IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)

2013 Letter home from NYC, USA

The Spring 2013 IHP Cities in the 21st Century group poses with their New York country coordinator, Chris Westcott

On January 21, students arrived at the Vanderbilt YMCA in midtown east in Manhattan for the start of the Spring 2013 Cities in the 21st Century program. Our welcome reception on the 2nd floor of the UN Church Center at 1st Ave and 44th St had a spectacular, IHP-relevant view: We faced the United Nations plaza and signature building across the street. For a program studying, among many things, the problems and solutions of international urban development, the United Nations building held special significance and inspiration as the physical backdrop for the start of our semester together. After saying goodbyes to family, the 32 students jumped right in to getting to know each other and building the community they would be a part of for the next four months.

Our amazing country coordinator, Chris Westcott, Cities Faculty Fall 2012, led us in our first two weeks of IHP with a country program that provided students with the main themes and tensions in New York City, laid the framework for the IHP learning model and what to expect in the international countries we will visit, and allowed students to get to know and work with residents advocating for their communities.

On their first site visits during “Agency Day,” students visited various agencies, organizations and other actors engaged in shaping the development of New York City, including the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Congressman Jerry Nadler’s office, Manhattan Community Board 4, the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, and Groundswell Mural Project. Students learned about the various tactics and avenues for achieving change in NYC and the ways in which these actors were interconnected.

On Neighborhood Day, students ventured throughout NYC to read the city in different boroughs, traveling to downtown Brooklyn, the Northwest Bronx, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Bushwick (Brooklyn). This was their first Neighborhood Day (a Cities tradition in each country), and students learned how to study the various parts of a neighborhood—the physical space and planning, the kinds of activities taking place in the neighborhood and who partakes in them, and how different elements shape the feel of the neighborhood. Students met with community organizations in each neighborhood that were advocating for these communities, and many of the students were asked to participate in door knocking campaigns. This provided a close-up view of these neighborhoods and an incredible opportunity for students to talk to residents about their community, while also giving back after taking the time of the community organizers.

At the end of our first week in NYC we visited a church in the Far Rockaways that had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy and which was serving as headquarters for a long term volunteer recovery effort. While there, we learned about the significant impact that Hurricane Sandy had on many communities in New York City. We had the rare opportunity to listen to Hurricane Sandy survivors, a representative from FEMA, and long term volunteers discuss the impact of the storm, problems with the clean up process, and the difficulties of navigating FEMA’s assistance process. It was an illuminating discussion that brought out the many contradictions and inadequacies in the U.S.’s national approach to storm recovery, in addition to illustrating the ways in which communities take care of themselves and advocate for their needs. After this discussion we repainted the interior of the church, which had been damaged from the flooding. It was a great opportunity for students to engage fully in reciprocity, a concept that we will come back to again and again throughout the semester.

Throughout our two weeks in NYC we had a range of lectures that illuminated the prominent themes and issues in this city, including policing, urban planning and design (in particular planning and implementation of the High Line park), gentrification, climate change, and the Right to the City. Our site visits provided students the opportunity to study these issues on the ground, as well as study the following themes and issues: the role of government in implementing urban planning, the role of financial institutions, sustainability initiatives, community organizing, and the impact of environmental forces on the city’s infrastructure.

Students enjoyed their time living in midtown Manhattan and being in the center of the city with easy access to the subway system. During their first full weekend, students enjoyed visiting museums, walking along the High Line, exploring Greenpoint in Brooklyn, and eating at the many incredible restaurants in the city.

Our time in NYC was an energizing, educational, wonderful beginning to the semester. Students started to gain the critical tools to read cities in the international countries we will visit, and cultivated an inclusive, respectful, engaged community that they will travel, learn, and live with for the next four months. With sadness and excitement, we left Chris, NYC and the U.S. on February 2 to start our international adventures in Delhi, India.

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