My fellow classmates and I stand shivering on the remnants of Seneca Village, a 19th-century African-American settlement that was destroyed in the process of building Central Park. Our professor leads us to a tree. There, scattered around the roots, in the dirt, mixed with soda-can tops, beer caps, and ballpoint-pen corpses, sits a small fragment of ceramic pottery. Gleaming in the sun: a piece of Seneca Village.
This experience, and many others like it, did not take place in a classroom or lecture hall, but rather in repositories, parks, burial grounds, and houses. Uptown and downtown, east and west—we studied the world in which our lessons took place.
The urban studies department heavily incorporates New York City into its coursework, but is the concentration on this city hindering observation of others?
The urban studies major encourages the complete immersion into one’s study. Learning is not restricted to the classroom, library, or dorm room; rather, it pervades every part of your day. Walking to class is a lesson in urban stimuli and riding the subway is a lesson in urban congestion. New York City is the ideal stage and the accessible stage on which students can consume urban life.
But Kimberly Johnson, professor of political science and the director of Barnard’s urban studies program, is torn about the concept of marrying the study of New York City with other major metropolises. “It’s kind of a balance,” she says. “You can use New York as an easy example—as something you can walk out, take the subway, and understand on a very simple kind of level. But, on the other hand, you want to talk about other cities, because New York City is not the center of the world.”
Collective experiences fuel the study of New York City in urban studies classes. Our deep familiarity with avoiding eyes on the subway or on the street lends itself perfectly to Georg Simmel’s theory of the blasé outlook, the theory that city-dwellers treat fellow citizens less like people and more like cogs in a machine. But students at Columbia know this theory already even if not by name—we live it every day.
“It is a lot easier to make connections when you’re learning about something if it is something you can see and touch and interact with,” Johnson says. “Imagine we are in New York City, but we decide to study Kimberley, South Africa. We could, but it would just be very abstract.”
Like Johnson, Aaron Passell, a professor in Barnard’s Urban Studies Department, capitalizes on this tangible reality of these common urban experiences. “I draw on an assumed experience of New York City among my students,” he explains. “We all have a sense of the business on Broadway, the availability of food carts, the availability of high-end restaurants.” So, although students may get stuck in “the bubble”—the oft-lamented code word for Morningside Heights—they’ve at least shared the feeling of charging through a mob of people strolling down Broadway.
In this way, New York City is a good primer. “It’s something that everyone can get up to speed on and understand at a sort of minimal level,” Johnson says. After understanding the basics of congestion by riding the subway or the bus, Johnson explains how she and her students can spring off of that knowledge to think about the similarities and differences between New York City and other metropolises.
Phoebe Willett, a junior at Barnard, is an urban studies major. Her professor for Introduction to Architectural Design and Visual Culture instructed the class to design an architectural structure for Times Square. While tourists ogled the bright lights, Willett and her classmates tracked common walking paths and where the trash bins were. The city was their case study.
For these professors, New York City is a template for examining other major urban centers and for launching metropolitan exploration. And students agree. “It’s a good model, because so many other cities look to New York to build their own cities, to improve their own cities,” Willett explains.
While Willett does believe that New York City is, in many respects, a sufficient cornerstone on which to construct one’s urban knowledge, she has some concerns—chiefly, whether her New York City-centric education applies to other places.
Her doubts are not unfounded. As the increasing diversification of the program suggests, faculty members see benefits to moving away from this New York City-centric approach.
When Barnard’s urban studies program began in the 1970s, Johnson explains, the reason for the program’s focus on New York City was two-pronged: the professors’ research centered on New York City, and a lot was happening here—the city was bankrupt and crime had spiked. And a significant population of students was from the tri-state area, so a New York City-centric curriculum was welcome—expected, perhaps.
Over the decades, the student populace changed. Johnson believes that due to an influx of students from all over the world, faculty members have attempted to mirror this national and international makeup with courses centered on more national and global contexts.
For instance, in Cities in Developing Countries with Sevin Yildiz—an urban studies professor at Barnard—students explore such global cities as Bogotá, Johannesburg, and Lagos through case studies that anchor students in urban issues plaguing cities and countries all over the world.
Students learn how cities in developing countries use architecture to cement national identities, how advanced bus systems facilitate transportation, how impoverished people either combat or condone gentrification—all of which are phenomena affecting New York City.
But, while these urban issues are seen in New York, their scale, size, and seriousness differ. “New York itself is something of a limitation in that, in the United States, it’s anomalous,” Passell says. “New York is only like New York—at some level.”
The professors in Barnard’s Urban Studies Department understand and embrace this conundrum. “[Faculty members] are able to use New York City in a way that connects what we are doing, what we are studying,” Johnson says. Being in New York City “helps people think about the way the world is, and maybe how they want to the world to be.”
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