A conversation with Kenneth Jackson
By Caroline Hurley
This year, Kenneth Jackson embarks on his fiftieth year as a professor of history at Columbia. In his last half a century in Morningside Heights, Jackson has become an expert on the history of New York City, and he famously leads an all-night bike ride through the city each year. In addition to his work at Columbia, he is the author of numerous books on American urban histories, and he was the editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City. Caroline Hurley, CC ’19, spoke with Jackson in his spacious office on a bitterly cold January day, just before Jackson set out on a cross-country road trip .
The Blue and White: I would say one thing that you are probably most known for on campus is the History of New York class and the all-night bike ride. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, sort of how you started teaching it?
Kenneth Jackson: Sure. I came here to sort of teach about cities in general. But it did seem a little bit ridiculous to be talking about cities in a classroom when there was one right outside the window. I do believe in experiential learning, or whatever you call it. If you go to the dairy, you’ll be more interested in it than if you just read about. So when I first started it [the class], there were only 15 people and I taught it as a seminar on New York City. That was probably [the] early ’70s, and that was more fun for me, frankly, because, first of all, there wasn’t such a big responsibility. A few of us were riding our bikes at night, and if you saw an interesting building or church down the road, you could go there. Now, the spontaneity is out of it for me. Even the learning is out of—I’ve been to these places many times. It’s just become part of a tradition, and it just got bigger and bigger. And then it got out of control because people expected it. And I thought, ‘Well, they’re paying a lot of tuition and this is what they want.’ And I was younger and thinner and it was relatively easy to do. And now I’m a lot older so it’s not easy. I think I’ll do it maybe one more time.
BW: One more time? Any idea when you’ll do it?
KJ: Probably in the Fall of 2019. I think I’ll teach the course this fall, but not with the bike ride.
BW: So, you don’t do the bike ride every year?
KJ: Every time I teach the course, I do the bike ride. It’s just that I’ve got to figure out how to do it. If I fall over it would be not good, and I did fall over last Fall. I didn’t hurt myself, but it’s easy to get hurt when you have so many people together, and I’ve just been lucky. Nobody has gotten badly hurt. Every time I get back at like 6 or 6:30 in the morning, I get out of the subway and I go to my office, because my apartment is a walk up to the third floor and I can’t take the bike up. But I can take the elevator in my office and go lie down on the sofa there. But when I get off the subway, it’s late September so the sun’s up and it’s daylight, and I’m thinking, ‘Thank gosh, I made it and, as far as, I know no one got hurt.’ Because if someone got hit by a taxi and becomes a quadriplegic, people will say, ‘What idiot took hundreds of people on a bike ride.’ Thank god it hasn’t happened. I think that’s one reason why it’s not been really copied in the United States. One thing is you are worried about legal liability. I don’t think Columbia wants anyone else to do it. They’ll allow me to do it because I’ve been doing it for so many years and they use it in their publicity. But I don’t know if they want somebody to pick it up after I’m done.
BW: Well, people really like to go. You’ve been doing the bike ride for more than 40 years, and you started at Columbia in 1968.
KJ: ’68, yes this is my 50th year.
BW: Right yes, so 1968 is getting a lot of renewed attention because it is the 50th anniversary of the protests that occurred that year. Were you around that spring?
KJ: I happened to be in the United States Air Force at the time, and this was the height of the Vietnam War. I wasn’t in the Vietnam War, but I was an officer in the Air Force. I was teased by some of my friends that I was going to a war zone. Because there was so much publicity about Columbia. People knew about it. I was not here in the Spring of ’68, but I was here in the Fall of ’68, and the campus was still alive with political protests. It was different than it is now because of the draft. Anybody could go because of a number. You could be over there. Now, what’s Afghanistan got to do with your life? It wasn’t the same then. And anyway, then I was in Fayerweather one time, and there was a student take-over. But I refused to leave. I stayed in my office because there was a professor who had had his, he said, entire manuscript taken and destroyed. He was in Hamilton Hall in the Spring of ’68, and this is before computers. He said he didn’t leave, and he lost everything, years’ worth of work. I thought, ‘They might beat me up, but they’re not getting my work.’
