Matthew Spady is an independent historian and director of the Audubon Park Alliance, a community organization focused on preserving and promoting the neighborhood’s architecture, history, and culture. When he is not pursuing his avocation, he works as a production director/project manager for a global consulting firm. He lives in New York City and has been a member since 2016.
Alma maters: BA (English), College of William and Mary, 1972; BMus (Vocal Performance), Virginia Commonwealth University, 1978; MMus (Vocal Performance), College Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, 1980; Artist Diploma (Opera Performance), College Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, 1981
Fields of interest: urbanization, transit, architecture, New York City, late 19th century, northern Manhattan, Audubon Park
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? Nothing in my education or work experience suggests that I would have become a neighborhood historian, active in architectural preservation and promoting the rich historical and cultural significance of the Audubon Park neighborhood in northern Manhattan, though history as a mindset winds through my life from my childhood in southeastern Virginia through a three-decade career as an opera singer and into my current career as a production director in market research. My parents were history buffs, whose idea of a family weekend was to visit one of Virginia’s many historic locations. Their genius was in keeping us children engaged by relating past events to our family. Clearly, the strategy worked. All four of my siblings are involved in some aspect of local history, genealogy, or architectural preservation. As a performer in my early adult years, I learned that research into the historical aspects of a character was an important filter for the musical characterization: the singing actor’s continual questioning “why” is equally relevant for historians. My career in market research has provided reliable research techniques and process but even more importantly the filers of the “so what?” factor in interpreting history, whether the audience is reading, listening to a presentation, or coming along on a guided walk.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Living in the neighborhood that is the focus of my research, as I have for the last 30 years, has afforded me the opportunity for daily visits with my subject and daily musings about the rural and suburban landscapes that lie in layers beneath the current cityscape. Because urbanization wreaked dramatic topographical changes at the turn of the 20th century, following the neighborhood’s physical evolution and identifying clues to “what was” is a never-ending process of discovery.
What projects are you currently working on? At present, I am completing Audubon Park: The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot, the story of a neighborhood’s transition from farmland to cityscape in the second half of the 19th century, which my agent will begin marketing to publishers in 2018.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?My 20-year dive into thousands of letters, journals, deeds, census and church records, photographs and maps, and numerous other primary sources have provided so many a-ha! moments that singling out one as the most important is difficult. But near the top of the list must be learning that excavations for the New York subway system—actual digging as opposed to a ceremonial ground-breaking or preparatory work—began at Broadway and 156th Street, a block from where I have lived for 30 years. That bit of trivia stumps even the most ardent subway buff (http://www.audubonparkny.com/AudubonPark157thStreetSubway.html).
What do you value most about the history discipline? History is a never-ending process of discovery that can keep an aging mind agile.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The stream of information about trends, techniques, and findings, particularly in the AHA’s regular e-mails, give me an invaluable ongoing link to the discipline.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.