NYC History in the Spotlight – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

NYC History in the Spotlight

Exploring New York City’s rise from a Dutch settlement some 400 years ago to the international metropolis it is today, students taking History 111, “Topics in Introductory American History: The History of New York City,” are getting an in-depth look at the city’s dynamic framework through lenses such as economic development, social arrangements, culture and suburbanization.

Taught by Clifton Hood, the George E. Paulsen ’49 Professor of American History and Government and an expert on New York City, the course provides a topical approach to understanding the city’s history, and gives students the chance to conduct research and discuss the subject just as an historian would. “The History of New York City” is currently one of four topical courses offered through the History Department.

“I wanted to teach a course around my academic specialty by covering the entire history of New York City,” Hood says. “In the course, we touch on questions about economic development, race, class and ethnicity, suburbanization, gentrification. I wanted to be able to teach students in a way that I hadn’t previously in earlier survey courses.”

Hood says the course, which is for first-year students and sophomores, opens a window of opportunity for them to begin understanding how to carry out scholarly research. For example, students are gaining the skills often used by historians and other scholars – learning how to select specific documents, interpret primary sources and to search through databases.

“For me, ‘The History of New York City’ course did a phenomenal job illustrating the incredible degree of complexity that constitutes any city, especially New York,” says Zachary Felder ’18, who completed the class last year. “I learned not only how complicated and interconnected the city was at any given point, but also how those past iterations of the city and the forces that shaped it at those times have contributed to New York’s present identity.”

Felder, who intends to major in architectural studies, says the course was a great introduction to urban history and that he hopes to go into the field of urban design after graduating.

Aubrey Phillips ’18, a double major in architectural studies and geoscience, says that taking the course has allowed her to view New York City in a new light.

“It was most interesting to see the evolution of New York City with the stress on the process of its development, as opposed to strictly looking at how it became the world icon it is today,” Phillips explains. “By exploring New York City from its colonization to the present, it was a great reflection of how human development, culture, technology and religion can shape and morph throughout time. It was also interesting to see how such a small geographical space can hold and promote so much diversity.”

“The History of New York City” also overlaps with the scholarly perspective taken by Hood in his forthcoming book, “In Pursuit of Privilege: The Upper Class and the Making of New York City, since 1753,” which is being published by Columbia University Press and set for release in 2016.

“I think it’s good for students to know that their professors do scholarship and to realize that the course they’re taking is a direct consequence of their scholarly work,” Hood says. “One of the things we want to do is tell them how historians view the world and how do they create new knowledge. How do we know what we claim to know?”

The course also coincides with the New York City Film Festival, organized by Hood for the HWS community. The festival features four cinematic classics inexorably linked to the modern metropolis, including “King Kong,” “On the Town,” “Taxi Driver” and “Do the Right Thing.”

“When you’re teaching a class about New York City, there’s a large visual component and a mythical component,” Hood says. “Those ideas can change at any time and the link to New York City helps to view the films in ways beyond entertainment.”

The films are free and are being held in the Sanford Room. “King Kong” was recently shown and the remaining schedule is as follows:

  • Monday, Oct. 5: “On the Town” (1949). Directed by Stanley Donen; starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra; 98 minutes.
  • Monday, Nov. 2: “Taxi Driver” (1976). Directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd; 113 minutes.
  • Monday, Nov. 16: “Do the Right Thing” (1989). Directed by Spike Lee; starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; 120 minutes.

A member of the HWS faculty since 1992, Hood holds a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Washington University and a master’s and doctorate from Columbia University. His main fields of study include elites, New York City, historical memory and mass transit. He is the author of “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How they Transformed New York.” His courses focus on American urban history, U.S. environmental history and U.S. ethnicity and immigration. He previously served as senior Fulbright Lecturer in Seoul National University in Korea.