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Greg Wyatt '71

K.J. on N.Y.C.

CCT sat down with Jackson to find out more about his take on New York City

Why do you love New York?

Ken and Barbara Jackson

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I think living in New York is exciting and I'd much rather be here than sitting in a rowboat up in Vermont with a fishing line in the water. To me that's a vision of hell.

The other thing about New York that I think should really be emphasized is that in its anonymity, New York offers freedom. Often I ask, 'Why do Arabs come to live in the largest Jewish city in the world? Why aren't the Serbs and the Bosnians and the Croats at each other's throats in New York?' They all live here. Somehow, New York imposes anonymity. I'm not spending my time worrying about how long your grandparents have been in the United States or whether you're white or black or gay or straight. I don't have time to worry about it. It's not that we're less prejudiced, but the circumstances in which we live make it more difficult to act on those prejudices. If we can't come to terms with differences, then we have to leave.

Everybody can come here and we're going to judge you on who you are and what you can do and we don't really give a damn about the rest of your life. Think of the freedom that offers people who come here thinking New York will give them a chance.

I don't mean to say this is some kind of Valhalla or that we don't have our race problems, but relative to the world at large, New York is way ahead.

How long do you have to live here before you can call yourself a New Yorker?

I don't think you have to be here very long at all. I think whether or not you are attracted to New York City is inherent. It's an accident where you're born, but you can control where you live. To some people the City is a turn-off, with all the dirt, congestion, noise. [He says this as sirens wail outside on Amsterdam Avenue, seemingly punctuating his point.] Other people get absolutely energized walking down the streets.

A lot of people who seem to love New York best are from somewhere else, not just me. And there are some people who were born here who would be happier someplace else, who just want to get out.

What kind of people are attracted to New York?

The person who thrives most in New York is a person who is comfortable with difference, who is comfortable with competition, who has high aspirations for achievement and high standards. If you want to go to the theater, you don't want to go to the local high school play. You want the best. And there's a price for the best, which is not just reflected in ticket price, but in the drive to get there, in the fact that you have to pay more for housing, put up with more. There's benefits and cost of living to deal with.

What's the biggest myth about New Yorkers?

The thoughtless, unkind, impolite New Yorker. You see, in a rural or small town circumstance, there's a reflexive greeting you give people when you pass. It might be just a nod or a wave. If you did that as you walked down the street in New York City, you'd never get anywhere. You have to build a kind of wall around you.

What's your favorite spot in New York?

The West Side. I try to not even go to the East Side, though you can't avoid it sometimes. To me it's just so boring and sterile. I feel like it's almost a different city. I'm talking about the area above 59th Street and, you know, the Metropolitan Museum of Art - people I like who live over there excepted, of course. But I think the West Side has it all over East Side.

If I could live anywhere in the world, I'd like a townhouse in the West 70s. I've come close with my apartment on 82nd Street.

Who's your favorite New Yorker, living or dead?

DeWitt Clinton. I'd say he is the most important New Yorker, living or dead. He, more than any person who has ever lived, helped make New York the world city that it is.

What do you think about Columbia's relationship to the city?

There were times 50 years ago when Columbia apparently thought about moving to the distant suburbs-you know, we weren't Dartmouth, and America celebrates rural life and suburban life. Now I think we are developing a new appreciation of congestion and density and New York City, especially Manhattan, which represents the extreme expression of that. Now we're thinking of those as positive characteristics, and so many young people whose parents may have been fearful of sending them to New York 10 or 20 years ago aren't fearful anymore.

Embracing the city rather than standing apart from it is the way Columbia should go. We are here and we have advantages no other place, besides NYU and a couple of other schools, can match. Let's capitalize on that. We can offer students an experience they can't get anywhere else.

Who would win in a fight-New York or Los Angeles?

Well, I happen to like Los Angeles. Both cities are much more alike than people give them credit for. Both are gigantic places. Both are incredibly diverse. Both are built around achievement and effort. It's true L.A. is a little more laid-back, and certainly there's less a sense of a center or a core. But you're not going to move to L.A. if you want the easy life - you might go to Santa Barbara, or Albuquerque, or Santa Fe.

I have a big print that shows Los Angeles and palm trees on one side and the skyscrapers of New York on the other side. You can flip it and on one side it says "I'll take L.A. over N.Y." and on the other side it says "I'll take N.Y. over L.A." Even when I lived in L.A., I always had it on the side that says "I'll take N.Y. over L.A."

I do prefer New York.

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  Kenneth Jackson: A New York State of Mind  

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