The Other Part of New York

Message From the President

William L. Fox '75

What does Park Street in Canton have to do with Park Avenue in Manhattan? There could be a stand-up, put-down punchline in the answer, if one were expecting a little sarcasm from an uptown dude. One person’s loaded riddle, however, turns out to be an unexpected fact of life at St. Lawrence. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? Park Street? Park Avenue? In the same sentence?

Park Street forever remains the calm byway past the original front door of the St. Lawrence campus. And honestly, there can be no stretch of resemblance between Sykes Residence on Park Street, though dignified in its age for giving scholarly quarter beyond eight decades, and the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue built at the exact same time. And yet, the same feet scurrying along the leaf-strewn sidewalks of Park Street on some fall evening headed “downtown” may also be walking up Park Avenue the next semester. St. Lawrence is in the City, again. 

Meanwhile, it is no mere legend, but a modern truth, that a few geographically unknowing first-year students have sometimes confused the relative proximities between the land mass of New York State and the major city by the same name. A young, prairie-shouldered hockey lad once arrived in Canton from Saskatchewan and immediately implored the coach to show him Times Square before classes got too busy. From another direction, a jet-lagged international student, unclear about the advice for using ground transportation, once took a metered cab from JFK to Park Street, Canton. The dean covered the fare.

Between 1903 and 1943, St. Lawrence had a vivid presence in New York City when it governed and operated the Brooklyn Law School. Years later, we occasionally receive someone’s misplaced family heirloom, a scroll discovered in the attic by the house’s new owner—great-grandfather’s parchment law diploma featuring prominently the St. Lawrence University seal stamped beneath the usual signatures. It was a professional school of first and last opportunity, like the struggling mother university itself that was planted in a faraway wilderness only a half-century before. Many students were from Jewish, Irish, and Italian homes, immigrant dreamers of a better life. Photographs from 1909 show women and African-Americans were also among the enrolled law students, a rare image in its day, but also one in keeping with St. Lawrence’s founding principles.

And then, nearly 70 years after the university divested itself of the law school, in a bold initiative inspired by New York City alumni and the realization that many St. Lawrence students had never visited Manhattan even as one-day tourists, we opened an off-campus program modeled on the study abroad experience. This innovative curriculum has not only differentiated us from our peers in liberal arts education, but more importantly, it has made an immense, indelible difference in the lives of our students and faculty. 

Already, over 150 students have spent a semester living, working, and sampling life in New York City. Many of them are from small towns or from other lands who would otherwise never consider going to the City for early career opportunities. Were it not for their first coming to Canton, they would never have taken the step from Park Street to Park Avenue. 

New York City is inevitably part of a St. Lawrence education. My own learning in and about Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs has been a matter of unstructured independent study, thus making me enviously appreciative of the extraordinary program we have created for this generation of students. My prior urban living achieved street-smart competence in Washington, D.C., and Boston. But New York is altogether different from every other city, as any bemused Yankees fan will gladly make clear, as if brushing back a naïve sucker with a verbal fastball under the chin. 

In scale, complexity, and concentration, New York is a particular kind of poem, not a languorous epic, maybe a collision of cantos, or the first glimmering of aimless free verse. New York is, instead, wound tight like a sonnet, packing complete feelings into the present moment. If the intensity of New York were merely isolated and singular, known only for one area of excellence—whether for art, theatre, sport, religion, or commerce—the place would be crowded anyway with pilgrims to a holy site. Instead, the place is a clustering phenomenon of boundless human achievement. 

To a stranger from the provinces, New York offers a series of minor embarrassments (like hailing a cab whose roof light is turned off), not to mention the constant, low-grade thrum of intimidation. My impression, however, is that not even the daily commuters in all their intimate familiarity with Grand Central or the Fifth Avenue bus, or for that matter even the native-born permanent New Yorkers, can ever master or truly comprehend the place’s physiology. If you learn that reality, that abstraction, in spite of the bravado confidence of the people who live there, you can make it in New York.

The part I love best about New York is that it invites the novice to give it a try. There are, of course, personally destructive forces in a place with so much competitive humanity, but I like the prevailing sense that young people can enter its gates willing to be both good and lucky. When in New York, I sometimes will sit alone at a midtown lunch counter close to the theater district, consciously trying not to reenact one of those Edward Hopper scenes of the unblinking figure in private reflection. Rather, I am most interested in discreetly and randomly picking up strands of nearby conversation—young actors, musicians, and bankers talking rapidly about the pedestrian flood tide of ambition. They must believe the ebb touches others. Then, suddenly the chatter turns to their spontaneous hopes for the night, living more than one life in a single day.

I’m convinced that our St. Lawrence students, those now crossing Park Street in Canton who later find themselves in New York City, will somehow grasp an equivalent moment to one found in the artist and musician Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids: “There were days, rainy days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica, the view grainy and immobile. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild… until exhausted…”—WLF 

President William L. Fox '75