Exploring the Concrete Jungle

While so many students choose Fordham because of its prime location in New Yok City, few have questioned how the five boroughs became the so-called “concrete jungle.” The History Department’s Mannion Society, however, has offered Lincoln Center students Priscilla Consolo and Ian Schaefer the opportunity to explore just that.

As part of the Mannion Society, founded by the Department this year, roughly ten students participate in a research seminar, in which each student works on an independent, year-long project. While students in the seminar are studying a wide range of topics, from medieval fairytales to Cold War geopolitics, Priscilla and Ian were both drawn to the process of urbanization in New York.

Priscilla’s paper focuses on how “the need to provide, fund, and improve municipal services drove the urbanization process,” she said, “transforming Brooklyn from a rural-like commuter suburb of Manhattan into a booming metropolis of its own.”

Her topic was largely inspired by her own upbringing in Brooklyn as well as by two of Dr. Roger Panetta’s courses, “Rise of the American Suburb” and “History of New York City.”

“Dr. Panetta taught me how to use primary sources and go to these archives and look through the manuscript collections to conduct research, and taking his classes led to my interest in New York City history.”

Indeed, Dr. Panetta has advised Priscilla throughout the process of completing her current research.

“He raises a lot of questions and lets me think things through and analyze the sources on another level,” Priscilla said. “He’s given me a lot of guidance and support and I really appreciate the help.”

In particular, Kenneth T. Jackson’s book The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the American Frontier, which Priscilla read in one of Dr. Panetta’s classes, raised questions that inspired her topic.

“Jackson writes that Brooklyn was the first modern commuter suburb,” Priscilla said. “That led me to think, why was Brooklyn a suburb? And then I started wondering, how did Brooklyn become a city?”

The book led her to the Brooklyn Historical Society, which has provided her with ample primary source materials that have guided Priscilla in crafting an argument on the expansion of the City we call home.

Meanwhile, Ian has studied the changes New York City has undergone by examining the development of the City’s highway infrastructure.

“Since I began studying New York, I heard much about Robert Moses and his mid-century construction projects,” Ian said. “He was portrayed either as a great builder or a great destroyer in an intensely ideological frame. I didn’t buy either.”

This led Ian to explore infrastructure further, using methods he learned in Professor Steven Stoll’s class “Environmental History of New York City.”

“I learned to read cities in terms of the political, philosophical, and social context of the time,” Ian said. “I thought it would be both more interesting and more historically useful to analyze urban highways with this method.”

Congressional hearings, environmental studies, and contemporary articles have offered Ian a window into the development of the highway system that goes beyond a discussion of the figure of Robert Moses.

One of the most challenging aspects of both Priscilla’s and Ian’s projects has been their large scope.

“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is the amount of material that is relevant to this topic and synthesizing it,” Priscilla said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re drowning.”

Starting early, however, has given Priscilla the chance to shape her paper as necessary.

“I try to tell myself that it’s a process and that it’s going to take time to complete,” Priscilla said.

Ian echoed Priscilla’s advice on recognizing research as a long-term endeavor that can take on a life of its own.

“Looking back, I can now see that my topic has grown and changed as I progressed. I took a broad idea—city infrastructure—and the more I read, the more I became interested in a very specific aspect of it,” Ian said. “Though I struggle with this myself, I would say to try to be open to following the paper where it takes you.”

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