Popular professor Ken Jackson has shared his passion for history
and the city with Columbia students for more than 30
By Traci Mosser '95
"History of the City of New York" is one of the most popular
courses on campus, typically attracting 300-plus juniors and
seniors to 309 Havemeyer. His all-night bike rides through
Manhattan are legendary. The Encyclopedia of New York City
is a must-have for anyone remotely interested in the
his three decades at Columbia, Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques
Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences, has become
both a world-renowned urban history scholar and one of the most
popular professors among students.
can't throw a rock on the Upper West Side without hitting someone
who took that class," says Ric Burns '78, who never had Jackson as
a teacher but grew close to him during the filming of his landmark
PBS project, New York: A Documentary Film, on which Jackson
served as a senior academic adviser.
Students, faculty and
alumni alike talk about how kind and open Jackson is. Invariably
they use the words "energy" and "enthusiasm" when describing him
and his teaching style. Many attribute his charm and good nature to
his southern roots - Jackson grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and retains
the kind of drawl not often heard in New York, as well as a
penchant for Pepsi. He's the type of teacher who, in addition to
the many outings that are part of his courses, holds barbecues for
his students and invites them into his home.
"He's warm and he's
accessible," says Rosalind Rosenberg, professor of history at
Barnard and a friend of Jackson's who credits him with making her
feel especially welcome and comfortable in her first few years at
the University. "At a big university, the people who can connect
quickly are valuable resources. He's always thinking up these
folksy things to do. The southern tradition of hospitality means a
lot to him."
also means a lot to the students who benefit from this kind of
personal, yet educational, engagement.
"There's a glass wall that
sometimes gets put up between professors and students," says Suzy
Shuster '94, who had Jackson as an academic adviser and became
close to him when she took his seminar on New York City. She fondly
refers to him by his nickname, K.J. "He lets you in. You can ask
him questions without feeling foolish. K.J. lectures you like
you're friends sitting in the living room in front of a fire. He
might even throw in a couple of expletives or jokes for effect. He
always knows how to find stories to get his point
his story of Typhoid Mary and her role in the early 20th-century
outbreak of typhoid fever in the city, which keeps his lecture
class enthralled. Or his mesmerizing tale about the prison ships
anchored in New York's harbor during the American Revolution, on
which British forces kept captured rebels - a story filled with
vivid descriptions of nasty, disease-ridden conditions below deck.
This tale includes a titillating theory about how an illicit love
affair between General Sir William Howe, commander of the British
forces in the area, and the wife of the man in charge of providing
rations to the prisoners may have prompted the cuckolded husband to
serve the appalling mess that masqueraded as food to the famished
Shuster, a reporter for Fox
Sports Net in Los Angeles, says Jackson's lessons have resonated
throughout her life. "I think about him all the time when I'm doing
my sports stories. I always find myself looking back and trying to
make historical connections and find characters to tell my story.
That's something I learned from K.J."
Clearly, Jackson has had a
major impact on Columbia, its students and the city. Kathryn
Wittner, junior class dean at the College, says it has been
interesting to watch the intersection of Jackson's work, the
revival of the city and the rising popularity of
"It's kind of like the
stars are aligning," she says. "When I first came to Columbia in
1989, the school was really downplaying its presence in the city.
Columbia kind of apologized for its location: 'We've got this great
school here, but, well, we kind of happen to be in New York.'
People like Ken Jackson and his work have really helped change
opinions about the city and the school."
Jackson neither acts nor
speaks like a typical professor. He doesn't have perfect elocution
and diction, but he sure knows how to get a point across. Listening
to him is like going on a Sunday drive in the country. Naturally
curious, he'll take you down one fork in the road and then
backtrack to explore another equally entertaining and evocative
easily moves from talking about last fall's Subway Series in the
fervent tone of a true baseball fan (a Yankees fan, by the way) to
the historical significance of subways and public transportation
and the wonderful urban moments afforded by a tradition-steeped
stadium in the bustling Bronx. No new baseball palace on the West
Side of Manhattan for him, thank you very much.
Jackson shrugs off a
question about the reasons for his enormous popularity among
students. He knows his affection for the city is contagious, but he
also wonders if his easy-going style might be another reason
students find him so approachable.
