In 1995 The Encyclopedia of New York City hit bookshelves and quickly became a go-to resource for budding New Yorkologists. Now, fifteen years later, editor Kenneth T. Jackson and his crack team of writers and editors are back with a bigger, badder second edition. Curious, we called up Jackson, who is the Jacques Barzun Professor in History and Social Sciences at Columbia University, for a lengthy chat about the changing city and encyclopedia that managed to range from defining neighborhoods and excising law firms from the encyclopedia to the wonders of the FDNY and why Woody Allen is in but Robert Redford isn't. Not to mention plans to eventually go online, the amazing number of newspapers that come out of the city and more.
I'm sure you've been repeating this up and down the Eastern seaboard, but what changed in the past 15 years that made now a good time for a second edition?
First of all, it's been a busy 15 years, an unusually busy 15 years. One answer is that many things have changed. Crime has gone down spectacularly since 1993 when we closed the books on the encyclopedia's first edition, the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed—that was a pretty big story—a whole bunch of places have gone out of business, JP Morgan and Chase are now one company, there's such a thing as an EZPass, a Metrocard, and of course Michael Bloomberg has been a three-term mayor. There are a lot of differences in the new book as well as new stories: things we put in, things we took out.
We put more entries in than we took out—now we have more than 5000.
But the other part of the answer is that the city has done much better than expected. If you were to say that you know America is suburbanizing and New York is going to be hit by this terrible terrorist attack that's going to get worldwide news, and the Security Exchange Commission will want banks to have their offices not across the street but in another power grid—what's going to happen to New York? And I think amazingly enough the city's done better. Look at the prices; I mean, not with this little recession, but the city's done well in the beginning of the 21st century. The city has proven that it is resilient and that it is able to adapt to all kinds of changes.
How many entries did you say you took out of the new edition?
We took out about 100 and added about 800. The ones we took out were mostly law firms or 18th century white men we thought weren't as compelling as Sandy Koufax, or Mickey Mantle, or Joe Di Maggio just to pick some sports people. And we've added many new people who have made up a different sort of 21st of 20th centuries. And we added new entries like synagogues, mosques, squares, public order and armories. There are a whole lot of new entries that are very strong. There's a combination of long, interpretive, synthetic entries which might be on literature or Brooklyn or skyscrapers or on bands. Then there are many other ones like Arthur Graham or the Flatiron building or a particular neighborhood. Long, interpretive entries and the short quick ones. I think people tend to look up the short ones more than the long ones.
Yeah, I have to admit, looking through the book I've mostly been reading the short ones.
Sure. If you really want to study literature in New York City, say, that's pretty thick, that's pretty dense. And there are many books on it. But if you are just trying to find out who the subway hero is or where did Marilyn Monroe live in the city, you can look that up in short order here. And it's organized about New York City unlike a Google or a Wikipedia or something like that. This tells you about New York City and the interaction between a person or a company or something in New York.
It looks like you have a pretty massive staff on this project. How do you go about assigning all of the entries?
What we tried to do in the first place, especially in the first edition, was just divide it up. We would find someone who was an expert on the theatre or on Queens and ask them who could write larger entries on this topic. And then when there were 50 entries under this heading, we'd ask who we should contact. There's no one person who could know all this stuff, I certainly don't, that would be impossible. So we relied on experts in a variety of fields, and the real challenge was what to leave out. Because if you say we'll put in every church in Queens or every school in Brooklyn or every person of any significance pretty soon you have a three-or-four volume book, and you and I are not talking, because it's a deep reference book intended for libraries and not people. We thought very hard about holding this down to fit between two covers, to keep it accessible to the general public.
It's still not quite subway reading, let me tell you. [ed. the second edition weighs in at 7.7 lbs.!]
Well it's too heavy for the subway, but it'd be fun to read on the subway.
Uh, well, I did it this morning. It was a bit tricky.
If you had a seat on the subway and it stalled, this would be a great way to pass the time—just to flip through the pages and find out what you learn serendipitously.
When did work on the second edition start?
The first edition came out in 1995 and it was another seven years till I started thinking seriously about a second edition. We began working on it in 2004, so it was a five-or-six year effort. Usually it was one or two people working on it full time, but during the summer, when we had interns, there were as many as a dozen people in the office fact checking and corresponding with authors, all sorts of other things.
