News & Features » Miscellany

Urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson's observations of Richmond, New York and the state of education

Crabgrass and Culture

On Nov. 20, Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor and an internationally renowned urban historian who authored "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States," spoke at a suburban growth symposium at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. His appearance coincided with the center's current exhibition, "Changing Landscape: Glen Allen from Mountain Road to Edge City." Edwin Slipek Jr., the exhibit's curator and Style Weekly contributing editor, spoke with Jackson before the program.

1. How is history currently being taught in middle and high schools?

Too often history has been watered down as part of social studies. It is taught as just one of a number of subjects like anthropology and geography. Geography is important, but history should be the core; these other subjects should be slightly subordinate. The past is important. It can speak to us. Some people say that history is boring. How can history be boring? That's like saying that life is boring.

2. You were featured on the recent 10-hour PBS broadcast, "New York City: A Documentary." How will history view Mayor Rudolph Giuliani?

He is lucky. We live in a very strong economy. There is low inflation. It's a golden period. Any elected official is riding this crest. I don't find him personally attractive, but there is an increased sense of optimism. In the long run, he is the second-most effective mayor after [Fiorello] LaGuardia. New York is seen as a place on the way up, not on the way down. The sense of order and safety is critical. A lot of people think that maybe he has pushed things too far. And the policies of previous mayors count for something: Koch was incredibly important, and Dinkins increased the size of the police department. But there's no aspect of life in New York that isn't better.

3. How do you keep up? How do you receive and process information? What magazines and journals do you read?

A lot comes across my desk as a part of my job at the university including journals and research and papers my [graduate] students are working on. The Economist [a British newsweekly] is the one magazine I read regularly. It keeps me in touch with the world. Too many publications are "Americentric." I read Military History Quarterly and love The New Yorker. I think travel is huge. You can see and learn a great deal on the ground. The "blue" highways and back roads are important as long as you keep your eyes open. You can learn so much from the landscape or the terrain of a city.

4. What are your observations of the Richmond area?

There is a beauty to the general landscape here. The city is surrounded by natural forests and trees. The city itself is quiet and has a nice urban fabric with relatively high density. I like that. The houses often have front porches. We need to encourage people to build front porches .... The suburban areas look pretty uncontrolled.

5. What is the future growth of American cities and suburbs?

The suburbs will continue to expand, given the current conditions — the relative inexpensiveness of land, the supremacy of the automobile and the pathologies in the inner city. City populations are either flat or declining. The growth is going to be on the outer edges. ... I think we're also seeing an urban renaissance. It's not just in Manchester [England], San Francisco, Boston or Georgetown — you're seeing it in Houston and here in Richmond. ... Huge groups are sick of shopping malls and spending their lives in a car. It's a quality of life

Add a comment