The Foundations of New York City
What do you learn in a class about New York City government?
See the Spring 2024 overview, with all class summaries, here.
What you will know how to do, and have done, by the end of the class
General class structure and information
Class expectations and etiquette
About your instructor
Applications are open from January 3 until January 26 (5pm EST); they will be accepted on a rolling basis, and sooner is definitely better. Popular classes will be repeated in April and May, and those applications will open in early March.
I’ll inform all applicants of their status, successful or not, by January 26 or sooner. I aim to answer each application within a week of its submission. If you have not heard back from me by then, feel free to shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time: 6:30-8:30pm, Mondays, February 5—March 25 (8 weeks)
Location: near Madison Square Park
Completion reqs: final sit-down exam, all homework, no more than two absences
Tuition: $0-2,000. The price is $2k, give yourself whatever discount you need.
What you will know how to do, and have done, by the end of the class
You will have conceptual clarity about words like politics, civics, citizen, government, and more.
Draw a basic timeline of New York City’s political history, and a basic timeline of important land use laws at the city and state level that impact the city.
You will know what political capital is, how to get it, and how to use it. You will graduate with more than you started. You will feel like you “know how to do government things” on a basic level, in part because some of your homework requires it.
Draw a robust map of the New York City political system, with its basic dependencies at the state and federal level. You will be able to describe every individual component on the map, how they relate to each other, and how soft and hard power change the government as described on paper.
Answer the question “What is the law?” for NYC. You will know the answer to this question for every locality, state, and the federal government in general terms as well.
Write a basic research brief about a law. This requires knowing how to look up laws, interpret them, and contextualize them.
Describe the process by which laws are made in New York City.
Draw a basic map of the five boroughs by hand.
From memory, recite one short poem or political speech from New York City history. “The New Colossus” is an example, but I will have a menu for you to select from.
General Class Structure and Information
Meeting Time & Place
Class will meet for two hours (6:30-8:30pm) on Monday, beginning February 5 and ending March 25. Our classroom is near Madison Square Park.
Classes will be structured as seminars, not lectures. In the first meeting of each “Foundations” class, I will draw a map of the government on the whiteboard, and students will be the peanut gallery (it’s open season on questions and comments). We will repeat this exercise in various forms, including competitive ones, in each meeting.
There will be breaks about every 30 minutes. Eat snacks and do what you need to do then. And since class will be in the winter, and people will be coming in from the cold: please make sure to blow your nose and clear out sniffles before class, and as needed.
You cannot miss more than two of the eight class sessions. But if something comes up, just let me know and we can improvise.
If you are going to be late to class, you will need to text or email me with your approximate ETA. Don’t feel embarrassed or squirrely about being late, just let me know so I can conduct class accordingly.
Class Preparation & Homework:
There will be readings for each class, small class projects, and a final exam that is graded pass/fail. Plan to allocate at least 2-4 hours a week for this work. Final exams will be taken during your last class. If you fail the exam, you fail the class—but you can retake it once.
You will have to create a Substack blog for all classes (reasonable substitutions can be accommodated). Each week’s homework will include one Substack post that will be reviewed by me and class TAs. While I encourage students to keep their blogs public and share their progress, you can make your blog private too. You must complete all of these assignments to pass the class.
For the three Foundations courses, you must complete two “witnessing government” assignments. You will attend government meetings and respond to a variety of prompts based on what you witness. There will be evening, weekend, remote, and pre-recorded options. You must complete these two assignments to pass the class.
Join the Maximum New York Discord. Class participants will be added to a Maximum New York Discord server, which will be our primary mode of communication for coursework, office hours, and general discussion. There will be a code of conduct you need to accept to join the Discord, similar to the class expectations and etiquette outlined in the next section.
And after the course, the real fun of government and politics begins. It’s an open world.
Class Expectations & Etiquette
Classes are open to anyone who wants to improve the capacity of NYC’s government, with an end toward making NYC larger, more wealthy (both absolutely and per capita), more opportunity-rich, and more enjoyable for everyone. Maybe you want to get deeply involved in politics. Maybe you’re just intellectually curious. Maybe you’re somewhere in between. You’re welcome in any case.
The classroom environment I encourage is one of exploration, curiosity, playfulness, and charity/tolerance; if you have dug-in political ideas, you need to let those go, at least for the duration of the class. We are here to learn how things work first and foremost, although larger questions of political philosophy absolutely come into play at various points. You should think about politics as a systems problem with no perfect solutions, but still plenty of good ones.
