Yesterday was the first day of my January Term class for NYU Abu Dhabi on the subject of “New York and Modernity.” For the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring this subject with students — five from NYUAD and one from NYUNYU — who hail from a variety of places: Australia, Canada, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, and the U.S., the last a native New Yorker. We’ll be blogging our way through the course, with the posts all collected at this site: https://jterm.patell.net.
Given the compressed nature of the course, we’ll be reading fewer pages than I’d normally assign over a 14-week span, but we’ll be making up for that with a rich set of co-curricular outings: the MTA Transit Museum, the Hopper exhibition at the Whitney, the Abstract Expressionist show at MOMA, an evening of Mozart, Mahler, and Ades at the Philharmonic, La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, theater outings to American Idiot and an off-Broadway production of Langdon Mitchell’s 1907 play The New York Idea, and generally tramping about the city. The goal is immersion, and we’ll be hunting for “exemplary” objects, moments, and experiences that are suggestive of the larger dynamics of New York City life and the relation between the urban and the modern in the 21st century.
My hope is that the students will come away with a set of concepts that they can use to think about the history and culture of any city that they visit.
So on Day 1, we talked about the idea of “exemplarity,” a concept that I hope will become clearer as we make use of it as the course proceeds. We set up blogs, and I asked the students each to write an opening post about what they’re expecting from New York.
And then — as an exemplum of the dynamics of the relation between the urban and the modern in the history of New York — we watched the documentary New York Underground, which tells the story of the building of the New York’s first subway line — the IRT — which opened to great fanfare in 1904. New York’s subway wasn’t the first: indeed, its chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons, visited other cities and issued a report about the technologies that they employed. New York’s innovation was to be the largest completely electrified underground rail system in the world, and it quickly became the standard against which others would be judged. That strikes me as exemplary of the role that New York itself has played in defining the modern, and watching the documentary again, I was struck by the ways in which our ideas of the modern in New York were shaped by the exigencies of politics, economics, technology, and culture. New York’s subway, for example was built largely with trenches (with tunnels used only when necessary) in contrast to London’s underground, so that it would be more accessible and inviting to the public. It was a technological marvel — and suggests the powerful impact that “technology” has on our conceptions of what’s “modern.”
Today, we’ll ride the subway and visit the MTA Museum. Meanwhile, here’s a video of the IRT’s opening in 1904. And if that piques your interest, there’s a treasure trove of information and documents about the IRT at nycsubway.org.