"I've never thought of
myself as an intellectual," he adds, offering up another possible
"That's bull," says
Shuster. "He hides behind that whole, 'I'm from Memphis' thing.
He'll say 'I'm not an intellectual,' with his southern drawl, but
he'll look at you with that sly, wry look out of the corner of his
eyes, and we know he is one. Otherwise, why would so many people
listen to what he has to say?"
She's right. Don't let
Jackson's aw-shucks attitude and casual style fool you. There's no
doubt that he is a serious historian whose contributions to urban
history, and specifically to the study of New York City's history,
have been unrivaled.
From Memphis to
question most often asked about Jackson is why him and why New
York? How did this nice guy from Memphis come to love New York so
much and turn into its biggest advocate?
is truly hilarious that the premier historian of New York City is a
southern boy," says Rosenberg. "In New York there's a premium
placed on sophistication and a certain iciness and remove. Ken's
not like that. He's a real direct, no-pretense person. He doesn't
stand on ceremony."
why him and why New York?
his large, book-lined office situated in the corner of the sixth
floor of Fayerweather, Jackson tries to answer that question.
Leaning back into his chair and stretching out his legs, he seems
at this moment to embody the phrase so many people use to describe
Jackson attributes much of
his success to being in the right place at the right time or to
being lucky, and often downplays his accomplishments. It's part of
his modesty; he wouldn't be the type to boast, for instance, about
publishing his dissertation at age 26, about earning tenure at 31,
or about writing one of the definitive books on the growth of
American suburbs. When Jackson spins the tale of his life, you
often hear words like "luck," "random," and "just because." Rest
assured, there's usually more to the story.
in 1939 in Memphis, to a father who was an accountant and Army
officer and a homemaker mother, Jackson is the second oldest of
four children, the only boy. He grew up primarily in a
Levittown-style tract house that, while within the city limits of
Memphis, had a suburban feel to it. It was the kind of place he'd
later research and write about in books like Crabgrass Frontier:
The Suburbanization of the United States (1985), which would
win both the Francis Parkman and the Bancroft Prizes as the
outstanding work in American history.
of Jackson's earliest lessons in the importance of urban centers
came from his mother, Elizabeth Willins Jackson. A supporter of
downtown commerce and a believer in Main Street, she often would go
out of her way to avoid shopping in the suburbs.
Jackson's youngest sister,
Margaret Vaughn, remembers her brother as a good student who earned
high marks even though he wasn't particularly studious. She also
recalls how as a young boy he served as a leader - perhaps
ringleader is the more fitting term - of a group of neighborhood
kids and family who called themselves the "Jolly Six" and roamed
the streets and lawns of Memphis. "He was always in charge,"
recalls Vaughn. "And we were a bossy family, so that was no small
After high school
graduation, Jackson took a job in a downtown department store as
assistant manager of the shoe department. Impressed by Jackson's
sales skills, the store manager tried mightily to convince him to
pursue a career in retail. Fortunately for urban history and
Columbia, Jackson decided to enroll at Memphis State University
(now the University of Memphis) and major in history.
That's where he met his
wife Barbara. The story goes that Jackson's mother spotted Barbara
walking across the campus and said to her son, "There's a pretty
girl. Why don't you go talk to her?" The obedient son listened to
his mother, and it turned out the young woman was much more than
just a pretty face.
"She's very smart - one of
two people who graduated with a higher average than me," says
Jackson, "which she won't let me forget anytime soon." Barbara
Jackson chairs the English department at Blind Brook High School in
Port Chester, N.Y.
Woodrow Wilson fellowship gave Jackson the opportunity to leave
Memphis. He set off for graduate studies at the University of
Chicago, where Professor Richard C. Wade would become an early
mentor. In fact, it was Wade who coined the term "crabgrass
frontier" that Jackson later used in his work on the
often what happens to you in life is you get under the influence of
a person or a group of people and it takes you in a new direction,"
says Jackson. "I took [Wade's] course at random, for lack of
anything better to do, and it's the kind of thing that changed my
life because he was excited about cities. As Wade pointed out to
us, historians had really ignored the cities. There was still this
frontier myth in the United States - open land and cowboys and
Indians and all that - so at that time in the mid-1960s, urban
history was a very new field. It had promise and
promise and excitement would have to wait a bit. The Vietnam War
was heating up and Jackson had an ROTC obligation from his Memphis
State days that had been delayed while at Chicago. In 1965, he was
sent to the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson
Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where he served as an assistant
professor of logistics management, teaching management techniques
to maintenance and supply officers. By the time he had finished his
three-year stint, Jackson had completed and published his
dissertation, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930, and
begun to look for a full-time faculty position.
