The Reinvention of New York City
History & Literature 90, Fall 2021
Mon. 12:45-2:45 PM
Instructor: Michael King
Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:30-3:30 PM (EST) and by appointment
On October 16, 1975, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. With nearly five hundred million dollars of debt due the next day and only thirty-four million in its bank, catastrophe seemed inevitable. Fortunately, the city was able to raise funds and avoid bankruptcy. Nevertheless, New York City was and had been a space on fire—both literally and figuratively speaking—for at least a decade prior. Landlords burned down buildings to collect insurance; Black, Caribbean, Latinx and LGBTQ communities fought for the right to claim space and protections; and precarity turned into a looming weather and, thus, something one prepared for rather than avoided. In the midst of these fires, however, many different communities seized upon cheap rent and abandoned spaces and began to use them as sites of both (re)invention and community making.
This course will contend with how these moments of invention and community making both reinforce and undermine the economic and social ‘history’ offered above. One of our central questions will be to ask what "reinvention" means to the variety of communities and people that called New York City home in both the seventies and eighties. We will ask whether reinvention leads to or is synonymous with renaissance, as so many popular histories suggest. From hip hop, punk and salsa to free health care clinics, breakfast programs and community-run centers, the city's residents took up and, in some cases, invented much of what we take for granted today. Yet, the decades also mark a period of amplified state violence and the continued dispossession of its most vulnerable residents. As such, we will ask what renaissance--or rebirth--might leave out and, more pressingly, what had to die so to engender these proverbial births.
In order to do so, we will look at a variety of media, including stories, memoirs, songs, art installations, architectural drafts, pamphlets, flyers, and secondary sources. In looking at the wealth of material from this period, our goal will be threefold. First and foremost, we will listen to the many different (and often contentious) ways that communities have seized upon language, sound, touch and sight in order to express and describe themselves. Second, we will think about the variety of methods that we might use to think about such expressions, including but not limited to close reading, formal analysis and archival work. Third, we will consider how our examinations of this period are both informed by and might also inform our ongoing present. What might the near past teach us about our current moment, and how might it inform our understanding of the tactics and methods of survival and invention that today's residents use to push against contemporary issues?
This is an introductory course, so there is no expectation that students will have prior knowledge of either New York City or the methods we will be using this semester. More importantly, there is no expectation that students will have mastered these methods by its end. To the contrary, the purpose of this course is to introduce students to the variety of approaches they might take when thinking about different forms of media. You might think of the course as one that allows you to audition any number of methods, so to see which works best. Most importantly, I will provide a variety of handouts that walk through the approaches we will be encountering this semester.
- dequi kioni-sadiki & Matt Meyer, eds., Look for Me in the Whirlwind (1971)
- For those who'd like to purchase the text from The Coop, here is a direct link for online orders: https://tinyurl.com/F21-HSLT-90EO-1
- Per the Coop: "Students ordering through our website will have their choice of purchasing or renting new, used or digital content. Additional value is offered when they apply their Coop membership (10% off for a $1 annual fee) to receive greater savings."
- For those who'd like to purchase the text from The Coop, here is a direct link for online orders: https://tinyurl.com/F21-HSLT-90EO-1
- Pose, Season 1, Episode 1 (2018) (Available on Netflix or to rent)
Course Assignments and Grading:
- Weekly Responses: Responses are casual in nature and can take the form of a paragraph, outline or a series of bullet points. They will not be graded and are meant to provide an opportunity for students to reflect on specific interests or questions they might have either before or after class. Responses should be posted on the discussion board each week.
- Mapping the City: Using an online map, students will plot two to three locations mentioned in a primary source. They will then spend five to ten minutes at the beginning of class presenting on some of the things they encountered while plotting their chosen sites. Some possible questions to consider: Have street names changed? What do these changes tell you about the area both then and now? How much ground do these locations cover? What other major or unacknowledged sites are nearby? Do these sites correspond to the communities described in the source you have chosen? If so, where do you see correspondence? If not, where do you see divergence? What is the average rent/cost of a home in the area? What is the racial demographic? Do these mark changes as well? Other questions are encouraged, and students only have to present once.
