New York Seen/Taught from a Distance

By Rodger C. Birt

In 1980 I was offered a rare opportunity and a pedagogical challenge:  the department I had recently joined at San Francisco State University asked me to prepare to teach a semester-long (15 weeks) course “on” New York City.  It would  become part of a group of courses constructed around this unifying theme:  a city is a specific, cultural artifact,  and the study of a selected city (in a humanities context) helps serve one of the educational missions of a large state university, namely to introduce
humanities texts and scholarship to undergraduates who, because of the ever growing number of required courses in their major, might take only two or, at the most, three upper-division liberal arts courses.    A decade earlier, the university had been San Francisco State College, academic home to beats, hippies, black power, Asian-American, la raza, and Native-American activists.  Now, the once small college had become a state university, part of the twenty-three campus California State University system.
            I was a brand new hire in the Humanities Department, an academic entity in the College of Humanities alongside Philosophy, Classics, English, Foreign Languages, Creative Writing, and Journalism.  The department had first offered a course on a city, Jerusalem, in 1972.  A course on San Francisco came next, in 1973 (five years later “San Francisco” was a multi-section course—seven—and the second highest enrolled course on campus, behind “Human Sexuality”).  A new course concentrating on New York City—mine to develop—would be the first on a list of new cities:  soon Los Angeles, Paris, London, Beijing, Mexico City, and Rome were to be added.  The new cities, plus Jerusalem and San Francisco, would be listed in the university catalogue as, “(city name): Biography of the City.”  Creating and teaching the “biography” of New York was my part.  O.K., “I’ll take Manhattan/the Bronx and Staten Island too.”
            I determined my New York would be about art, gender, ethnicity, architecture, politics, literature, the outer boroughs, and New Jersey too.  Since a semester was only 15 weeks long, my selection of texts would be, I hoped, sources for discussions of a range of “big ideas.”   History, philosophy, theory, and analysis were as much the subject as was New York, a hell of an idea for “a helluva town.”  In the fifteen weeks were included a 60 minute in-class midterm and a three hour in-class final exam (classes were either a once a week, 3 hour meeting or two weekly, 1.5 hour meetings).  A “book review essay” (8-10 pages) was the other piece of required work  to be handed in on final exam day.  The selection of the novel to be reviewed had to be declared no later than midterm day.  The constraint the semester time frame imposed was daunting:  what follows is a description of my attempt to make it work so as to arrive at the best “learning outcome[s]” for the thirty-five students who were on the official enrollment sheet when I turned in final grades.

            I began the semester with screenings of images from I.N. Phelps-Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909.  The library had purchased a full set of the Arno Press 1969 reprint, and I made color slides of the maps, prospects, building elevations, and surveys The Iconography abundantly provides.  I wanted to make the class familiar with regional geography, early exploration of the Americas, and Anglo-Dutch settlements. During early meetings we worked with the city map students were required to bring to class.

            At the campus bookstore I ordered copies of Bayrd Still, Mirror for Gotham, and assigned the students appropriate selections from Mirror.  I also assigned selections from readings I had put together.  Here the university was helpful and obtained copyright permissions.  Eventually, all readings and visuals were accessible on line.   I decided to use Walt Whitman’s accounts of the colonial history of Long Island (Brooklyn and Queens) and his essay on the New York harbor, British prison ships during the Revolution.  Whitman remained a featured presence during the first half of the semester.  His columns from the New York Aurora (1842) and Life Illustrated (1856) were assigned during weeks when late English colonial, Federal, and early Victorian New York were class topics.  Nearing midterm exam (week 7), the first great infrastructure projects were under examination, but I decided that the Croton Water System and the Erie Canal needed  time and attention before the midterm.  I put off Crystal Palaceand “Greensward” until week eight.

            In the second part of the semester a primary concern was examining New York as a site of American literary production:  there was a lot to select from, and I decided to feature Whitman’s New York poems, “Broadway Pageant,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” and Stephen Crane’s Bowery Tales (“Men in the Storm,” “An Experiment in Misery,” and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets).  This also was the part of the term where the two films I had selected best fit course objectives, Ken Burns’s “Brooklyn Bridge” and D. W. Griffith’s “Musketeers of Pig Alley.”  Class discussions, in-class screenings, and slide shows all needed time, and Boss Tweed and Greater New York still had to be considered!  This first time, teaching New York’s biography was becoming an exercise in the art of reduction.  During our study of literary New York I had intended that the class read Henry James (selections from The American Scene) and Theodore Dreiser (Color of a Great City):  ultimately I only could keep James’s chapters on Central Park.  I was learning I did not have “world enough or time.”  By the time we had worked our way to Crane, Griffith, and Jacob Riis’s “other half” there was only four weeks left.
This is how the experimental phase of the course ( i.e., the first time taught phase) concluded:  “Contract One” of IRT construction; the Grand Central Terminal, and Pennsylvania Railroad Station—the representative artifacts of urban infrastructure; New York realist painters and photographers brought together—visual documents of city life; and James VanDerZee and Leroi Jones-selected sources on Harlem in the twentieth century.

