Professor Kenneth Jackson Chronicles New York’s History in Detail

Special from The Record

April 27, 2011Bookmark and Share
Kenneth Jackson talks about the new edition of The Encyclopedia of New York City. (4:02)

It’s rare to see the words “best-seller” and “encyclopedia” in the same sentence, especially in the Internet age, which has rendered print reference books all but obsolete.

The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History, defies conventional wisdom. The first edition, published in 1995, sold more than 75,000 copies, and the second edition is going into reprint, after selling almost 13,000 copies. That puts it among the five best-selling books in the history of Yale University Press, its publisher.

The second edition, which came out in December, is even more comprehensive than the first, with 2.2 million words and 5,000-plus entries. What makes it such an attraction? Ironically, the fact that it isn’t available on the Web.

“With the Internet you find what you’re looking for, but sometimes the most exciting information is what you’re not looking for, the things we find serendipitously,” says Jackson, who has taught at Columbia since 1968 and whose “History of the City of New York” course each fall includes an all-night bicycle ride from Columbia to Brooklyn. “As you turn the pages of the encyclopedia you almost always find something that you were not looking for, but that turns out to be interesting.”

The new edition, he says, includes hundreds of new entries that reflect a changed New York over the past 15 years. Where the first book had a single entry on the World Trade Center, the second has 13, reflecting the Sept. 11 attacks. Also new to this edition: MetroCards, EZPass, and synagogues and mosques, “which are a little bit more on our mind now than in 1995 when the other one came out,” Jackson says.

A native of Memphis, Tenn., Jackson came to Columbia as an urban historian, drawn here because he wanted to live in tall buildings in a real city before continuing his academic career in the hinterlands. “But I took to New York,” he says. “I love the city, its density, its mysteries, and the fact that you can go down a street and you have no idea what you’re going to see.”

Q. What is the biggest change in the city since you got here?

When I moved to New York in 1968, it looked as if the suburbs were the future. Most Americans regarded cities as too big, too dirty, too crowded, too dangerous to call home. And New York was in tough shape in the late ’60s and early ’70s, measured by the exodus of corporations, the loss of middle-class families, the decline of subways and the abandonment of so many commercial buildings. Crime was getting worse every year. It just seemed inevitable that we were on a downhill slide. Ridership on public transit system declined to below 1 billion in 1974, down from 2 billion riders per year in 1948. It looked like Gotham would follow old industrial cities like Buffalo or Detroit and fall into terminal decline. The metropolis seemed out of control with its best years behind it. Luckily, things changed.

Q. Such as?

One answer would be the decline in crime. Two crimes that are generally accurately reported are homicide and automobile theft, and those statistics are both down roughly three-fourths in the last 20 years. The rebirth of the transit system was also a huge factor. The transit authority spent more than $75 billion in capital improvements between 1980 and 2010 and the subway system is now carrying 1.6 billion riders per year. Persons of all economic and social classes ride the subway.

Q. Are there other factors?

The city has been well served by its municipal leaders. Mayors of many other cities, like Newark and Detroit, have been indicted. But not in New York. Since Jimmy Walker was mayor in the 1920s, residents of Gracie Mansion have generally been honest and do a good job.

Q. You’re not a native New Yorker, but you consider yourself one by now. What makes a New Yorker?

A great thing about Gotham is that you can become a New Yorker in a week. Almost all ethnic groups, all people, can come to New York and feel comfortable that it’s their city—everybody’s here. New York doesn’t have insiders who care whether your great-great-great-grandparents came over on the Mayflower. The common denominator is people who want to live a vibrant, exciting, multicultural life. Kokomo, Indiana, is a wonderful town where it would be cheaper, quieter and gracious to live, but it wouldn’t offer the opportunities, the diversity or the potential romantic partners of a city.

Q. Why do you think New York has thrived over so many years under such different conditions?

History is a good indicator. New York has been diverse for a long time, more diverse than any other place, and we can infer that in the next 10 years there probably will be a lot of other foreign-born people who will make their way to New York. Not because it’s the cheapest or easiest city in the world, but because they expect if they come here, nobody’s going to try to stop them because they’re Muslim or they’re Jewish or they’re black or they’re female or they’re gay or they play chess—nobody gives a damn in New York. We allow people to be whoever they are. Toleration here is born of necessity. And New York is dense. No other American city comes close, and it’s a defining characteristic of New York City.

Q. Other major U.S. cities offer plenty of diversity. What makes New York stand out?

The city has, at least in the past, been able to change its orientation, in this case toward financial and legal services, stocks and bonds, and new entertainment and tourism. The city has a different kind of economy from what it had 60 years ago. Of course, other cities are going through the same pressures, but New York is unique, and not just because it is so big.

Q. What else was added to the book?

We have a few more living people; in the first one we had only Woody Allen and Donald Trump. There are a few more women, like Eartha Kitt and Katherine Hepburn. In the first edition we had sports figures like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; people wanted Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. It has long entries on all the boroughs, more than 100 ethnic groups and more than 450 neighborhoods in New York City. We have entries on things you can’t find anywhere else, like the worst fires in New York history, all the armories in the city and all of our squares. We even have lists of songs written about New York City.

Q. What do you think drives the popularity of your encyclopedia?

This book is a physical manifestation of a particular kind of a love affair with New York. While many people hate the city, there are a lot of people who love it. Taken all together, you can’t look through this book or remember this great city without being in a sense overwhelmed with its unimaginable potential, its unimaginable reality, its incredible history of opportunity. It reminds you of Samuel Johnson’s telling phrase, “When a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life.” If you can’t find anything in New York to interest you, then I’d say you’re tired of life.

—Interview by Bridget O'Brian