Macaulay Honors College, Seminar 4, Spring 2017


Prof. Joseph Berger                                                                                                                    Wednesdays, 5-7:30

E-mail:                                                                                                       City College

ITF: Andres Orejuela,                                                                        Shepard S-201


Course Description:

Shaping a city like New York is, as the late Gov. Mario Cuomo suggested, like putting together a solid family. It requires a mix of engaged people, the jobs needed for sustenance, structures for shelter and work, the means of getting around, attention to health, personal welfare and safety, chances for some recreation, and the like. And, straining the metaphor just a bit more, there is, as with most families, bound to be competing visions and inevitable conflict.

The course will analyze the interplay of forces—social, personal, ethnic, political, and economic—that are involved in fashioning the city we know. What are some beguiling ideas for reshaping the city and some contemporary challenges? What does the city’s history tell us about what may happen to such ideas? We will look at topics like immigration, transportation, education, health and public safety, often focusing on specific projects like the building of the Barclays Center and the Second Avenue subway or watershed events like the Eric Garner killing. We will examine how such events and projects reveal the mesh of influences—by government, commerce, community, advocacy groups—that characterize every important decision in carving out an ever-changing city. The hope is that we come to understand the complex, nuts-and-bolt processes through which New York got to be what it is today and will likely evolve in the future.


Course grades: 50 percent papers (final paper weighted heavily), 30 percent class participation, 20 percent group project. Attendance required at every class. If absent, important you notify me by email. Readings are essential for class discussions. Each assignment refers to material that will be thrashed over in the following week’s class.


Course Outline:

  1. 1: Introduction/Overview:

What are the essential elements that go into forming a city as complex and tumultuous as New York? What functions does a city government have to control on behalf of its residents? What happens when the city suggests a project or an activity poses a problem or entraps it in a controversy? A look at some controversies like the homeless crisis, the Eric Garner case and projects like the Barclays Center in Brooklyn: Who were the different actors?

Watch: New York: A Documentary by Ric Burns

Assignment: Read Introduction of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro, (Vintage, 1975), pages 1-21 (in e-portfolio).

Write a 2-page family history focused on immigration, if you or your parents are immigrants, or on migration within the US or within the city.

  1. Feb. 8: Immigration:

How did immigration create the city we know today? How is the city’s makeup determined by immigration laws like the Celler-Hart Act? What does it mean to be an immigrant? What demands do migrants impose on the city? How does the city change through immigration? How has your own immigrant group influenced or been influenced by the city?

In-Class Exercise: Interview your neighbor about their immigration story or family history? What questions should you be asking?

Assignment: Write up a 3-4 page account of your neighbor’s immigration story or family history, Read The Power Broker. Chapters 36, 37. “The Meat Ax” and “One Mile.” Pages 837-884 (in e-portfolio)

  1. 22: Transportation

How do subways, highways, bridges, tunnels determine the kind of city we have? What impact did Robert Moses’ highways have on the city? What impact did cleaning up graffiti on the subways have? What are some of the forces involved in the building of the Second Avenue subway? The Tappan Zee Bridge? Manhattan’s bike lanes? What are the most urgent transportation needs now—improving facilities or building new lines?

In-class presentation: By tech fellow, Andres Orjuela, on Internet research sources for team project

Speaker: Sam Schwartz,

Assignment: Read Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Introduction.

City in the Sky, James Glanz and Eric Lipton, pages 7-15, 28-87.

Two Barclays Center articles:


  1. March 1: Real Estate Development

How did the skyscraper—and Manhattan’s schist bedrock– create the city we know? What power do real estate developers wield in the city and how do they do it? Case study: 1. Lincoln Center: How Fordham U. Law School got a building in the city’s cultural heart 2. The story of the Barclays Center and why stadiums are important to cities? 3. The building of the World Trade Center and the rebuilding of Ground Zero?

In-class presentation: Discussion of final papers

Speaker: Bruce Ratner

Assignment: Read: Wilson, James Q. and Kelling, George L, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic, March 1982,

  1. March 8: Public Safety and Criminal Justice

How does a city control its troublemakers? Why the ambivalence, the perpetual tension between too harsh a crackdown on crime and leniency? How does the murder rate—2,100 in 1991, less than 350 today—affect attitudes? How do sensational crimes or abuses–like the Eric Garner death or Abner Louima torture case or murders of cops– affect the public and government attitude? What has the city’s relationship been with the Mafia? How does post 9/11 fear of terrorism affect policing?