Columbia offered him an assistant professorship in 1968, he felt
that while he probably would not get tenure at the school, the
experience would be invaluable. "I figured it would be a nice
stepping stone to wherever I wound up, the University of Nebraska
or whatever," he says. "I thought it'd be a nice place to be from.
I always imagined I'd end up teaching at a small liberal arts
college like Wabash College in Indiana or something like that." So
he packed up Barbara and their two young sons, Kevan and Gordon,
for the move to the big city.
Jackson would stay at Columbia. And he would get tenure approved in
1970 at age 31.
Jackson helped organize the
school's first urban studies program - an inter-disciplinary course
of study - and later contributed to the program's restructuring.
Over the years he has taught the history of the south, social
history and military history. But it has been his courses on New
York City, particularly the lecture course, for which he's most
Jackson addresses his midnight bicycle riders outside Federal Hall
in lower Manhattan.
PHOTO COURTESY KEN JACKSON
Jackson's affection for New
York is contagious. He loves the city, not because it's perfect,
but because it's imperfect and always evolving. Early on, he
latched onto the idea of using New York City as a prism through
which to look at American urban history. Since the city was just
outside the Columbia gates, it was only natural that its streets
would become a second classroom for Jackson and his students. The
class evolved into a smorgasbord of activities, some required, some
optional: walking tours, community service projects, guest
lecturers, and most famously, an all-night bike tour of
1972 Jackson rented a bus and hit the road with students to get a
close-up look at Brooklyn, the Bronx and suburban Westchester and
New Jersey. Manhattan seemed inaccessible because of the traffic
and congestion, but one day it struck him that those factors were
less of a hindrance at night, and that bicycles would afford a
chance for a more intimate look at the borough. Thus was born the
all-night bike ride.
People who have gone on the
ride usually say it's one of their favorite Columbia memories. And
why not? Picture a group of 300 students, teaching assistants,
guests, administrators and assorted hangers-on, riding at a
leisurely pace through the streets of Manhattan behind Jackson and
his megaphone. Jackson's sister, who tagged along last year,
likened the experience of seeing her brother at the front of the
mass of people to her childhood memory of seeing Elvis Presley at a
movie theater in Memphis with the crowd sitting behind him in
group makes its way from Morningside Heights through Central Park
and Times Square, down past the bustling and pungent Fulton Fish
Market at 4 a.m., ultimately crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to get a
sunrise view of the city that never sleeps.
Jonathan Lemire '01, a
history major from Lowell, Mass., said a big reason he came to
Columbia was his interest in the city. He jumped at the chance to
take Jackson's class as a junior and to go on the bike
remember we were at the Bethesda Fountain [in Central Park] and
were headed south out of the park and down Seventh Avenue. You
could see all the lights of Times Square," Lemire says. "This
adrenaline rush just went through the crowd, we were all yelling
and so excited. Then we literally rode through Times Square - to
the amazement of pedestrians and cab drivers, we rode right through
bike ride has grown to such proportions that planning it resembles
an exercise in military strategy and precision, giving Jackson an
opportunity to utilize his Air Force logistics training. A CAVA
medical van and a repair truck accompany the group. Jackson enlists
helpers to block traffic as the riders pass through busy
intersections. He also plots out restroom and food breaks along the
way. He's usually hoarse for several days after the
Jackson claims at least one
marriage and countless relationships have come out of the all-night
bike ride. It's certainly not hard to believe; people who have
participated report a feeling of magic and camaraderie that
develops over the course of the evening. It's just one way Jackson
has for making his students feel special, something he manages to
do in the classroom as well.
