Monday, May 05, 2003

Good Experience Live II

Ken Jackson: How New York Is Different

Ken Jackson is the president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, the oldest cultural organization in the state of New York. Jackson is also a professor of history and the social sciences at Columbia University. Here is a rough transcript of his talk at Good Experience Live:

I'm delighted to welcome you to the New-York Historical Society. Many of you are not from New York. I am not from New York. As you might be able to tell from my voice, I'm from somewhere else: Memphis. But I share Mark's enthusiasm for New York. How is New York different than other places?

One way is that it's old. New York is older than Boston and Philadelphia. We're thrown off by the skyscrapers, but New York is literally the oldest city in the country. Other cities have disappeared. To call them a city in our own time is really a stretch. History in some sense in this country is for losers. Because New York won, it's often forgotten. What we think is historic is wrack and ruin. Lower Manhattan is historic, but we don't think about it as such because it's not old. 1624, what's that? In European or Asian terms, that's insignificant. Another reason New York is different is because it's old as a big city. New York has been big for a long time.

What difference has history made? New York is famous for its rudeness. We tend to think of that in a negative sense, but New York is an entrepreneurial city. We were founded by the Dutch, not the Puritans. Boston was founded by the Puritans as a religious experiment. New York is about making money. It's a company town. If you know your history, you can predict your future. Cities have history and move in a trajectory. Because the Dutch were here to make money, they were more open to other people. New York became the original melting pot. It was never anything but that. Why do people come here? At the end of the day, people in New York don't care. In a huge city like this, we don't have time to chase down the people we don't like.

What has that got to do with today? All of the life and vitality of American cities is along the edges. That's the North American model. What's on the edges? Office parks and subdivisions. Yes, New York has suburbs, but no one grows up on the edges and feels like there isn't a center. New York is a very centered region. All around the country, cities have been losing urban density. Their boundaries have expanded faster than their population has grown -- except in New York and San Francisco. People move to the suburbs and to Florida, but someone takes their place.

Another difference is where the rich live. New York has more than its share of poor people, but what makes New York different is that the city has a large population of the wealthy in the center of the city. Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Central Park West have the highest real estate values. The richest county per capita -- not per household -- is New York County. That's the island of Manhattan. That's astonishing. If you are very rich, you make a point to document that you are out of New York City 180 days a year so you don't have to pay New York state tax. Even with all of the homeless, unemployed, and underreported actors and actresses, we're still the most wealthy city in the world.

New York is also different in other ways. It's a 24-hour city. You can find a cup of coffee at 3 or 4 in the morning. I do an all-night bike ride every year. We've got good public transportation. One other thing is important. That is safety. When most people think of New York, they don't usually think of safety. But our crime rate is extremely low. Homicide and auto theft is down 70% over the last 10 years. Stranger crime is down 90%. But the real reason New York City is safe is because middle-class people aren't likely to be the victims of homicide. The reason New York City is safe is because we don't have automobile accidents here. Distances are short. You're not in harms way if you walk.

Let me talk about the good experiences. Assuming that being big is good, if you're here, it's because you want to do well in life. You are different. You have accepted the American ethos: to aspire. Maybe New York is the most American of places. Why is it that New York became so big? It wasn't always that way. You could argue that New York has a location that is so fabulous that finally it began to kick in. Another could be luck. After the War of 1812, British manufactured goods destined for American markets ended up in New York. The British merchants made New York their auction place.

Also, people here take charge of their own lives. When you get on the No. 10 bus, you know that there's a schedule, that there's a route, and that there's a fare. Those are managerial concepts, not technical concepts. That originated in New York. The New York Stock Exchange started in 1792. Even though Philadelphia had the first and second banks, New York far surpassed it.

Long before the Civil War, New York isn't even thinking about other cities. People did something to change their luck. We need to have a place that celebrates difference and is open to new experiences. That place is New York. And a place isn't anything without its people.

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