In and Of the City: A Look Inside the NewYorkScapes Working Group (by Cynthia De Luna)


Just being in New York City provides NYU students with countless resources and opportunities to pursue their interests. One of the English department’s graduate student working groups, NewYorkScapes, grew out of a desire to take advantage of those resources and opportunities. The group started in 2013 after a conversation between Professor Thomas Augst and two doctoral students, Kristen Highland and Blevin Shelnutt, who wanted to combine their studies of 19th-century New York with the digital humanities.

This is precisely the kind of junction the NYScapes group makes possible, exploring the city through different texts and different periods of time. Advised by Augst, a professor in NYU’s English department, and Peter Wosh, a professor in NYU’s History department, and coordinated by Sara Patridge and Nathaniel Preus, two graduate students, NYScapes uses digital tools to study the space of the city. It is a research collaborative that aims to produce and not just discuss, and it allows for students to take part in long-term projects that investigate literature and culture in relation to urban space.

Part of the group’s work involves hosting events that allow its members to explore digital tools and new ways to think about space and physical location in the city. In the two years, they have held workshops specifically related to the use of digital platforms. Their April 2015 workshop focused on a dataset platform named Inquisite that the group has helped develop. Inquisite is a platform meant to be used by various research groups seeking to acquire and organize data for their various projects, granting its users access to visualizations of their data and allowing them to contribute their own research as well. The workshop sought to explore how Inquisite would be applicable to project-based learning that involved digital tools and how it would make visualization and the acquisition of data easier, particularly with respect to teaching at NYU.

The group held a meeting in February 2015 to learn more about an app named “City of Words,” created by Laura Fisher, an English professor at Ryerson University, and Ali Shamas Qadeer, a Toronto-based designer and developer. The app and website map excerpts of literary and historical texts onto a map of New York City. Visiting the website brings up a map of the city with a number of locations already marked. Clicking on those locations will bring up chapters or poems that were set at that specific address. As a project that connects the literary to the physical, “City of Words” spoke to the aims of the NYScapes group and allowed the group to learn more about ways to apply digital tools to their research.

Of course, as a working group deeply involved in the English department, NYScapes fosters sustained attention to particular texts. So far there have been two written works that they have specifically discussed at events. One such work, discussed in October 2014, was Whitman Among the Bohemians, a collection of essays tied to a physical location in the city called Pfaff’s Cellar, once located on Broadway near Bleecker Street. This past October, the group looked at David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project, a scholarly work that imagines Walter Benjamin’s experiences in New York City post World War II and explores the city through everything from the graffiti on its buildings to the people on its streets.

Some NYScapes events focus heavily on discussion not only of texts about urban space but of the effect of urban space on social discourses. On April 28th of this year, the NYScapes group and the Gotham Center at CUNY held a roundtable discussion entitled “Solidarity and the City” that explored the ways scholars, educators, and activists react to the way that urban space affects social justice work, particularly within the context of urban diversity and the use of digital tools in urban projects. Among those present were Ben Blackshear, a member of the Brooklyn-based economic-justice organization SolidarityNYC, Amaka Okechukwu, an Oral Historian and Archival Specialist at Weeksville Heritage Center, Manissa Maharawal, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at CUNY and a participant in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s “Narratives of Displacement,” Daniel Morales, a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Jonathan Soffer,  a Professor of History and the Department Chair of Technology, Culture, and Society at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.

While plenty of the group’s material comes from events such as these, a good amount of it comes from courses that are held at NYU’s graduate English and History departments. One such course, taught in Fall 2014 by Professor Augst and Nicholas Wolf, formerly an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in Irish Studies and now a Research Data Management Librarian with NYU Libraries, was a practicum in digital humanities named “Mapping the Archive: Cultural Geographies of New York City.” This course taught students how to use digital tools and how to manipulate data for the purposes of mapping and visualization. In Spring 2015, Professor Augst’s “Digital Methods in Historical Inquiry” had a similar goal, teaching students how to apply specific tools to their research. Both courses contributed to the development of Inquisite.

While the working group calls mostly for the participation of graduate students, undergrads have had a chance to get involved in this kind of work in a course taught by Professor Augst and Professor de Sá Pereira this semester. The course, “Writing New York,” has integrated the spirit of NYScapes projects into undergraduate teaching and has provided students with readings and writing and research exercises that put the idea of place in conversation with different genres and media. But undergraduates should also feel free to get involved in NYScapes itself. “We’d be happy to have undergraduates involved in NYScapes,” says Professor Augst. “They should go to events and get in touch with me if they are interested in getting more involved.” So if you like the idea of helping to build a “production studio for New York City landscape”—as Professor Augst describes NYScapes—then being a student in the city just got even more exciting.