makes you feel like your thoughts and opinions and your take on
history are important," says Shuster. "When you're 20 years old,
Students have bestowed all
kinds of accolades on Jackson. He received the Mark Van Doren Award
for excellence in teaching in 1989. In 1993 Playboy named
him one of the most popular professors in the nation. He's
frequently asked to speak at class reunion dinners and alumni
Jackson is known as being
incredibly supportive, say students who have worked closely with
him - especially if you manage to get him without any
interruptions, that is. His phone rings every few minutes with
requests from students, reporters, filmmakers and colleagues. He's
always willing to lend a hand, give some advice, or just shoot the
breeze. Many students keep in touch with Jackson for years after
Janet Frankston '95, who
took both Jackson's lecture and seminar on the city and also
contributed articles to the Encyclopedia, remembers how
after enrolling at the Journalism School and learning that she
would be covering Washington Heights, she asked Jackson what he
knew of the neighborhood.
told me he didn't know much, but that I certainly would [after
reporting on it] and I could lead his walking tour." Sure enough,
eventually Frankston did lead Jackson's students on a walking tour
of Washington Heights.
Jackson lavishes as much
praise on his students as they do on him.
"They have a kind of
inquisitiveness," he says. "They're intellectually curious and
they're not afraid to express their opinions. Part of that comes
from being New Yorkers. I think Columbia students are comfortable
with exercising their own prerogatives."
The Encyclopedia of New
Encylopedia of New York City was the culmination of a 13-year
effort by Jackson and a half-dozen aides.
Besides his courses, field
trips and excursions, Jackson has spent much of his time at
Columbia working on the mammoth Encyclopedia of New York
City. In 1982, Edward Tripp, an editor at Yale University
Press, approached Jackson about taking on the project.
"Fortunately, I was already
a full professor with tenure by then. I was intrigued by the idea
of doing it, but it's not exactly the kind of project that would
get you tenure," Jackson says.
Perhaps not, but a medal of
some sort seems deserved for the 13-year battle it took Jackson and
a half dozen full-time staffers to complete the work.
the book neared publication, Jackson says he'd often wake up with
nightmares of omission. "I was worried we'd forget something major,
like Harlem. Can you imagine?" he says. Jackson's fears were
largely unfounded, though he does wish he'd remembered to include
an entry on the Municipal Arts Society, a venerable New York
institution that "just sort of fell through a whole bunch of
cracks," he says. "That's really the only one we just
Jackson points to a
foot-high stack of folders and papers in a corner of his office,
notes, suggestions and reminders for a possible second edition that
may be published in the next few years. "It would be 30 or 40
percent new material," he says of the update, to which he would
like to affix a new index.
Jackson swears he read all
1.4 million words in the 1,373-page book - "some more than once,"
he adds. "I felt it was my responsibility to edit every single
Kameny, executive editor on the project, vouches for that. He calls
Jackson a great editor who deftly handled questions about how
particular entries should be slanted, and who knew when and when
not to go to the mat in disagreements with contributors. "He has
the most important attribute an editor needs: judgment," Kameny
says. "And his judgment is unerring."
Bringing History to the
better than Jackson to speak at the New York Historical
PHOTO: TARKY LOMBARDI JR.
on A&E, PBS, or the History Channel at any given time and you
might well see Jackson expounding on something - New York, suburbs,
military history, the automobile, a Western movie, you name
believe that the role of the scholar is to be part of the larger
world," he says, "to make history exciting and relevant, in
whatever form it takes."
is a commentator on the History Channel's Movies in Time
series and a jury member for its Herodotus Awards, or "Harry's,"
the network's version of the Oscars, awarded to films that
accurately portray history. "
lot of historians might look down on this kind of stuff, but
[Jackson] knows there's more to history than academic writing and
college teaching," says Seth Kamil, a graduate student who founded
Big Onion Walking Tours of the city after taking Jackson's
understands as a fundamental truth that history is stories, and
sometimes stories of history are disparaged by scholars as not
being sufficiently abstract," says Rosalind Rosenberg. "But he's
able to tap into those stories and make great historical
While Jackson may be known
for his populist approach, he's also a serious scholar. Just as he
was able to sell shoes back in Memphis, he knows how to sell a
is always trying to point academics to a wider audience, not by
sacrificing standards, but by writing clearly and with a breadth of
imagination," says Evan Cornog, associate dean of the Journalism
School and a former graduate student of Jackson's.
lasting impact that Crabgrass Frontier has had in the field
of urban history since it was published in 1985 is testament to his
success at that.