KJ pauses to eat lunch.
KJ: I’ve got a blood sugar problem, and all of the stuff in there for lunch is either sandwiches or cookies or fruit. Fruit is not good for you!
BW: You ended up staying in Fayerweather –
BW: To protect your work?
KJ: Yes, with two other professors. We were having an exam, and one of the professors, when they came ‘round the halls banging on the doors, said, ‘This building is closed.’ And one of the students in the exam, one of the leaders of the SDS movement, he couldn’t even hold back the revolt. It must have been a bit distracting to him, but he finished the exam and he passed. And then Richard Hofstadter, probably the most important American historian in the last how many years, climbed out the window. I slept in my office. Another time I slept in my office was when the big blackout happened in ’77. I have a little apartment on 82nd street, and all of a sudden, the lights were going dimmer, then they just went off. I was on the sixth floor, and somehow, I thought if I went outside I would catch a train or something, but power was off for the whole city. That was a bad time because there were riots and stealing, whereas when they had another blackout—I can’t remember the year, but I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about it— there wasn’t much then. ’77 had the bad riots.
BW: You were the president of the New York Historical Society, and you’re a pretty renowned historian of New York City … I would say you are more familiar than most people with the events and institutions which have shaped New York in particular. How impactful would you say Columbia has been in shaping the history of New York? Has its legacy been for better or worse? Its engagement with the surrounding community has been heavily examined, even criticized.
KJ: I would say two things. One, on the positive side, Columbia has clearly been a net plus for the city, to have a world-renowned institution. All great cities have great universities in them. At the time [of Columbia’s expansion into the Morningside community], NYU was not quite … NYU has gotten a lot better. Columbia generates hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars in economic activity. Where are you from?
BW: I’m from outside of Chicago.
KJ: See, you’re bringing money to the city. The City University of New York has less economic impact because the students are already here. Whether they go there or somewhere else doesn’t matter, but you’re coming here from outside of New York.
Pauses to eat chili.
KJ: That’s a positive. Compared to the University of Chicago, which is where I went, Columbia has not been as quick to embrace the city. And it is Columbia University in the City of New York—that’s a huge benefit now, but there was a time in the 1950s when the trustees thought about moving the whole university 40 or 50 miles North to the Herriman Estate on the other side of the river, because the city’s going to hell. Now, nobody thinks that. It’s why the number of applications has gone through the roof. It’s a major draw. And I’m not saying that the Core and other great traditions aren’t, but the fact that a mother can let her daughter come to the big, scary city … you know what I mean? So, you get to go where you want, and it’s got all of these other things that people want to do. But [Columbia] didn’t embrace the city until late.
Pauses to eat more chili.
BW: I know you said Columbia has had a massive positive economic impact on the city, but would you say at all that Columbia has had any negative impact on the city, in more social regards? This gets criticized all the time.
KJ: I know it does. But the University is older than the neighborhood, and when the university was built, there was nobody here. Look, I think it would be a tragedy for New York for Columbia to leave. It needs to have more space in order to compete with Princeton, which has more space, especially per person. Look, could it have handled the 1968 problem better? Yes. It sure could have. Grayson Kirk [Columbia’s President at the time] and [the other administrators] were probably not the best … they were very, how should I say this, elegant, aristocratic. They were really not ready to deal with Mark Rudd or the black activists. That was trouble waiting to happen, I think. There will be a lot about 1968 this Spring I presume.
BW: Yeah, our magazine is doing a big piece about 1968, and a lot of what we are hearing in interviews with former protesters is that some people view the Manhattanville campus as the ultimate failure of 1968—they were once protesting only a gym, and now we have a whole campus in Harlem. That’s an interesting perspective, but maybe not one that everyone at the University today shares.
