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History as Destiny: The Case of New York City

Teaching ActivityTeaching Activity

New York Exceptionalism

Contributing teacher: Andrew Meyers
Time period: Seventeenth Century

E-Seminar Approach
Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique, laying down the essential arguments for what one might call "New York exceptionalism." His thesis for the e-seminar, indeed for the whole series of e-seminars, is that "when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place, and in some ways [New York City] is certainly unique in the United States and in many ways [New York City] is unique around the world." How is it unique? Professor Jackson begins with geography, discussing how New York City is a good port and a natural transportation break, in other words, a place where you switch modes of transport. He describes the founding of the city by the Dutch West India Company and explains how the commercial focus of the company, and of the Dutch in general, made New Amsterdam different from Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. People came to New York to succeed. Finally, Professor Jackson discusses how all these factors (commerce, geography, and religion) produced a greater willingness to accept those who are different, a tolerance for diversity that makes New York exceptional.

Suggested Teaching Activity
The geographic approach is a useful place to start. Geography often gets short shrift in the U.S. history course, so the idea that geography can influence settlement and even the course of history may be a bit novel to your students. I use slides and a field trip to discuss the terms they will encounter, such as "glacial moraine," "Manhattan schist," "metamorphic rock," and the like. A visit from a geology teacher can help students understand how geology affects geography, with a particular focus on their own city or town. The U.S. Geological Society provides educational information and online maps.

A one-hour activity might involve mapping your own town and assessing how geology and geography influenced its settlement and development. Questions to pose could include:
  • Why is our town/city located where it is?
  • What geological and geographic factors influenced the settlement of our town/city?
  • Is our town/city a transportation break? How did that have an impact, if any, on the development or limitation of our town/city?
  • Is our town/city an entrepôt (a center of trade and transshipment between other places)? If so, how is it similar to or different from New York City?
To help your students map their answers, you might have them use the MSN TerraServer Web site to find satellite photos of their city or town. This might help in the analysis. The goal is to help them to begin to develop a geographic and spatial vocabulary, to "read" towns and cities as they might read a text in class. This is often easier with a place they know intimately, such as their own neighborhood, before they move on to larger or more distant locations.

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