Shortly before Jackson
completed Crabgrass, his 16-year-old son Gordon died in a
car crash a few miles from the family's Chappaqua, N.Y., home. (The
Jacksons also have an apartment on the Upper West Side.) He writes
movingly about the loss in the acknowledgement pages at the
beginning of the book. Students are often surprised to come across
the note when reading the book for class.
the semester, [Jackson] talked about public transportation and his
support for it," says Stephanie Hsu '01, who took Jackson's course
a year ago. "At one point he mentioned that he had lost someone
dear to him in an automobile accident. Then I read the introduction
to Crabgrass and saw that it was his son who had died, which
was pretty shocking. I really respect the way he's taken that
terrible tragedy and built this very well-supported, scholarly
argument and advocacy for public transportation."
After his son's death,
Jackson moved to Los Angeles to teach as a visiting professor at
UCLA. "Partly it was an escape," he says. "We didn't know what we'd
do. We'd had a couple of offers from other universities and some
people told us that's what you should do after a tragedy like that,
just kind of start your life over again." Although he liked Los
Angeles, Jackson and his wife decided to return to New York and
Rumors abound that Jackson
is such a workaholic that he keeps a sleeping bag stashed in his
office. Kamil remembers how he once called Jackson's office in the
middle of the night intending to leave a message on his voice mail
- so as to avoid being asked the dreaded "How's the dissertation
going?" question - only to be surprised by the sound of an alert
Jackson on the other end of the line.
Jackson admits to
occasionally working through the night and sacking out for a few
hours on the black leather couch in his office ("I'm getting too
old for that; it's not so good for your neck," he says), but he
brushes aside the theory that he's a workaholic.
only a workaholic if you suggest that I spend vast amounts of time
reading - which I do, but I'm interested in it, so it's play. My
wife thinks of it as playing, but really I need to do it for my
work as well," he says.
display case in Jackson's home in Westchester houses part of his
extensive collection of toy soldiers, plus other mementoes.
PHOTO COURTESY KEN JACKSON
Jackson, who is teaching
only a graduate colloquium this spring, is co-chair of the planning
committee for the University's 250th anniversary celebration in
2004. He's also president of the Organization of American
Historians, and will deliver his presidential address in Los
Angeles in late April. Yet Barbara Jackson senses that her husband
is eager to get back into the classroom. "Teaching is his passion.
He's a born teacher," she says, noting how they often share ideas
about how to be more effective in the classroom.
not all work. When he's not preparing for class, leading walking
tours, advising students or working on one of his projects or
committees, he manages to unwind, often by playing games of pickup
the basketball floor, people don't even know your name," he says.
"You're judged only by what you can do with the ball. It can be a
very humiliating and humbling experience because if you can't run
fast, or jump high, if you can't bounce the ball behind your back,
you're not going to get chosen. And if you look old..." he says,
his voice trailing off. Apparently, the 61-year-old Jackson is
still getting picked for games. He attributes a recent 20-pound
weight loss to his increased sessions on the court.
Jackson frequently commutes
to campus with Derek Wittner '65, executive director of alumni
affairs and development for the College, and his wife Kathryn. "In
the best sense, Ken is a child in adult clothing (when he remembers
to pick up his pants at the cleaners)," says Wittner. "He has
endless energy, enthusiasm and an insatiable inquisitiveness. His
jump shot may not be what it was, but his breadth of interests and
information make him a wonderful commuting companion for Kath and
Kathryn Yatrakis, associate
dean of the College and dean of academic affairs, remembers playing
basketball against Jackson years ago. "He's pretty good," she says,
"but while he might be waiting by the phone, I really don't think
the NBA is going to be calling anytime soon. Unless, of course,
they're looking for someone to write the history of the
About the Author: Traci
Mosser '95 has one regret about her Columbia years: missing
the all-night bike ride. She hopes she might be able to wrangle an
invitation for next year's trip.