Digital Summer School: Gotham

Digital Summer School began with Tropics of Meta where co-editors Romeo Guzman and Alex Sayf Cummings talked about the old and new initiatives at the academic/cultural website. We then moved the classroom to the Midwestern metropolis of Milwaukee as Amanda Seligman discussed the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. Today, we travel to New York City and The Gotham Center. Peter-Christian Aigner explains how Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City came into being and where it hopes to be going in the future.

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience? ​

I started Gotham three years ago, for a simple reason—it didn’t exist. New York City has an unrivaled number of libraries, museums, universities, and buildings dedicated in one respect or another to its history, of course, and some of them have blogs that occasionally spotlight the many treasures in their archives or the many wonderful programs they do. But there was no regular digital space, and certainly no obvious place, no headquarters online for all the scholars who do research on New York City history. And that just seemed insane.

There are hundreds of academics, in so many disciplines, who have done research on New York City history, so many every year. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of books, articles, etc., have been published on the subject, much of it recently. And that’s because New York City is, and has long been, America’s unofficial capital. People outside the five boroughs may dismiss that as egotism, and historians of different regions might cite their area’s significance, but the fact is that New York is this country’s most important city, historically speaking.

So, the goal was to provide a “blog” for scholars, like the Gotham masthead says. But I struggled a bit with that label, because the Gotham Center takes seriously the mission of NYC’s public university, our institutional sponsor: “knowledge for the public good.” We sometimes do programming strictly for scholars, but we are a public history organization, even if we are based in a university (CUNY’s Graduate Center). We’ve always sought to make scholarship accessible to non-academics, and have always included other professionals in the historical world (curators, educator, archivists, filmmakers, preservationists, independent scholars). So I did not want our digital publication to be exclusive. I wanted a broad range of contributors and followers.

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College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

Well, in terms of professional value, I think Gotham provides a unique space for younger scholars in particular to engage with other professionals, share their research, and gain writing experience. Ideally, we can be a place that helps identify the next generation of New York City historians.

In terms of intellectual value, I think beyond that shared locus of conversation Gotham offers not only a place where one might apply the latest method or theory of urban history, but also perhaps a counterpoint to the pointillism of the field now, where the focus on a single place allows us to really dig deep and fill out collective understanding in a particular setting. Both approaches, the global and local, are obviously needed.

And generally, I feel there’s just a desperate need still for this kind of work, in public education. Mike Wallace established The Gotham Center at a time when New York seriously lagged behind other world cities in presenting its historical resources to locals and tourists. There was little collaboration between our great historical institutions, and the oldest, biggest one, New-York Historical Society, had in fact closed and nearly sold off its collections only a few years before. The idea was to establish a place that could network and support the many institutions and individuals who kept the history of this city alive, and make the public — including civic leaders — aware of New York’s rich history, and why it matters. Although in some ways the situation has improved, in others we are no better off, collectively, than all those years ago. New York History, for example, should be celebrating its hundredth anniversary next year. Instead, fifteen months after the Board of Regents dissolved the state’s 120-year-old historical association, it’s still very unclear whether—in addition to being the only state in the country now without an organization promoting and preserving its history— New York will lose the journal and conference that were attached to NYSHA. Ten years ago, Ken Jackson gave a wonderful speech before the state library, laying out the case for New York as the “most historical” state in the nation. Mike Wallace is finishing up the last volume in a brilliant trilogy making that argument for New York City, across the centuries and virtually every area of life. But there is still very little appreciation of these facts by the public, even locally. And there is little obvious collective power still among our historical organizations. So, I hope with Gotham, just like all the programming we’ve done at the Center, and the new programs I am working to establish, we are pushing back against this situation.

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College of the City of New York (City College, City University), New York, N.Y., between 1900 and 1915, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

It wasn’t hard, just time-consuming. Daniel Wortel-London (ed. note: his work has appeared here on The Metropole as well), the blog’s first associate editor, then at CUNY’s Graduate Center, provided crucial help. But the work itself has not been difficult. We benefited, I think, from our association with The Gotham Center, and the niche we filled. Traffic has grown steadily and handsomely. Conversation is now far less about how to fill our calendar and far more about how we can deliver the high-level content we present to new audiences.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We’ve got a few exciting new ideas we’re pursuing. I’ll leave it at that, but I’m very optimistic about Gotham‘s future. The potential has always been great. We mostly feature new original content, book reviews, interviews, etc., and obviously that is valuable. But we are looking to expand into different areas. It should be a place that discusses New York City history everywhere one finds it: in museums, libraries, schools, the arts, TV and film, memorials, tourism, etc. And I would like to see it become a place where experts regularly comment on social, cultural, political and economic debates in New York City, from that historical perspective. We recently doubled our editorial team, and have begun exploring new partnerships, with these long-term goals in mind​. But transforming into something larger (e.g., more than a semiweekly publication, like it is now) may ultimately require some kind of backing.

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College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In regard to the Gotham Center, New York City has been a subject of study by urban historians for decades, with so much already said about NYC, how does Gotham Center approach the Big Apple with fresh eyes?

In my younger days, I used to think “How much could there be to say about ___?” I don’t  often have such thoughts anymore. There are still many new frontiers in New York City history, as there are in U.S./world history generally. What hasn’t been researched—huge, important subjects—consistently astounds me. And so long as we have new theories, there can be hundreds of people writing about New York City every generation, and still  many mountains to cross. We could, for example, see a lot more research on “the outer boroughs.” There’s an over-focus on Manhattan, logical as that is. As on city limits. “Metropolitan history” is more or less the new consensus among suburban and urban historians, but I’m sympathetic to complaints that (as in other fields) practice hasn’t really kept pace with the professed methodology. Finally, I’d say the point we constantly make at the Gotham Center is that New York City is the best lens for learning about the history of the United States. So long as that is true — and it is —  learning about its past will always be vital.

unnamed_3_origPeter-Christian Aigner is the director of The Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY’s Graduate Center, and the founding / managing editor of Gotham. He is currently writing a biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contracted with Simon & Schuster. 

Featured image (at top): College of City of New York, N.Y., circa 1908, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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