This class has four formal rules of etiquette that you must follow:
Politics is a good word, and a potentially beautiful thing. We are here to learn how to do government as friends, in a chill fashion, even while dealing with weighty issues.
No bullshitting, aka be concrete. We’re all here to learn together, but we’re doing it in a rigorous fashion. You must always strive to deeply understand the reality of governance that underpins your political thought.
Extend grace to everyone. We’re here to learn together. Government and politics are complicated fields, and no one knows everything. We will be better, together.
Anger is the rare exception, and a friendly “what the hell” is the norm. Taking things seriously does not mean being mad about them. The wider world can pressure people to get mad to prove that they take political ideas seriously. I do not equate anger with either sophistication or dedication, so I relieve you of that burden. Make jokes, be serious, push back, learn a lot. But give yourself (and others) a break while you’re in class.
About Your Instructor
Hello, my name is Daniel Golliher (goll- as in the gall, the nerve, and the audacity; iher- as in how they say “your” where I come from: Gol-yer). I’ve lived in New York City for five years. Besides my writing on this website, you can learn more about me on Twitter, and my personal blog. I’ve written a few books, play the piano and sax, enjoy all manner of physical fitness, and can’t wait to meet you.
I graduated from Harvard College in 2014 with a degree in Government1, and since then I’ve worked in the legal industry, a coffee shop, higher ed, the legal industry again, and now I dedicate my time to Maximum New York.
The following is a general outline of subjects that we will cover in class. Additions and subtractions will be made according to student interest and competency.
The Foundations of New York City will focus on three broad domains of NYC: history, political theory, and political practice. They’ll all be addressed in an integrated fashion, rather than in sequence or isolation.
History is vital, because it reveals why New York is the way it is. Cities are the product of path dependency and lock-in effects, and you shouldn’t govern if you don’t take these into account, because you’ll be producing them no matter what you do.
Political theory is necessary to inspire and motivate. It examines how government has been formed and revised in the past, and gives us the knowledge about how we might do it again now and in the future.
Political practice, otherwise called political strategy, is the study of how to connect political means to political ends. How to do things, not vaguely bullshit with your friends about what someone should do. Politics is as sophisticated as any science, and we will treat it that way. Some vital components of this field are knowledge of the governing structures of the city themselves, and the political players within them.
The consolidation of New York City in 1898
Effects of consolidation and the last Mayor of Brooklyn
The consolidated government and the Board of Estimate
Consolidation to WW2: it’s time to build
The Bronx: an instant city
1916 Zoning Resolution
Urban renewal and the Progressive Era
The Port of New York and New Jersey, 1921
New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), 1934
1960s: turning points
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, 1961
1961 Zoning Resolution (!!)
Along comes the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), 1968
Preservationism: the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the Landmarks Law, historic districts, the fight to save Carnegie Hall, and the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1961-1965
Urban renewal continues: the demolition of Lincoln Square, the rise of Lincoln Center (with a cameo from President Eisenhower), 1955—1969
The 1970s: change and turmoil
The twin towers completed in 1973
The Power Broker in 1974 and the end of Robert Moses
City bankruptcy of 1975, the intervention of Albany
The charter revisions of 1975, Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and Community Boards
The near-demolition of Grand Central Station (1975-1978); compare to the preservation fights of the previous decade
The blackout of 1977: literal and spiritual
The charter commission of 1989 and Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris
The ghosts of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, how they haunt the city, and whether to exorcize them
Case studies of creation and revision:
1898 consolidation of NYC and the first city charter
NYC charter revisions of 1975 and 1989
Maximum New York’s political philosophy
The means: social technology to develop and knowledge to acquire
The ends: actualizing higher expectations for New York City, why and how (more wealth, population, and well-being)
Outcompeting the anti-politics meme
What does it look like to “get involved in politics”? Beyond the stereotypically narrow, often incorrect view
The NYC government
Charter, Local Laws, The Rules, Administrative Code
Branches: Mayor, City Council, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Executive and Administrative Agencies, Borough Presidents, Community Boards/Districts
Budget: Expense, Capital, Contract, and Revenue; dependence on Albany and DC.
The boroughs: what do they do?
ULURP: case study on the nature of governmental review and public comment
The city’s external dependencies: NYC in the federal system
The NYS government
Other state (and national!) governments
The U.S. government
Public benefit corporations
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Various topics in city politics:
The players and their stage
Housing: NYCHA, markets, LPC, and zoning
Transit: why is it the way that it is?
Law enforcement, Rikers, and the NYPD
Organizations that are already doing good work, and what you can do to help them
Other topics that surface during the course