Ken Jackson's History Class Pedals Through the New York Night

Columbia News
November 09, 2011

When Kenneth T. Jackson began teaching his course "The History of the City of New York" 37 years ago, he decided to take his students out of the classroom to grasp the full impact of the urban environment. He first thought of daylight walking tours, but the streets were too crowded. So he settled on a nighttime bike ride with 10 to 15 students, the better to see New York in all its glory. “If you’re studying history,” said Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History, “especially the history of a city—and it’s here and you can feel it and experience it—you ought to get out of the classroom and not just read about it, but go look at it.”  

Today Jackson’s course is one of the most popular in the University, and the bike ride attracts so many students that it now requires a permit from the New York Police Department. This year’s ride, which took place Sept. 22, included some 250 bikers, who were trailed by an SUV, several volunteer mechanics, and by a University ambulance, which fortunately proved to be unnecessary.

Meeting at 11:00 p.m. at the sundial, the bikers started moving a half hour later, wending their way downtown through Central Park and Times Square, past Madison Square, Gramercy Park, the West Village and Battery Park City, pausing along the way for Jackson to deliver lessons on a megaphone. The ride ended near 6 a.m., after riders walked their bikes across the Brooklyn Bridge and reached the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Most of the weary bikers took the subway back to Columbia’s campus; others were strong enough to pedal back to 116th Street.

“I might retake this class again next year just to go on this ride,” one student said afterward.

Jackson, a native of Memphis, Tenn., came to Columbia as an urban historian, drawn here because he wanted to live in a tall building in a real city before continuing his academic career in the hinterlands. “But I took to New York,” he said. “I love the city, its density, its mysteries, its diversity and its variety. Every street is a new experience.”