- Close Reading Paper: This assignment asks students to choose a text from the syllabus and develop an argument via close reading. A detailed handout of close reading is available on Canvas, and we will be discussing how to do this across the semester. (5-6 pages)
- Final Paper: Students will write a research paper of approximately ten to twelve-pages; Students will put secondary sources into conversation with primary sources (there will be an option for a creative project). A paper proposal will be included as part of the assignment. (10-12 pages)
- Reading, Listening, Watching and Looking: As will become apparent in the weeks to come, this class includes many different forms of media, which means that some or even many of them may be new to students--at least from an academic standpoint. Be assured that this sense of newness is both expected and something that we will be discussing in class. However, what I hope also becomes apparent across those same weeks is that our goal is not to demonstrate mastery over any given form, which is impossible. To the contrary, our goal is to think through the many different approaches--or methods--that we might take up in order to speak about the work we encounter each week. As such, I welcome (and even encourage) expressions of confusion and frustration and am happy to talk through my own difficulties with some of these texts during office hours. Indeed, these linked affects are often the first sign that we--as critics and scholars--have begun to grapple with the work on its terms.
Logistically, the assigned texts have been chosen for their comparative value, which is, perhaps, the pretentious way of saying that I think they offer us a way of thinking about the variety of approaches to the week’s themes, specifically, and New York City, more generally. In that spirit, I have tried to pick texts that are manageable at two levels. First, I wanted to make sure that the time it would take to read, listen, watch or look would not take up too much of students’ free time. As such, for the weeks where a great deal of material is included, the length of passages/sections has been shortened. Second, I wanted to make sure that we would be able to speak about all the texts on the syllabus. In order to ensure that we can, I have designed most weeks so that the texts can be evenly split between our two synchronous meetings, and I will let students know which texts we will be covering for each day.
Assignments and Grading Procedure:
|Short, Ungraded Weekly Responses||15%|
|Close Reading Paper (5-6 Pages)||15%|
|Final Paper (10-12 Pages)||25%|
No course can capture the richness of music coming out during the period. In order to address this, I have compiled an extensive playlist based on the variety of communities we will be discussing this semester. Students should treat this as a resource and nothing more. You will not be expected to listen to anything but what has been assigned below. Link (Links to an external site.)
Course Policies and Expectations:
Participation: Participation and attendance are crucial to the sort of collaborative project I hope to endeavor across the next 12 weeks. Both discussion and disagreement are encouraged, but please seek to frame disagreements in ways that are respectful of both one's interlocutor and the class in whole.
However, I know that the demand for participation can and does cause stress in even ideal situations. Our new online circumstance only amplifies the potential for stress in this regard. In light of such an acknowledgement, I want to state unequivocally that I see this class as one of audition, which is to say that each of us—myself included—will be trying out new and adapted forms of engagement. Some of these forms will be obvious--the chat function, calling on each other, discussion boards--while others will be new and particular to the dynamic created in the class on any given day. As such, I want to offer a promise that participation grades will not be based on the number of successful methods you take up; rather, it will be based on each student’s willingness to engage both each other and the material covered in class. More importantly, I welcome feedback and encourage students to reach out to me if they are finding it difficult to find ways to participate.
Maybe most importantly, we will build in breaks!
Deadlines: Late Work will be accepted within 3 days of the deadline. If more time is needed, please email me prior to the deadline so that we might discuss possible plans.
Collaboration and Plagiarism: Your work in this class is bound by the Harvard College Honor CodePlease also be aware that plagiarism will result in a referral to the Honor Council. If you are unsure of what constitutes plagiarism, please come speak with me during office hours. You are also welcome to consult the Harvard Guide to Using Sources
Accommodations: If any student requires academic accommodations, please let me know, as I will be happy to provide the necessary adjustments. I would also encourage you to contact the Accessible Education Office (AEO), if you have not already done so.
A Note on Productive Conversations: Over the last few years, there has been a good deal of talk concerning safe spaces in classrooms. Much of the commentary has been dismissive of the concept. Indeed, numerous commentators have framed the demand for safe space as one in which students ask to be coddled and protected. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The demand for safe space is not one that insists certain topics be ignored due to their potential for discomfort; rather, it is a demand that we begin to treat the classroom as a place accountable to the experiences and opinions of historically marginalized communities.
Still, such a demand presents problems of its own. To demand a safe space is to assume that such a space is possible. But can safety be realized when speaking about historical and present instantiations of marginalization and violence? I am not so sure, and it is, perhaps, important to acknowledge such ambivalence. Certainly, students who are directly affected by state and interpersonal modes of marginalization cannot be made safe by our discussions. Indeed, there is a risk in producing the opposite of safety. And so the question that we must ask is what does accountability look like when we take such issues into account.
