Writing New York’s Neighborhoods

City neighborhoods as course themes

by Elizabeth Mannion

I design my ENG2150 course around a novel and historical event that tie to a specific neighborhood and call it Writing New York. The three core assignments are: Literary Analysis essay, group project (Team Mini-Doc), and final Research Essay; the assignments connect to the syllabus theme, which links to the neighborhood. The syllabus is readily adaptable to any neighborhood of the city and works well if a film can also be incorporated (the film provides an extra angle for developing analysis/close reading skills).

The challenge is to find a connection between the literary and historical that transcends location: an event that somehow connects to the novel and lends itself to a group project. Each semester, I have the group project be a ten-minute mini-documentary. To date, Team Mini-Docs have taken the form of podcasts, short films, PPT presentations, and combinations of all of these. I’m flexible on the form of the group project but do require that it follow chronological order so that Teams build skills in narrative flow as well as collaboration.

My first Writing New York syllabus was set in the neighborhood of Gramercy Park, which I selected because it is the neighborhood of Baruch College. For the Writing New York: Gramercy syllabus, the literature component was comprised of several poems, three short stories, and a novel by Edith Wharton (one semester I used The Age of Innocence and another time The House of Mirth). The poetry and short fiction were used to present POVs of Gramercy that stood in contrast to Wharton and to anchor discussion on craft (identifying narrators, discussing figurative language, etc.) in preparation for their Literary Analysis essay. The historical event that was the focal point of their Research Essay was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, which was held across the street from Baruch at the 69th Regiment Armory in the summer of 1913 and featured works by and was written about by several members of Wharton’s social circle. For the group project, each team was given two galleries from the Exhibit to explore and select one work of art on which to base their mini-documentary. For their final paper, the Research Essay, each student was tasked with locating a topic that connected in any way to the Armory Show. Students were encouraged to select a topic that connected to either their academic major or a personal interest. Topics included financial analysis of the Show, City Hall’s response/level of support for the event, Women Artists, a history of Armory buildings in New York, and the Show’s interior design.

Most recently, I have used a Writing New York: Harlem syllabus. The poetry packet consisted of poems that connect to Harlem; there was no short fiction for this semester. The novel is Toni Morrison’s Jazz and the historical events (this semester I addressed two) were the Art Kane photo depicted in the film A Great Day in Harlem (Jean Bach, 1994)and the Silent Parade of 1917. The Kane photo shoot, featuring a photo taken on the steps of a Harlem brownstone, was selected because jazz music is prominent in the Morrison novel, and the Silent Parade because Chapter 3 includes a character witnessing it. The Silent Parade was a march organized by the NAACP in response to the East St. Louis Riots. This second historical event was added to the Harlem syllabus for the fall 2020 semester to offer historical context to the Black Lives Matter protests of the spring. The Literary Analysis essay had to focus on Jazz, the Team Mini-Doc on either an element of the Kane photo or the Silent Parade; and the Research Essay topics were required to tie-in to either of these two historical events. Research Essay topics included a history of anti-lynching legislation in the U.S., a paper examining red-lining in East Harlem (the location of the Kane photo), an examination of small business ownership during the Harlem Renaissance, and Woodrow Wilson’s failed response to racism in America. Syllabus and materials from the Writing New York: Harlem version of ENG2150 are attached.

Course Materials

CONTENTS (click to download individually)