Speaker: Bob Gangi


  1. 15: Politics

What forces weigh on a politician? What role do elections play in policy? What powers do party clubhouses have today? Why does New York, with overwhelming Democratic majorities so often elect Republicans as mayors [LaGuardia (fusion), Lindsay, Giuliani, Bloomberg]? What has historically been the role of the City Council and other legislative bodies?

Speaker: George Arzt

Assignment: Read report on globalization’s impact on New York:

Link: Pages 2-15.

Read: New York City Bar report on welfare reform

Triangle Fire readings:

  1. 22: Economy and Labor

What are the industries that drive the city’s economy today? What were important industries 50 years ago and why did they decline? What has happened toi the city’s factories? How has the workforce itself changed? What power of unions wield today and how is that different from 50 years ago?

Speaker: Steve Greenhouse, former labor and business reporter, NY Times

Assignment: Bronx is Burning, Pages 237-239, pages 269-276

  1. March 29: Media

Further discussion of housing issues—based on earlier readings. Then media: What is the role of media in determining the issues that dominate the city’s conscience? What power have they wielded? What is the source of that power? What are some examples of media exerting their power? How has the variety of media that exert influence on policy shifted over the past 50 years?

Speaker: TBA

Assignment: Read two articles by Mia Navarro on public housing

Mahler, Jonathan, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics and Battle for the Soul of a City, Chap. 13, Pages 102-110 (Forest Hills)

Write: TBD

  1. April 5: Housing and Homelessness

What role has the city played in providing housing to its inhabitants and what groups should be served? What is the importance of zoning and why are neighborhoods rezoned? What is gentrification and how is it transforming much of the city? What impact do large housing projects like Co-op City have? Should the poor be placed in existing or new housing? Why does new housing create bitter opposition as in the case of scatter site housing in Forest Hills in the 1970s or more recently Trump Towers on the West Side? What are some of the unintended consequences? Why are working people living in homeless shelters? Why does city have ambivalent attitudes toward housing homeless?


Assignment:  Traub, James. City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College, Chap 1: “Too Difficult Life”; Ravitch, Diane, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools. Chapter 1”

Visit to the Capitol Hall, a homeless residence on the Upper West Side

  1. April 19: Education

What role do schools play in the vitality of a city? What did public schools do for the city’s poor? What did CUNY do for the city? What have been some of the disillusionments? What are some of the signs of rebirth?   What role did politics and ethnicity play in developing our current school system? What role do ideas –decentralization and community control, charter schools, small schools, vouchers play? What has been the role of unions? Community groups? How can we explain let alone justify a system that performs in stellar fashion at the top—Bx. Science, Stuyvesant , Macaulay–and seems too often broken at the bottom?

Speaker: Jerry Posman, former CUNY vice chancellor

Assignment: Statement of NYU Economist:

  • April 26: Prepare small group presentations. Discuss Final Paper.
  1. May 3: Culture, Entertainment, and Tourism

How did New York become the world’s cultural capital? What is the importance of the theater, television and film industries to New York? How does tourism contribute to the city’s economy? Why are stadiums and museums important to the city’s well-being and image? What would the city be like without these?

Speaker: Bill Carter , former television reporter for NY Times

Small group presentations for class.

Assignment: Read: Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, Pages 190-203.




13 May 10: Health and Hospitals

What position do hospitals occupy in the psyche and economy of the city? A case study of the effort to close Sydenham, St. Vincent’s and Long Island College hospitals in New York. Why have mayors tried to meddle in the health of residents with programs on the size of soft drinks and anti-smoking? How well or poorly did the city handle the AIDS and Ebola crises?

Speaker: Jack DeHovitz


  1. May 17: Environment-Parks and Sanitation (Final Papers Due)

The thick mesh of concrete, brick and asphalt demands some air to breathe and New York’s parks provide that. But parks can be a source of turmoil also. Case study of Central Park and Bryant Park. Why should parks be privately run by nonprofit conservancies? What is the injustice in that? Garbage too is a perennial source of controversy—why? Where should new dumps be located? Case study of the garbage transfer plant on West 93th Street? How has the handling of storms often affected the tenure of mayors?

Speaker: Dan Pisark, Susie Sigel, Bryant Park conservancy