The City as a classroom

Coming to New York I moved backwards in time, dropping the white blanket of Canadian Winter for the russet-brown wrap of late Fall, grass still on ground, dark yellow leaves clinging, here and there to trees, an absence of conifers; the barometer above 0.

My 8th floor window at International House looks out on a small park; the majestic profile of Riverside church; the colossal dome of General Grant’s mausoleum – a silent sentinel – looking down on a stream of cars on Riverside Drive, and the river; the river that opens up the possibility of life and connects it to the infinite sky. Not my idea of Manhattan of the wall-to-wall high rise buildings, and a certain, peculiarly urban ugliness. (Yah, yah, there are many stunning buildings.)

The view makes up somewhat for the pocket handkerchief sized room. Rooms are kept deliberately tiny to tease students out of them, into orchestrated social and cultural activities, I am informed. Sigh!

The program, Cities in the 21st Century, is a whirlwind of activities, both studious and social, comprising of many planning meetings (a necessary evil), tedious “house-keeping” and inspiring guest lectures and site visits; a perfect storm of faces, places, ideas, images, concepts, theories, activism and actualisations. It is an intense experience, both exciting and draining.

The students, all 33 of them, are a wonderful surprise, each with a distinct personality that emerges slowly, in some cases. They are intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, nice, friendly, enthusiastic and energetic. And most importantly, though they seem pragmatic overall, have not yet had all idealism drained out of them! Nevertheless, I go to my first ever undergraduate “session” teaching Urban Politics and Development feeling hyper and apprehensive, but it comes off OK.

On the NY subway (a student describes it as the World’s Fair), which seems to take forever to get to Brooklyn, one encounter all manner of eccentrics and buskers and panhandlers who range in their claims from war vets to fundraisers for the homeless! I dish out a few coins noticing that most of my fellow passengers do not. The American flag is painted on the subway cars. “Because we are at war,” a student explains. I don’t get it and add this one to my list of incomprehensions.

We are exposed to a range of civil society and municipal actors, including briefly the UN. What comes through for me is the knowledge, conviction and dedication of the people who work here (Americans tell it like it is more than Canadians – which is just great!) and the understanding that it is very challenging to run a functional mega city.

I am also delighted to have free courses in urban planning and urban anthropology. (The disciplines my two colleagues teach.) What’s more, I don’t have any homework. Who said the world was fair?

My last images are of two Latin American men systematically sifting through garbage bags, piled high around I-House, in this city of immigrants. And anxiously admiring row upon row of beautifully lit up trees en route to the airport – how much would these contribute to climate change?!

On the plane to Sao Paulo I read all about the iconic J.D. Salinger in the New York Times. He has just passed away. I too fell under the spell of “Catcher in the rye” as a young woman. Did you?