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Historian celebrates NYC

By : Max Lakin

Urban historian Kenneth Jackson’s lecture “Empire City: Why New York is Different from the Rest of the United States” drew a crowd of around 50 May 1 in the Anderson Center Reception Room.

Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University, delivered the inaugural Harvey and Elizabeth Prior Shriber Lecture and addressed what he described as New York City’s “pivotal role” in the history of the country.

Jackson charted New York’s early development as a Dutch capitalistic enterprise, and drew its modern incarnation against cities such as Detroit and St. Louis, which he asserted fell short in comparison.

The self-described “urbanist” commented at length on what he believes to be one of New York’s most alluring attributes: its tandem of diversity and tolerance.

“You’re forced to run into people all the time that are different,” he said. “You have no time to worry why that person has purple hair or speaks a different language.”

Jackson was candid about the state of life New Yorkers share. He alluded to Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker’s inflammatory 1999 railing against the diversity of the No. 7 subway train, saying that to a degree, Rocker was right in his assessment of the “international express.”

Jackson argued that within the confines of the city, entire ethnic populations, which elsewhere would be in the grips of war, exist harmoniously. He offered divisions between Pakistani and Indian, Arab and Jewish, and Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian populations as examples, and testaments to the trademark variety the city enjoys.
“Nobody gives a flying damn who your grandparents were,” he said. “[New York] is kind of color blind in that sense.”

Intermittently, and mostly to demonstrate the uniqueness of the topic city, Jackson brought his discussion back to local environs.

“This is America,” said Jackson, speaking of the Vestal Parkway outside, and of Boscov’s department store in downtown Binghamton. “This is the story of the United States ... but in New York, there is more of this concentrated energy.”

Jackson explained how New York has been able to avoid the “American pattern” of the rich moving out and the poor remaining, broadly crediting newcomers to the city for its success.

“There is always somebody willing to take your place and hustle,” he said.

The Memphis-born Jackson earned his PhD at the University of Chicago. He has served as president of the Urban History Association and the New York Historical Society and as the primary editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. He is also the author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, a study of the factors influencing suburban growth.

This authorial side of Jackson showed twice, as he called upon lauded American authors to shore up his views of Gotham City, opening with John Steinbeck’s notion that “once you have lived in New York ... no place else is good enough,” and later repeating E.B. White’s claim that New York “will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” as his closing remark.

Jackson fielded questions from his audience — a discernible mix of generations — about gentrification and dissolution of counterculture neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village and DUMBO in Brooklyn.

“New York is the most sustainable city in the country,” he said. “There is aspiration ... a celebration of achievement.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08