Of course, accountability of this kind cannot be effectively mapped. Each interaction introduces its own dynamics. But I urge all of us to keep in mind that one of the most insidious methods of marginalization is the dismissal of experiences outside of our own. So while it is true that discussions are about making sense of what we listen to and read, it is also true that the desire to make sense of something according to our individual experience has the potential to re-instantiate a structural space in which racism, sexism and classism order our conclusions.
At its most violent, this brand of sense making follows a logic wherein the dominant group’s inability to fathom structural violence somehow determines that certain experiences are either not true or exaggerated. When this occurs, discussion becomes a means through which the dominant group justifies its distrust of certain experiences and arguments. This is precisely the moment in which the classroom reproduces and so reinforces the kinds of structural violence described above.
My hope is that all of us enter conversations in good faith and with trust. My hope is that any challenge we deliver will be one that seeks to engage others. To be sure, this does not mean that we need to strive to be right, but, rather, that we must strive to do right by our peers. Mistakes and missteps are inevitable in the sort of conversations we will be entering across the semester. And I take seriously the idea that we must develop a climate where it’s ok to be wrong so long as we are also willing to consider our responsibility to the group. Indeed, we act on trust not because things have fallen into place but because trust is one way that we begin to attenuate structural blocks and violence within our interpersonal relationships.
And to be clear, I hold myself both accountable and fallible to the above goal and welcome any suggestion or critique students have concerning how I might do better.
Language Usage: Slurs will not be used in class, even if they appear in our texts. The same goes for hate speech with respect to sexual orientation, gender expression, class or race.
Unit I: Changing Demographics and Institutional and Municipal Responses
Week 1 (Sept. 1): Introduction to the Class
- Miguel Piñero, "No Hay Nada Nuevo en Nueva York/There Is Nothing New In New York" (1975) (PDF)
- While students are free to look at this poem before class, there is no expectation that they will do so.
- Note that Sept. 1 is a Wednesday.
Week 2 (Sept. 6): (Labor Day)
- No Required Reading
- John Cheever, “The Enormous Radio” (1947) ( )
- John Cheever, “Moving Out,” from Esquire (1960) ( )
- Don DeLillo, “The Triumph of Death,” from Underworld (1998) ( )
- The Bobbettes, "Mr. Lee." (1957) (Spotify)
- AbdouMaliq Simone, “The Uninhabitable,” from Improvised Lives (2018) ( )
- pps. 1-7
Week 3 (Sept. 13): Re-Drafting Communities: Surveillance and Making Lives in the Midst of Precarity
- June Myer (June Jordan) & Buckminster Fuller, “Instant Slum Clearance," in Esquire (1965) ( and )
- June Jordan, Selected Short Poems (1971-4) (PDF) ( ) (
- Don DeLillo, “The Triumph of Death,” from Underworld (1998) ( )
- Carl Suddler, Presumed Innocent: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York (2019) (PDF)
Unit II: Districting Space
Week 4 (Sept. 20): Who Stays and How: Occupation, Displacement and the Consequences of Refusal
- Har-You-ACT, “Harlem Youth Report: Youth in the Ghetto and The Blueprint for Change” (1964) ( )
- Har-You Percussion Group, "Welcome to the Party" (1968) (Spotify)
- Nicholas Pileggi, et. al., "Revolutionaries Who Have to Be Home by 7:30" (1969) (PDF)
- Ansley T. Erickson, “HARYOU: An Apprenticeship for Young Leaders” (2019) (PDF)
- Vincent Cannato & Jerald Podair, "The 1968 New York City School Strike Revisited" (2018) (PDF)
- Neil Philip Buffett, "Crossing the Line: High School Student Activism, the New York High School Student Union, and the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike" (2019) (Hollis)
Week 5 (Sept. 27): Is Jazz Still in Vogue: Black Arts & the Making of Myth as History, History as Myth
- Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), "The Village" & “The Black Arts,” from The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1983) (PDF)
- Henry Dumas, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (1966) (PDF)
- Joseph Jarman & Don Moye, “Mama Marimba” (1979) (Spotify)
- Gary Bartz & the NTU Troop, "Celestial Blues" (1971) (Spotify)
- Eddie Gale, "Black Rhythm Happening" (1969) (Spotify)
Week 6 (Oct. 4): "When You're Alone and Life is Making You Lonely:" Downtown Happenings
- Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries (1989) (PDF)
- Keith Haring, Journals (1996) (PDF)
- Velvet Underground, “Candy Says, Live at Max’s Kansas City” (1972) (Spotify)
- George Lewis, "Homage to Charles Parker," from The Kitchen Improvises: 1976-1983 (1979) (Spotify)
- Roselee Goldberg, "Art After Hours: Downtown Performance." (2006) (PDF)
- Kimbrew McLeod, The Downtown Pop Underground: New York City and the literary punks, renegade artists, DIY filmmakers, mad playwrights, and rock 'n' roll glitter queens who revolutionized culture (2018) (PDF)
Close Reading Paper Due, Oct. 8, Friday, 11:59 PM EST
Unit III: Organizing, Protest and State Violence
Week 7 (Oct. 11): Indigenous People’s Day (No Class)
Week 8 (Oct. 18): Power and Refusal
- dequi kioni-sadiki & Matt Meyer, eds., Look for Me in the Whirlwind (1971) (Purchase)
- Parts 3-6 & 8-11
- Veronica Golos, "Bail fund women aid imprisoned sisters" (1971) (PDF)
Week 9 (Oct. 25): Power & Refusal (cont.)