What is really critical on something like this is to be able to rely on a lot of other experts, and one of great things about New York is that it has so many people who have written books about it, people who have PhDs or dissertations about it. Perhaps most impressive are all the people out there who are really New York City buffs, who can tell you when the Myrtle Avenue L ran for the last time or all sorts of things. Neighborhood specialists. We tried to embrace those people by saying, "you know this, we don't." A perfect example is Vincent Safries in Queens, he's probably forgotten more about Queens than any other living person. He doesn't have a PhD and never had an academic position, but boy does he know a lot about Queens. So we'd say, "okay, let's use this person."
And were there any entries you knew you wanted to work on that you kept for yourself?
No, I really didn't. I have written some entries, but they were mostly written at the last minute because someone had to do it. My job was to be the point person. I tried to raise money, arbitrate disagreements, and obviously I selected all the main people who worked on it. Certainly my promise doesn't derive from the fact I wrote a couple of entries for the encyclopedia. I know a lot of people and have been teaching about the city for more than 40 years now, so you tend to have a broad perspective, rather than a specific one.
First of all, I didn't have time, I mean it was all we could do to get this book out, at all. It really is a miracle it's out. You can never be finished, you can never be 100% correct, you can never make decisions that satisfy everyone. You just have to say this is it, we're stopping right now. And that's what we did, and I think we worked very, very hard and were very conscientious that we had no special things that we were trying to push. I think we can defend almost every entry in the book, and we do hope readers suggest new things we should put in if we ever do this again, which we just might. I don't know.
I certainly hope so. You talked about not wanting to have every church, but how did you go about deciding how long the long entries would be?
That was hard. I would say that we erred on the side of brevity. We really wanted to make this completely edited book to only have active verbs, to try to get rid of as many adjectives and adverbs and just say what happened and when and who designed the building or when someone died or where they went to school or this and that—facts that have to do with New York City. We felt like every extra word in this book would add to its weight, add to its length, add to its cost.
It was important to us to keep this book to a size that an ordinary person could afford it and carry it out, and not make it five volumes at some ridiculous price.
Which neighborhood would you says has changed the most since the first edition?
There are 450 neighborhoods in New York City, but not exactly. There is no such thing as a neighborhood, if we're talk legally. You have community boards and elections districts, but there is no such thing as Harlem or Greenwich Village. It's not official—where is Chinatown anyway? It's getting bigger because we often associate neighborhood boundaries with ethnic compositions, whereas in Germany, for example, there are official boundaries within cities and neighborhoods. That's not the case here. But we do all live in neighborhoods or the city would be too overwhelming.
Part of it is identifying these neighborhoods, and the other part is deciding how big are the entries? Harlem and the Greenwich Village are obviously more important than Indian Village in the Bronx, which is a little neighborhood, but we felt we should have that in there as well, and had to revive it, because many of these have changed.
I would say that since the first book almost every neighborhood in New York City has become more desirable, by which I mean a little bit more expensive, a little less crime, higher real estate prices that 15 years ago or 30 years ago.
A possible exception in my view, and it's a subjective view, is the financial district, for a bunch of reasons. Many of those companies were moving to midtown before 9/11—but 9/11 devastated 16 million-square-feet of office space and that's a big minus. Then the years of noisy renovations and work under the streets and all the concrete things to keep people away from the construction. All together it's just a burden. On the other hand, even lower Manhattan is really adapting very creatively to change. Think of all the office buildings that have been redeveloped as luxury condominiums and co-ops. And you're beginning to get grocery stores and the 24-hour-lifestyle down there. So even there it's not clear, but mostly New York City is better off than it was 20 years ago, and I think we especially see that in the neighborhoods.
You talked about dropping some of the 18th century figures, and I was wondering how you make decisions about contemporary figures.
