President Fry Is Teaching a Course on ‘Great American Cities’

President Fry considers a point made by a student.
President Fry considers a point made by a student.

The 11 Honors students gathered to discuss Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” were having trouble visualizing one of her arguments. In the classic book, Jacobs critiques the tendency for architecture to close off the street and focus public space in isolated islands surrounded by buildings. Fortunately, their instructor has direct personal experience creating a thriving urban community.

President John A. Fry told the class about how, back when he worked at the University of Pennsylvania, all of the buildings along Walnut Street all faced inward to Locust Walk, which isolated the campus. Fry was the architect of Penn’s plan to put shops and restaurants along Walnut Street, which brought life back to the area and opened the campus up to the city.

Which just goes to show, it pays to have Fry teaching an Honors class on urban development and community planning. 

Fry’s course on “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is co-taught with Dan Dougherty, PhD, director of the Honors Program in the Pennoni Honors College. It’s part of Pennoni’s “Great Books” series, in which an intentionally small class reads, discusses and analyzes one book over the course of a term. When Dean Paula Marantz Cohen and Dougherty were first discussing the series, bringing together Fry and Jacob’s book became a must.

“Fry facilitates a classroom as he does a meeting, which I think is a very good way to conduct seminars,” said Dougherty. “He is very good at directing students’ attention to parts of the reading by asking certain prompts and then in some cases redirecting student’s thinking. What we try to do is encourage the students to become empowered and we sort of facilitate.”

“They’re smart kids,” Fry said. “They read everything, they’re really well prepared. Mostly this has just been a big conversation. I’ve enjoyed it.”

Each class is built around a few chapters of Jacob’s book. A student gives a summary of the reading, and that sets the class going. Fry and Dougherty like the class to be primarily driven by student dialogue. But Fry feels comfortable jumping in at times to ask someone to clarify a point or to address something that he noticed in the text.

“I first read the book in college,” Fry said. “I don’t think it had the impact on me then that it’s having on me now. Jacobs was wildly ahead of her time. I read her insights and I think ‘How did she possibly know this in 1961?’ It’s almost impossible.”

Fry is not the only experienced voice in the room. The Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation’s Executive Director Harris Steinberg, Vice Provost of University and Community Partnerships Lucy Kerman, PhD, and founding chief executive of the Center City District Paul Levy have all come to the class to offer their insights into Jacob’s book. But Fry remains a guiding presence in the class.

“He’s very collegial as far as coming up with a plan for the class,” said Dougherty. “As a president of a university, with the level of responsibility he has, that he’s able to carve out this time and separate it, and just be present in that class at that time? I think that’s pretty impressive.”

The Pennoni Honors College has plans to expand its “Great Books” courses into visual art and music.