KJ: Well, part of it is that there were not that many people who lived in Manhattanville, that’s the one secret. There’s some number, but in the area that the campus is in, it was mostly chop shops and it probably, in the long-run, will be good for Harlem and the area around it. If you have a delicatessen, business is probably going to get better. And look—the story of African-Americans in cities has been not a happy one, and not a good one, but it’s better than rural Mississippi and rural Georgia. People came to Harlem because of opportunity. Now, it’s less than half black, so it’s a different ball game. The fact they’re leaving is self-evidence that those people didn’t come to stay in Harlem. They came to prosper and move to the suburbs like everyone else, at a time when everybody thought that that was the thing to do. Now, it’s a different time. Now, people want to be in the city. But you know what, I do not want to defend the way we have treated blacks here, or anywhere else in the country, because it is a black mark on the United States. But better here than in Mississippi.
BW: You mentioned people moving to the suburbs, and I know that that is one area that you have studied a lot, the suburbanization of the United States. Looking back on your conclusions about the suburbs thirty years ago that you made in Crabgrass Frontier, would you say that they occupy the same space today?
KJ: No. First of all, a lot of kids who grew up in the suburbs are applying to Columbia, because they want to be in the city. What suburb did you grow up in?
BW: I grew up in Countryside, Illinois.
KJ: Right. These kids have been there and done that. They don’t want to go to malls; malls are in trouble now. The grittiness of cities is what people want to see. It’s a different world—there are still people who want to be in the suburbs, usually for reasons of choice and money. You can get a much better value in the suburbs than you can in the city. I think the suburbs are wonderful because they give you another option. But the city, if you can afford it, is better. And young people, they don’t want to have a house with crabgrass out front. They want to be sitting at outdoor restaurants. Of course, once you have a 6-year-old daughter, a lot of people will move to the suburbs, not because they love it more, but because they feel like it’s safer or it is a better deal for the schools.
BW: Yes, it’s certainly been different coming here and living in the city.
KJ: And you’re in the city. You can jump on the subway and be in Times Square in fifteen minutes. Whereas at somewhere like the University of Chicago, it’s separate. It’s a bigger campus, and the public transit to the city is bad. It’s not connected; that’s a little island. They almost tried to get me to come back to Chicago, but one of the things I liked about Columbia is that they couldn’t care where you lived. In fact, if you were recruited to Columbia, they would kiss your feet if you wanted to move to the suburbs because they have so much demand on their housing.
BW: You’ve obviously spent a lot of time in other cities like Chicago, but what would you say makes New York so unique?
KJ: New York is much denser—less grass and bigger buildings. Chicago is closer to being a farm than it is to being New York. So that’s a big difference. Chicago was relatively more industrial with manufacturing, but it’s lost a million people in the last 30 or 40 years; New York has gained people. New York has done a more successful job shifting from an industrial to a service economy. It may be because New York is closer to the ocean, so it’s more of a world city; it’s closer to London than it is to Buffalo, in real terms. What happens in London is important in New York but what happens in Buffalo is not. The crime is also a huge difference. New York is three times bigger than Chicago and it has less than half as many homicides. I don’t understand that. I know it’s a racial thing in Chicago, but New York just about has more African Americans than Chicago has people, so that can’t be the only answer. I think it’s a failure of leadership on Chicago’s part, even though they are both great world cities. One of the things that’s different about New York from Chicago is that in New York, you’re not aware of high school sports in the suburbs. Long Island is a world, Westchester and Connecticut is a world, and New Jersey is a world. In the Midwest, sports pull the whole region together, but I can’t even tell you what goes on in Long Island.
BW: How does New York fill that space then? What occupies the minds of people here such that they don’t have to pay attention to the surrounding areas as much?
KJ: It’s easier to get to what’s exciting in New York.
BW: You wrote an op-ed in The New York Times addressing a group called Landmark West, which essentially criticized the group for recognizing too many buildings as historic landmarks. How can we be open to growth and change as a city, while still being attentive to history?