I want to emphasize it's not just one person making the decisions. There is no perfection here, we tried to include people whose names had reference value, who'd be looked up. It's pretty hard to get into this encyclopedia, the easiest way is to die, it's even harder when you're alive—you have a higher boundary. But we only put in people like Woody Allen and Michael Bloomberg who are very much associated with New York in a way that Robert Redford and Harrison Ford are not. Even though Robert Redford says he now lives in New York, he's not associated with it, people wouldn't be expecting to look up Robert Redford in an encyclopedia of New York City. We left out a lot of people who are of significance, but we felt they didn't rise to this higher level where it would make sense for them to appear in a single volume encyclopedia. I'm sure we left out some really terrific people, but we did try to be fair about the reference value.
Did you have favorite entry in the book?
The one that I always point to is Vincent Safery one on railroads, which runs through many pages—that's a terrific one. Oh, the information about the songs and newspapers about New York City are available nowhere else. There are some wonderful new the entries on armories and squares that's all new scholarship. But firefighting's probably my favorite, especially after 9/11. I'm kind of in awe of the New York City Fire Department. It's miraculous that there really hasn't been a big fire in New York City since 1835. I mean there have been some fires and disasters in theaters where a lot people have died and a few other places—the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, obviously—but there never really has been a fire that the New York Fire Department could not control within a relatively short period of time. I think that's remarkable.
And the 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center is still a remarkable story. It's a tragedy for everyone who lost somebody they loved on 9/11, but most people were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Every single one of those 343 firefighters was safe when those planes hit and followed orders to enter buildings they never came out of. So I think the fire department of New York story is really the one that gives credit to New Yorkers. No firefighter did what I would've done, which is to say, "you're not paying me enough to do this, I'm not going in." Not only did not one firefighter refuse to go in, but about 60 who were off-duty went in, too. I think it's an incredible story of courage and sacrifice.
This book is really perfect for dinner party conversation, are there any particular entries like the New York songs one that you could point to that are particularly useful for anecdotes to impress other people with?
The newspaper one isn't good for anecdotes but it is the only list of all the newspapers published in New York City. And it is a testament to the city, since there aren't any other cities on earth, ever, that would publish this many newspapers. New York has such ethnic diversity, so not only do you have all the daily newspapers, but you have all the foreign language newspapers published in New York. And we list them all.
What was the biggest surprise you found in trying to get this second edition together?
How much work it was. Somehow I thought, rather naively, that we're all just correcting and adding a few entries, and it would just be a piece of cake. I didn't realize it was almost as much work as the first volume. We re-edited and changed 90% of the entries, made substantial changes to perhaps 50% of the entries and added 800 entries! We redid almost all the photographs, illustrations and charts, and made the index three times as long.
I had no idea what I was getting into, and if I had known I probably wouldn't have gotten into it. But nevertheless, we make choices and follow that fork, and I followed this one and I'm now glad I did it. Even though there were times I thought I must've been a fool to think this would be easy. It's not easy. No encyclopedic book is easy. No book is easy, but I can tell you a book that's as big as 22 books involving 800 people is especially difficult.
Is there any plan to put any of the book online at any point?
We are discussing that possibility almost as we speak. I suspect it will be available online in some form or another, probably sometime in 2011 in 2012. The first thing that to appear will almost certainly be an E-book. An E-book will be a lot easier to carry around subways, as you say. On the other hand, it's not quite searchable in the same way an online edition would be.
The problem with the online edition is really the expectation you'll keep it up-to-date. If there is an assassination attempt or a building burns tomorrow, you'll change the entry. That means that it's someone's job, so somebody needs to be paid to do that. Given the budget crunches there the New York Historical Society would be the most obvious choice, but to commit itself to $50,000-$100,000 a year forever, or the next 10-15 years, is a tough call when you have so many other demands. So it's not as easy as saying, "Oh, we'll just put it online," because putting it online means someone maintains it online, and that substantially enhances your costs. There are problems, but I suspect it'll happen.
Finally, I did find one little thing in your book. In the chapter about the Stuyvesant High School you talk about the Westinghouse Science Awards and I think it is now the Intel Science Talent Search...
Oh, we should change that.
But that was the closest I came to finding an error and it is more of a correction.
Well, it's something that needs to be corrected. I don't what happened, I don't even want to speculate! But if you send us an e-mail about it we'll make sure to fix it for the next time. And we hope your readers will do that too, they should send us a note through our website when they find things like that.