- Young Lords, Palante (1970) (PDF)
- Selected Nuyorican Poetry (PDF) (1975-1985)
- Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), "Gay Power-When Do We Want It or Do We" (1970) (PDF)
- A Grain of Sand, "Imperialism is Another Word for Hunger" & "Free the Land" (1973) (Spotify)
- Angela Davis, Autobiography (1974) (PDF)
- pps. 50-73
Unit IV: Impending Bankruptcy and The Still of Living
Week 10 (Nov. 1): The What is Burning?: The Myth of Ruin and Mask of Renaissance
- Benjy Melendez, "When the Buildings Started Coming Down," in Ghetto Brother (2015) (PDF)
- Herb Goro, The Block ( )
- Sandra Maria Esteves, "For South Bronx," "News from the front," "All of you who come to dance with me" (1980) (PDF)
- Ghetto Brothers, "Ghetto Brother Power" (1972) (Spotify)
- Our Latin Thing: Nuestra Cosa Latina (1971) & 80 Blocks from Tiffany's (1979) (YouTube)
- Selected Scenes
- Jeff Chang, "Necropolis," from Can't Stop, Won't Stop (2005) (PDF)
- Shellyne Rodriguez, "How the Bronx was Branded," in The New Inquiry (2018) (PDF)
Week 11 (Nov. 8): Mix as Method: The Rise of the DJ, Hip Hop & House
- Wild Style (1983) (Kanopy)
- Mr. K (Danny Krivit), "Feeling James" (1987) (YouTube)
- James Brown, "Let Yourself Go" & "There Was a Time," from Live at the Apollo (Vol. II) (1968) (Spotify)
- Charanga 76, "No Nos Pararan" (1979) (You Tube)
- Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (2004) (PDF)
- Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade (2002) (PDF)
Final Paper Proposal Due Friday, November 13, 11:59 PM EST
Week 12 (Nov. 15): Cruising and Creating an “interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences.”
- David Wojnarowicz, “Postcards from America: X Rays from Hell” (1991) (PDF)
- Essex Hemphill, "Does Your Momma Know About Me?" (1992) (PDF)
- Audre Lorde, Zami (1982) (PDF)
- pps. 3-7 & 176-183
- Pose, Season 1, Episodes 1& 2 (2018) (Streaming)
- George Wolfe, “The Gospel According to Miss Roj” (1986) (PDF)
- Marlon Riggs, “Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a Snap! Queen” (Hollis)
Week 13 (Nov 22): No Classes/Optional Office Hours
- If you would like to attend the optional office hours, please let me know by email. Thanks!
Week 14: (Nov. 29): What Exactly Is Punk
- Jennifer Jazz, Spill Ink on It (2020) (PDF)
- Punk Magazine (1976-1979) ( )
- Lester Bangs, “White Noise Supremacists,” in Village Voice (1979) ( )
- New York Dolls, “Looking for a Kiss” (1973) (Spotify)
- Richard Hell, “Blank Generation” (1977) (Spotify)
- Blondie, “Rip Her to Shreds, Live at CBGBs” (1977) (YouTube)
- Richard Boch, The Mudd Club (2017) (PDF)
Final Paper Due Saturday, December 14, 11:59 PM (EST)
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