By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Monday, March 4, 2002
Urban historian sees cities on the rise

Historian Kenneth T. Jackson, whose work has reveled in the richness of New York City and criticized the harmful effects of suburban sprawl, sees a ray of hope on the horizon for urban centers after a long decline.

"New York City was the fastest-growing area of the state in the decade of the 1990s and it grew more than any of the suburbs,'' Jackson says by phone from his Manhattan office at the New York Historical Society. He is currently president.

"A lot of talented young people with the ability to live anywhere moved to New York City because they decided it was more exciting to dine at a fine restaurant, hail a taxi and see a play than drive their car to the shopping mall cineplex,'' Jackson says.

Jackson will discuss his theories in the evolution of New York City, Albany and other cities in a lecture, "The End of Sprawl: The City Beckons Once Again,'' today at the State Museum.

He is tempering his rosy projections for New York City somewhat after Sept. 11. Still, Jackson says the 2000 Census showed that more than 100 suburban communities across New York state lost population in the past decade, mirroring a national trend. Further evidence of his thesis that cities are bouncing back can be found in housing prices.

"We live in a market system and housing prices will tell you where the most desirable places to live are,'' he says. "The highest-priced real estate in the country is in New York City, Boston, San Francisco and other major cities, not in the suburbs. Cities are rebounding.''

Jackson is the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and Social Sciences at Columbia University and 2001 scholar of the year of the New York Council for the Humanities.

Jackson's visit as part of the New York State Writers Institute series is co-sponsored by the Council for the Humanities, for which Jackson received last year's $5,000 scholar prize. This year's recipient is Louis Menand ("The Metaphysical Club'') and past winners include Ron Chernow and Simon Schama.

"Although Ken is not a New York native, there's something about the combination of the quality of his work, the public spiritedness and the New Yorkishness of him that caused him to stand out from the rest,'' says David Cronin, executive director of the New York Council for the Humanities, based in Manhattan.

Jackson is editor-in-chief of "The Encyclopedia of New York City'' (1995), a mammoth project last undertaken a century ago. He is the author of a seminal study of suburbanization, "Crabgrass Frontier'' (1985), a book of enduring interest that has been reprinted 17 times.

An accident of geography brought the Memphis, Tenn., native to New York City. Its infinite allure has kept him there for 35 years.

"I knew it was hard to get tenure at a big, famous American university, so I came to Columbia expecting to stay a year or two before moving on to Nebraska or Virginia or someplace,'' Jackson says in a raspy drawl.

But the city that never sleeps wouldn't let him leave. "Only in New York'' is more than a slogan for Jackson. He divides his time now between his office at Columbia; his office at the Historical Society at 77th Street and Central Park West; an apartment five blocks away; and a home in Chappaqua, Westchester County (not far from Bill Clinton's house). Jackson's wife teaches English at a high school near Chappaqua.

"My own writing is suffering for the time being because of all the hours I have to put in,'' Jackson says of his dual posts as academic and organization head. He's itching to get to work on a new edition of "The Encyclopedia of New York City.'' Jackson is also contemplating a book on ''satellite cities'' that ring New York City in Connecticut, New Jersey and Westchester County. He's also begun gathering material for a book on transportation policies with a working title of "Road to Hell.''

Jackson isn't totally New York City-centric. He's made some general observations of Albany during visits to meet with State Museum officials or when passing through on the way to ski in the North Country.

"The same centrifugal forces that created suburban sprawl in cities around the U.S. occurred in Albany,'' Jackson says. "It spread up the Northway to the north, down the Thruway to the south and out to the east and west. There is a very long history that goes back centuries when Albany began to grow away from the river, up State Street hill to the Capitol and out in every direction.''

Jackson is wary that the terrorist attacks may slow or reverse the steady gains made during the past decade in New York City and other densely populated urban centers glistening with skyscrapers. "I don't have all the answers, but I'm asking the questions if our fear of terrorism will push people away from living near tall buildings or using subways,'' Jackson says. "I'll argue that skyscrapers are still very safe environments.''

Jackson says he's been involved in three exhibits related to the World Trade Center at the New York Historical Society. "I think we've done more than any other agency,'' he says. "It's hard to know exactly how to deal with that incident at this point as a historian, but we continue to collect materials.''

Jackson doesn't consider himself one of the new urbanists, but praises the work of social critic James Howard Kunstler, author of three books on urban living, including the recently published "The City In Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.''

"I'm a fellow traveler with him and other urbanists,'' Jackson says. "The suburbs were a great achievement for the U.S., but they could have been planned better and I think they're finally running their course as we return to cities.''

Kenneth T. Jackson