It’s not often that an encyclopedia is a popular success. “Usually you’ll see encyclopedias in multivolumes and priced for many hundreds of dollars, and clearly the marketing plan is to sell to libraries,” says Kenneth T. Jackson, editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City during a call that catches him in San Francisco as he is heading home from Shanghai, where he has been during sabbatical leave from Columbia University.
But from the day in 1982, when Edward Tripp, the late, great head of Yale University Press, drove down from New Haven to discuss an idea for a book about New York with Jackson, a prominent urban historian with near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history of New York City, the plan was to create a book for the general reader that was both authoritative and quirky. The idea, Jackson recalls, was “to put it all in one volume, make it relatively inexpensive, and see if it would sell.”
The first edition of The Encyclopedia of New York City, published in 1995, has gone through seven printings, sold tens of thousands of copies, and spawned a host of imitators in cities and regions around the country. President Clinton took it along as a gift for his hosts during a trip to China. It was part of the bet between mayors when the New York Giants played the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. As reference books go, it has been a smash hit.
Another measure of its success are the hundreds and hundreds of letters Jackson has received from readers—New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike—offering opinions and suggestions about the book. Some requested factual corrections—“it’s on the northwest corner not the southwest corner.” Some suggested additions. Some excoriated Jackson for omissions. Joe DiMaggio, for instance, is mentioned a number of times in the first edition, but he doesn’t have an entry all his own. What? No entry for the Yankee Clipper? “I was hammered for leaving out Joe D,” says Jackson ruefully.
Well, DiMaggio fans, Yankee fans and New York City fans can rejoice. Joe DiMaggio has his own entry in the extraordinarily appealing new edition of The Encyclopedia of New York City. And so do hundreds of other people, places and events.
“Generally, you had to be dead to be in the first edition,” Jackson says. “Now we have more living people. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and the Subway Hero [Wesley Autrey, a construction worker who leapt onto the tracks in 2007 to save a 19-year-old NY Film Academy student who had fallen after a seizure], for example. We have several entries on the World Trade Center 9/11 attack. There are a lot of things like the E-ZPass and the MetroCard that didn’t exist when the first edition came out and which are huge issues today. Clearly one of the biggest stories, maybe the biggest story in New York in the last 20 years, has been the spectacular decline in crime. I mean 75 percent. It’s not just a few percent; it’s massive. And that has happened mostly since the first edition appeared.”
The new edition is more than 200 pages longer than the first edition, contains over 5,000 entries and more than 700 luminous photos, maps, charts and illustrations. “Amazingly they [Yale University Press] are holding the price at the same place it was 15 years ago,” Jackson says of the $65 book. “I still don’t know how it’s as inexpensive as it is.”
According to Vadim Staklo, Yale University Press’ in-house editor on the project, Jackson himself played a major role in keeping the price of the new edition down. “Ken Jackson raised a significant amount of money, which for the most part went into editorial development. That’s where the huge cost is. He paid for permissions to use photographs. He paid for the hours that his team of editors devoted to this project. He paid for the compensation to the contributors.”
That may be more inside baseball than even the most avid Joe DiMaggio fan might like, but the hard work of putting together a 1560-page encyclopedia lies in ceaseless attention to detail. Working within a editorial framework he established in the first edition, Jackson orchestrated the work of roughly 60 assistant editors and 800 contributors, many of them prominent scholars and writers who, at 10 cents a word, wrote mostly for love of the project. “You’d have to live on a pretty limited budget to make a living writing for an encyclopedia,” Jackson says wryly.
The editorial team reviewed and revamped most of the entries from the first edition, added hundreds and hundreds of new entries, and removed some outdated entries. “We got rid of entries on things like law firms, which we found people didn’t look up. They changed so fast that people were really using the Internet for that.”
And speaking of the Internet, Jackson says, “The difference between an encyclopedia like this and the Internet is that when people go to the Internet to look something up they only get what they’re looking up. But so much of what you find in this book is serendipity. Say you’re looking up Sandy Kofax and near it is an entry on the Ku Klux Klan. Who thinks of the Ku Klux Klan in New York City? But there it is. There are so many things like that throughout the book, where you look up one thing and your eye falls on another.”
Jackson’s own eyes have fallen on every single word of the new edition, a prodigious accomplishment in and of itself. He has also written numerous entries for the book, drawing on his vast knowledge of the city after years of exploring it and teaching its history. For decades, Jackson has taught a course on the history of New York City that includes field trips by bus and subway to the far reaches of the city and an immensely popular all-night bike ride from Morningside Heights to Brooklyn. The class still usually draws more than 300 students. “The university prides itself on small classes, so it doesn’t really like the fact that it’s so large,” Jackson says. “But it’s a very large class. It’s huge.” Big and popular, much like The Encyclopedia of New York City itself.
“So many people have been through the New York City grinder,” Jackson says. “They come as a young person, they leave or retire and now live in Las Vegas or Florida or Vermont or wherever but they retain that feeling of having lived in New York. They know where the D train goes and the Shuttle. They know all these things and they feel a little piece of New York will always be inside them. That’s why I think this sells well even outside the city.”
After living and working for 42 years in New York, Jackson still retains his Tennessee drawl. But when he is enthusiastic, as he is about The Encyclopedia of New York City, he talks a mile a minute, like any good New Yorker. At the end of conversation, however, Jackson slows down to make a point. “Obviously you can say more or write more specialized books about this city. But there is no other book that does what this one does.”
And that, dear reader, is the unvarnished truth.