Who Is the Global? Part 1: The Global Is My Classroom

Who Is the Global? Part 1: The Global Is My Classroom

“Who is the global?” a colleague asked me recently. The context was a workshop concerning teaching the history of world architecture. I answered, “the global is my classroom.” This post, the first of two, explains my reasons for the answer. In the following post, I will explain how I craft writing assignments for survey courses given this reality.

I teach architectural and urban history in the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, the only public architecture school in New York City. This counsel, offered in the New York Times by art critic Holland Cotter guides my teaching in all areas: "These days, when we need to be as politically alert as possible, anything that gets us into the street, and keeps the reality-check called history in sight, is healthy." He tendered this charge in early 2018 in response to what PLATFORM author, Lisa Goff, has called a “heinous racial crime”—the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.[1]

City College sits in a neighborhood where my students encounter the global, through “the reality-check called history,” every day.

Architectural historians have been “teaching the global” at Spitzer since my predecessor, Jerrilynn D. Dodds, introduced the concept in the late 1980s. Every undergraduate and graduate student in the professional programs in architecture is required to take the four-semester survey of world architecture. The course, organized chronologically, meets three times a week: twice for lectures, once for discussion sections. After I became coordinator of the history and theory program in the late-aughts, I integrated world architecture into each semester of the survey, adapting the model that I had learned at the University of California, Berkeley. My colleagues, Sean Weiss and Cesare Birignani, and I start with prehistoric sites and end in the present day, traversing the world along the way.

Figure 1. Shepard Hall, City College of New York, looking west from St. Nicholas Park to the entrance on St. Nicholas Terrace, 1907. Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design Study Collection at the Library of Congress, American Memory, American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920.

City College sits in a neighborhood where my students encounter the global, through “the reality-check called history,” every day. Some call this part of the city West Harlem; others refer to it as Hamilton Heights (coined by real estate brokers in deference to its erstwhile resident, Alexander Hamilton). The bucolic campus, a New York City landmark dating to the first decade of the twentieth century, straddles a bluff, the craggy escarpment that starts to rise at about West 110th Street, and runs north, more or less parallel to the Hudson River, through upper Manhattan (figures 1, 2).[2] Standing on the bluff, and facing east at 135th Street, my students can look down the hill over St. Nicholas Park to Harlem proper. More historic sites abound; in walking distance is Strivers’ Row, the Schomburg Library, the Harlem YMCA, and the Jackie Robinson Pool. The Harlem River Houses isn’t that far either. The Grange, the Hamilton family house, sits in the northernmost corner of the park (it’s been moved a couple of times since Alexander and his wife, Eliza, built it in 1802).

Figure 2. City College of New York, North Campus, looking west. Wingate Hall on the left, Townsend Harris Hall in the background, 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion is a few blocks further north in Washington Heights, the heart of Dominican New York, a neighborhood replete with bodegas, storefront churches, and botanicas. Roger Morris, a British military officer and also an architect (related to the treatise-writer, Robert), and his wife, Mary Philipse, American-born and like her husband, a staunch loyalist, built this summer home in 1765. Known for its architectural grandeur and its famous tenants (George Washington was one; Eliza Jumel was another), the house sits in a small park that affords a magnificent view of the Harlem River, Queens, and Long Island. The park is all that remains of the very large farm that once surrounded this grand house. This estate was more than a getaway. Romantic drawings belie the roots of this place in migration, immigration, plantation economies and commodities, and slavery; this is a place where African Americans toiled as enslaved and free people (figure 3). Anne Northrup cooked in the basement kitchen; she needed to support her family after her husband Solomon was kidnapped in 1841, drugged, and sent south, where he spent “twelve years a slave.” Across the street (Jumel Terrace) is one of the townhouses that Paul and Eslanda Robeson lived in, and around the corner is 555 Edgecombe Avenue, the tall apartment building that the Robesons and other illustrious African Americans have called home since the Harlem Renaissance. Their prominence is one of the reasons that this particular neighborhood came to be known as Sugar Hill.

Figure 3. Charles Frederick William Mielatz, Jumel Mansion, 1901, plate 9 in Picturesque New York: Twelve Photogravures from Monotypes by C. F. W. Mielatz. New York, Society of Iconophiles, 1908. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This architectural heritage, this geologic richness (I hope you caught the repetition of the words hill and heights), and this geographic location suit my students. They come from the five boroughs of New York City, across the metropolitan region, and other parts of the United States. Southern states, Georgia and Alabama, and Puerto Rico stand out, because of the special association of these places with migration and New York City. My students also have ties to many other areas in the world: the afore-mentioned Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other countries in the Caribbean; Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and other countries in Latin America; China and Korea; Poland, Russia and other countries that once made up the Soviet Union; Egypt, Israel-Palestine, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh; the total was about eighty countries, the last time anyone took a count. Many are immigrants and multilingual, bringing to Spitzer fluency in languages other than English, and knowledge of many histories, places, and cultures in our world. They are usually first-generation college students, race and racism are not abstractions, and everyone is looking for good value in higher education, for access to the excellence that City College promises to deliver at a cost of just $3,365 a semester for full-time, in-state undergraduates.

In the survey of world architecture sequence, we ask our students to bring these connections into the classroom—to move beyond considering the global in the abstract, and to dissect the global in lived experience, in the personal. We also teach writing and research in survey (many SSA students have been poorly served in these areas by New York City’s racially segregated, uneven public schools), and the penultimate assignment in the four-semester sequence is for each student to write the history of his, her, or their home, meaning their place of residence. This assignment is a challenging one. I’ve learned over the years that what we often assume to be self-evident in architectural history, such as home/house, is simply not. Some of our students may not have a home to live in. I have more thoughts to share on this assignment, and they are coming in part 2 of “Who Is the Global? The Meaning of Your Last Name.”

 

Author’s note: This post is based on a short presentation made at “Teaching the Global,” a workshop held during the Society of Architectural Historians 2019 meeting in Providence, R.I.

 

NOTES

[1] Lisa Goff, Shantytown USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), x.

[2] See Robert W. Snyder’s description of this distinct geography in “Sounding the Powers of Place in Neighborhoods: Responses to the Urban Crisis in Washington Heights and New York City,” Journal of Urban History (May 2017), 5-8, online first.

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