Deconstructing Gotham


“Subjects are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space they must both enjoy and modify.” So mused Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space (1974), which examined the interdependence between individual and environment. Later he analyzed the vibrant complexity of modern cities, and while he was delighted to see a renewed interest in urban concepts in the early 1980s, he also noted that “little importance is given to urban questions in the university.”

Not so here in New York, where NYU, the New School, Columbia, and Hunter all offer classes and academic programs that examine both urban culture in general and Gotham in particular. An overview of these courses reveals some common themes: namely, the ease of interdisciplinary study in a place where everything is literally happening all at once, the city’s collaborative and experimental push, and the give-and-take dynamic between the university and its home.

Under the direction of Dean Ann-Louise Shapiro, the New School launched its New York City concentration within its B.A. program last fall, and hosted public lectures and panel discussions like “The Past and Future of Lower Manhattan” and “New York City: The Intersection of Global Circuits” as part of its dean’s forum. These events were “kind of an inaugural moment,” Shapiro says. “New School’s identity was formed in part by being here, in New York City, and many of these courses already existed, so it seemed absolutely natural [to create this concentration]. My goal was to take all these different pieces and pull them together.” (“Belated Bohemia: Art and Identity in the East Village,” a two-day symposium in mid-April, will focus on queer identity and postmodern performance; a poetry reading celebrating the work of New York Poet Frank O’Hara will be held on May 15.)

Is this in any way a response to 9-11? “The answer to that has to be yes,” Shapiro says. “I certainly began this project before September 11, but it’s absolutely clear that what New York City means symbolically—to the world, to people here and across the country—has changed, and when we think about rebuilding New York, it provides an opportunity to pose new questions about our city.”

At NYU, interdisciplinary study thrives in the school’s undergraduate program in metropolitan studies, which uses New York as a lab to analyze how cities evolve. Faculty members are active in local government and nonprofit agencies, and students get their feet wet in urban affairs through internships in nonprofits, such as Legal Aid, homeless coalitions, Girls’ Clubs, and municipal arts societies. A senior research seminar focuses on New York City but takes other cities into account as well.

The program began in 1969 as a direct response to student protest and the request for experiential education and relevant curriculum. It has tripled in size since 1989, when Daniel J. Walkowitz took over as director. Students with other majors can sign up for program classes, which host about 400 students each semester; this year, 85 students major in metropolitan studies.

Similarly, Columbia offers classes on New York City as an example of urban form and city planning, and Hunter College has a seminar and internship program in New York for poli-sci majors. These classes are available only to matriculated students, but at the New School, a multitude of courses are open to anyone interested in New York–centric history, art history, architecture, literature, poetry, fiction, film, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, or culinary arts. You can spend time “Drawing the Natural Worlds of New York” (Coney Island beaches, Central Park’s glacial moraine) or engage in a culinary walking tour and taste Indian in Jackson Heights, Greek in Astoria, Russian in Brighton Beach. Or examine your own relationship to the Big Apple in a writing class called “Writing the City: Urban Memoirs.”

Lefebvre highlights what sets urban life apart from its suburban and rural counterparts: religious, political, and aesthetic “pulsations”; fascination and pleasure for its own sake; the diversity, contrast, and “multiplicity of roles and relations” of urban residents and tourists; and the sense of unpredictability and infinite possibility in a place where myriad social forces collide.

It’s that particular dynamism which transforms the city dweller into a mini-god, by giving him the freedom and opportunity to create his reality and to generate the innovative ideas that advance civilization. New School’s Shapiro agrees, citing Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). “He spoke to the world we have here,” she says, “an energetic environment where experiment draws people. That’s what produces new insight, new forms, and new modes of thinking.”

From here, those forms and ideas emanate to the suburbs and the countryside, a steady seep of change pushed forward, like Lefebvre said, by subjects who consciously modify—and revel in—their beloved city-space.