Photographer James VanDerZee, 1886-1983
The department administrator conducted a written student evaluation in week eleven; thirty students were in class.  From a personal perspective (tenure track assistant professor) the reviews were good:  all the students said they had an understanding of certain specifics of place, New York, and a greater appreciation of the national, global, and intellectual space it occupies.  And almost all said the syllabus was too ambitious.  These were not lazy or disinterested undergraduates, but they were telling me I had taken too big a bite of the apple.  And, over the next years, a more manageable (and teachable) biography of New York did emerge.  (See syllabus below.) I taught the course at least one semester a year until my retirement in 2008, and I do think the course did provide an intellectual environment for students to examine the core of urban life and to do good American Studies work.
After the tragedy of 9/11, I began the first class meeting of every semester with events of that terrible day and its aftermath–always discussing the current conditions at the site.  It wasn’t long after 9/11 when I noticed that there was a good deal of shared conversation about the state of the city.  Over the years many of the students had actually traveled to New York by the time they were enrolled in the class, and we talked about a city that was changing and constantly reshaping itself; I explained why terms I used in “teaching” them New York, words like “uptown,” “downtown,” and “A and D trains” were fast becoming archaic.  Years later, after that first semester, I heard from students who had moved “back east,” and found themselves living in New York.  They were still “using” the course and finding their own way in New York.  To my pleasant surprise, some even had read Color of a Great City. 

Professor Rodger Birt
New York:  The Biography of a City
Humanities 375 is a Segment III Course:  Dynamics of the City
Fall Semester, 2006
Required Texts:
            Eric Homberger, Historical Atlas of New York City (HA)
            Stephen Crane, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets
         password:  hum123
  “Readings on Line” (OL)  password:   TBD
Recommended Text:
            Street Map of New York City
Required written work for all enrolled students:
1.     One Mid-Term Quiz (11-6-06)
2.     One Final Examination (12-18-06)
Both Mid-Term and Final will be based on a critical analysis of readings, class lectures and discussions, and slide and film viewings.
3.     A Book Review Essay 9-10 pages – This essay is Required of ALL students.  One of the following novels is to be selected for this essay. (only).
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie                                             Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence                                   E. L. Doctorow, The Waterworks
Jack Finney, Time and Again                                                 Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale
Stephen Millhauser, Martin Dressler                                    Michael Gold, Jews Without Money
William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes             Caleb Carr, The Alienist
Peter Quinn, Banished Children of Eve                                Caleb Carr, Angel of Darkness
Gordon Parks, Shannon                                                          Michael Pye, The Drowning Room
Beverly Swerling, City of Dreams                                          John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
Kevin Baker, Paradise Alley                                                   Henry James, Washington Square


8/28                 Introduction
9/11                 The Contemporary City (New York 9-11-01 to 9-11-06)
9/18                 The Modern City (New York after World War I)
                        Reading:  HA, 176-177
9/25                 Colonial New York (Part One – New Amsterdam)
                        Reading:  (OL) Henry Christman, ed., Walt Whitman’s New York and HA, 10-33 and 166-171
10/2                 Colonial New York (Part Two – British New York)
                        Reading:  (OL) Continue in Walt Whitman’s New Yorkand HA, 34-59
10/9                 The Emerging Metropolis: New York, 1790-1860
                        Reading:  HA, 60-81
10/16               The Emerging Metropolis: New York, 1790-1860
                        Reading:  (OL) Walt Whitman of the New York Auroraand New York Dissected; HA, 84-87
10/23               The Writer’s New York (Walt Whitman’s New York)
                        Beginnings of the Urban Infrastructure (The Croton Water System and Crystal Palace)
                        Reading:  HA, 82-83
10/30               New York at Mid-century (A Victorian City)
                        Reading:  HA, 88-100
11/6                 Beginnings of the Urban Infrastructure (Central Park)
                        Reading:  “The New York Central Park”
                  Missed Midterm Policy – NO MAKE UP TEST
11/13               Beginnings of the Urban Infrastructure (Brooklyn Bridge)
                        Reading:  HA, 100-127
11/27               The Emerging Metropolis:  Stress in the Social Fabric (the Emergence of the Political Boss – William M. Tweed and Tammany Hall.)  “So, what are you going to do about it?” – Thomas Nast and the Political Cartoon.
Reading:  Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and “An Experiment in Misery.”
12/4                 Stephen Crane, Coney Island and the birth of Popular Culture.  Beaux Arts City.  The new infrastructure/Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal; PAPERS DUE
12/11               Envisioning the City (Jacob Riis and the “Other Half,”)  D.W. Griffith: “Musketeers of Pig Alley.”
12/18               FINAL EXAM
Office Hours:  TBD
                        Office:  HUM 532
                        Telephone:  415/338-7412

Statutory Statement – Segment III – HUM 375

To receive Segment III credit for this course, students must complete the cluster as described in the Class Schedule or Bulletin, including the requirement that they must have earned 60 units by the end of the semester in which they take the course.
All Segment III courses are required to include a minimum of 10 pages of writing, with a concern for content, style and grammar, corrected by the instructor.

Course Content—

This course is an examination of the place New York City holds in American culture studies. We will study the architecture, art, literature, and history of the city and the key figures of metropolitan life.

Course objectives/Learning outcomes—

Knowledge of the city’s history from its colonial beginnings to the early twenty first century;
Knowledge of the contributions made to American culture by the city’s writers, visual artists, and other public figures;
Knowledge of the city’s built environment;
Ability to “read” humanistic artifacts and write about their social and cultural significance.

Plagiarism Notice—

Plagiarism occurs when a student misrepresents the work of another as his or her own.  Plagiarism may consist of using the ideas, sentences, paragraphs, or the whole text of another without appropriate acknowledgement, but it also includes employing or allowing another person to write or substantially alter work that a student then submits as his or her own.  Any assignment found to be plagiarized will be given an “F” grade.  All instances of plagiarism in the College of Humanities will be reported to the Dean of the College, and may be reported to the University Judicial Affairs Officer for further action.  (Quotation taken from “College of Humanities Plagiarism Resources”)

Bulletin Description—

Intellectual, artistic, and social life of New York City.

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