Students Examine the History of New York City

Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 09:28

By Melissa Estelle '11

With spring semester still weeks away, one might expect campus to be relatively empty. Instead, hundreds of students are back on campus participating in January Term (or J-Term), a longstanding tradition at Mount Holyoke. For three weeks in January, students may elect to return to campus to work, study, and relax between semesters in the beauty of a New England winter.

Many faculty members also return for J-Term to teach subjects not offered during the fall and spring semesters, or to try out new ideas for classes.

"This is the first J-Term course I've taught in the 30 years I've been here," Daniel Czitrom (pictured right) told his students at the first meeting of his brand-new course, New York City: Capital of the Twentieth Century.

A New Yorker himself, Czitrom has focused much of his scholarly work on the history of his hometown. The idea of a course about New York City appealed not only to him, but also to many Mount Holyoke students. With enrollment originally capped at 40, a robust waitlist led Czitrom to open up the course to anyone who showed up on the first day of class. Almost 100 students attended, some of whom also hailed from the five boroughs.

"How many of you have never been to New York City?" he asked the crowd of students gathered in Dwight Hall. Only two people raised their hands. "Thank you for your honesty. You're very brave."

Czitrom used this exercise to demonstrate that New York stands out in people's minds as a city unlike any other. As Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sang in "Empire State of Mind"—the 2010 smash hit with which the professor started his class—there is "no place in the world that can compare."

"New York City has functioned as an engine of popular culture in this country since the 1830s," Czitrom noted.

The course is intended to answer the fundamental question: Why New York? For the three-week term, students will explore what aspects of the history of New York contributed to making the city so much more prominent than other U.S. cities. In his introductory class, Czitrom identified a few major reasons for New York's unparalleled influence. For instance, when the Dutch founded the city in the seventeenth century under the name of New Amsterdam, they filled the region with Dutch trading posts.

"Unlike other New England colonies that were focused on religious freedom, the area that is now New York City was always meant as a place of commerce," said Czitrom.

Developments in the seventeenth century such as the construction of the Erie Canal, the expansion of the railroads, and the creation of the street grid system further solidified New York's position as the center of commerce in the United States, if not the world. Czitrom used the famous Saul Steinberg "View of the World" cartoon featured on a 1976 cover of the New Yorker magazine to illustrate this point. The cartoon satirically presents an alternate map of the world in which New York is at the center and all other points on the map are pretty much irrelevant.

Although iconic media representations of New York City often encourage people to put the city on a pedestal, Czitrom's course will also delve into the darker side of the city's history. From its early colonial history of slavery, to the devastating effects of the recent housing crisis, students will spend J-Term uncovering the truth about "the city that never sleeps."