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April 8, 2010
The Streets of New York Are Their Classroom

by James Barron

“It’s the most demanding course on campus,” said Andrew Dennis, a senior from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The thing was, he was not on the campus when he said that. The campus is in Geneva, N.Y. He was 287 miles away, walking along Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan with two professors and 28 or so other students.

On a field trip for the course, BD 229, “Two Cities,” though no one seemed to use the term “field trip.”

Manhattan plays host to school group after school group at this time of year. Stand in the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal at noon and watch as one group clusters by the information kiosk and another forms a few yards away, closer to the ticket booths. Listen to the oohs and ahhs. See the necks crane as eyes focus on the vaulted sky ceiling with the glittery gold constellations.

For many, a trip to New York is a ritual or perhaps a reward for doing well in school. For the students from Hobart and William Smith, the trip was serious work, and not the only off-campus trip of the semester. The full course title of BD 229 is “Two Cities: New York and Toronto.” Guess where they will go in two weeks.

The two-city concept dates to the 1980s when the two professors — Jim Spates, a sociologist, and Pat McGuire, an economist — realized that Hobart and William Smith was about as far from New York as it was from Toronto. They are co-coordinators of the urban studies program at Hobart and William Smith and wanted to add a real-world element to what they were teaching.

“I was a non-New Yorker; he’s a real New Yorker,” Professor Spates said, pointing at Professor McGuire, who was born in Long Island City, grew up in New Jersey and attended Fordham University.

So they planned a course outline that would take students to each city for several days. Some of the stops involved alumni connections. One morning, they followed homeless and low-income people who have work assignments from the nonprofit Doe Fund.

The plan was to have breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and trail the Doe Fund participants as they cleaned streets on the Upper West Side. The students’ assignment was to play urban anthropologist, chatting up the Doe Fund participants and, in the process, getting their life stories.

The alumni connection? At noon they had lunch with Michael J. Gantcher, a trustee of Hobart and William Smith who is a past chairman of the Doe Fund’s board. Another alumnus they visited was David Stein, who graduated from Hobart 10 years ago and is director of planning and sustainability initiatives for the city’s Transportation Department. “Dave is living proof of making a serious difference for a city from within,” the professors wrote in the itinerary.

The students “see New York like almost no one else ever does, and that includes New Yorkers,” Professor Spates said. “We take them places most New Yorkers don’t go. New Yorkers live in their neighborhoods and don’t go other places. We get them into experiences that are eye-opening for a lot of them.”

In six days in the city, they saw the High Line park in Manhattan and the Cross Bronx Expressway, which, the professors wrote in the itinerary, “contributed so mightily to the human and social disaster which became the South Bronx.” They went to Charlotte Street in the Bronx, a national symbol of urban blight in the 1970s that President Jimmy Carter visited in 1977.

“And Reagan, too,” Professor Spates said, though that famous visit came later. “One of the things we have seen over the years, because we started going in the ’80s, when it was still burned out, is now there are bungalow homes there and that whole area is much better economically, no question about it, than it was. But we also went to Mott Haven, and that seemed as bad as ever.”

The students took notice. “I’ve been here a lot,” said Alyson Feldman-Piltch, from New Hope, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. “When I’d get off the train, I never saw the different layers, and if you miss one of those components, you don’t understand the city.”

Katie Geise nodded, continuing up the metaphor Ms. Feldman-Piltch started. “There are layers,” she said, “and they expand and grow, and some are brown around the edges, but they fit together.”

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