KJ: Well, my complaint about Landmark West specifically, and the whole landmark preservation movement in general, is that they have designated many many thousands of buildings, certainly on the West side, including my apartment on 82nd street which I think I could’ve designed in the fifth grade. In other words, people are using historic designation to keep out change that they don’t want. I don’t think New York’s most important tradition is architecture. If you want to see architecture, go someplace else. New York is a world city in competition with London and Shanghai and Singapore; it’s the capital of the world. Let Boston and Philadelphia have old buildings. New York is about density and vitality. I’m on the Historic House Trust, so it’s not like I don’t like old buildings. There are maybe 100, 300, or 1000 that are really important, but I think we have gone too far. I am certainly in favor of saving Grand Central Terminal and stuff like that.
BW: So it’s more about the use than the architecture?
KJ: Yea, I think what’s important about New York buildings is what happens in them. Not who designed the darn thing. New York has got to be the most historic place in the United States, but the importance of New York doesn’t lie in its architecture so much as in the events and the people that have made New York such an incredible place. That doesn’t mean no buildings, or no architecture is important—obviously the Chrysler Building is a treasure, the Empire State Building is a treasure, Rockefeller Center is a treasure. But a lot of buildings are not treasures, and we just designated them as historic to stop change.
BW: Speaking of the events that have shaped New York City, one thing that happened during your time as president of the New York Historical Society were the September 11th attacks. In the aftermath of those attacks, you and the New York Historical Society made a great effort to document them and preserve them.
KJ: I think we had thirteen exhibitions in the few years following them. We saved hundreds, maybe more, of documents, shoes, guns that we didn’t know where they came from, pieces of paper that blew out of the buildings, a bicycle that a messenger had probably taken to deliver bagels, and nobody will ever know who that person was. If anything, I wish I could have done more, but we did a lot.
BW: What’s the importance of documenting a tragedy like that?
KJ: The Great Fire of New York City, the most devastating physical event from New York’s history, was the fire of 1835. We have almost nothing from that period of time. It was a huge fire. It burned 674 buildings or something like that. In terms of destruction, it was even greater than the World Trade Center, and we have nothing from then. So I thought instantly that the attack on the World Trade Center was going to be an important event in New York history, and needed to be remembered and documented. And the buildings came straight down–there’s not a typewriter, not a chair, it was nothing. Everything was turned to dust. But we did get a few things. There were high heels that women left in the corners on their way down [from the World Trade Center] because they were slowing them up. We have those, and we have the crushed door of Rescue 2, the rescue company in Brooklyn from which many were killed. They gave us their door; those fire engines are important to those people. I wish we could’ve had more but there wasn’t very much. The way that those buildings fell, they pulverized everything.
BW: Are those things still at the New York Historical Society today?
KJ: Yes. We have hundreds of films and photographs.
BW: Collecting those must have been quite the experience.
KJ: It was. I went down to the garbage dump in Staten Island where everything from the collapsed towers went. 1400 destroyed vehicles. All of that stuff was collected over there, as well as everything from the site itself. I didn’t do everything, but I went through a lot of those vehicles. The people over there were looking for the black boxes. They never found them, they probably burned. But everything came through those conveyor belts. Columbia allowed me to go on halftime, so I took a half leave of absence.
BW: What is your favorite place in New York City?
KJ: What I would say to somebody is, ‘Where should you go to most understand the city?’ And that would be the Queens Museum. There’s something called the Panorama of New York City there. It’s a scale model of New York, all five boroughs, with 865,000 little buildings. My apartment building on 82nd street is there. You can look at it with binoculars. All of Columbia’s campus is there, and big things like Yankee Stadium, but even smaller buildings. You can see the expanse of the city. Is this where LaGuardia Airport is? Is this where Flushing Meadows used to be? Is this Queens Village? Is this the Kingsbridge Armory? You can see that building and you can see the huge housing projects. They even leave the World Trade Center up. You want to see the vast expanse of New York, the importance of Central Park and open space. There’s a lot of things you can do in New York. Go to Central Park and sit on a bench and watch the world go by.