades, and an Inheritance Worth Preserving,” he details his family’s many excursions to that beloved spot—excursions that are part of a larger chapter in American history.

Published on the New York Historical Society’s “Behind the Scenes” blog in 2019 and reprised in Platform magazine, the piece invites readers to view the Palisades Interstate Park and Bear Mountain as longtime refuges for working-class New Yorkers: “The rich have always had their wilderness resorts, but places like Bear Mountain gave ordinary people a place of their own in the great outdoors.” Snyder’s solidly working-class parents appear in the piece as stars of that larger story. And so does the New Deal.

It was the New Deal, Snyder reports, that radically scaled up the Palisades Interstate Park’s facilities and “inculcated a generous vision of environmentalism that embraced both the preservation of natural resources and the expansion of outdoor recreation.” The ski hill in Harriman State Park where Snyder and his family spent many joyful hours back in the day was built by none other than the CCC.

Extending the full benefits of the New Deal paradigm to African Americans and Latinx Americans remains the unfinished work of the country, “but at its best,” Snyder writes, “the Roosevelt vision inspired demands for justice and inclusion that endured long after FDR’s death in 1945.”

They endure to this day, which is why Snyder continues to embrace his role as a historian on the local and national scene and, through his writing, to share the Roosevelt vision with new generations in the city and beyond.

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