At the Yale Club, Historians Toast New Encyclopedia of New York City and No-Show Nick Paumgarten Is Cursed

“We divided it up into categories,” said the historian Kenneth T. Jackson on Tuesday night. “Dance, the Bronx, skyscrapers — we had maybe 40 or 50 different categories, and we found somebody who was an expert on each one.”

Mr. Jackson was talking about New York. Dividing it up into categories was how he went about starting work on the monster of a reference book that became his Encyclopedia of New York City. The first edition of the book, boasting about 4,300 entries, was published by Yale University Press 15 years ago; the second, with 5,000, came out yesterday.

“I think in the history of the world there’s not been so much information about one city between two covers,” Mr. Jackson said. He was sitting at a table in a ballroom on the third floor of the Yale Club, finishing a last-minute sandwich before people started showing up for his book party. “This will be the first encyclopedia to sell 100,000 copies,” he said. “I think that’s fairly safe to say.”

Mr. Jackson, who has taught at Columbia since the late 1960s, was expecting 200 people to show for his party, though he suspected the rainy weather would keep some of them home. Many of the guests would be historians — some professionals, others just buffs — who had written entries for the encyclopedia. Mr. Jackson and his team of editors had commissioned 800 new ones for the updated edition, including several related to September 11th, as well as ones about Eliot Spitzer, Bernie Madoff, and Tasti D-Lite.  

They added some things they’d forgotten the first time, like Czech immigrants and Joe Dimaggio, and took some out that weren’t relevant anymore.

“We cut law firms,” Mr. Jackson said. “We got hundreds of letters about the first edition, but we never got one about a lawfirm. People would argue about whether Joe Dimaggio should be in or not, or whether something was on the northeast corner or the southeast corner, or they’d say, ‘Why’d you have so many words about this neighborhood in the Bronx versus this neighborhood in Queens?’ But we didn’t have anybody who said, ‘By golly, you didn’t list our law firm!'”

Mr. Jackson was joined at the table by the executive editor of the book, Lisa Keller of SUNY Purchase. “It was very important to get all ethnicities in,” she said.

Why Tasti D-Lite, though?

“I’m sorry, I gotta pass on this one!” Ms. Keller said. “Not my choice.”  

Mr. Jackson was silent for a moment, formulating an explanation.

“We wanted some funky things,” he said finally. “To some extent, the intellectual part of it is the long entries — the one on skyscrapers, architecture, the Catholics, whatever. But I think what people will actually look up is, you know, [the phrase] ‘Big Apple,’ or E-Z Pass, or 9/11 — in other words, they’ll be having an argument about something, or they’ll be going to sleep.” He paused again. “The important thing about this book is people actually read it. They come upon things they were not looking for.”   

One thing you won’t find in the Encyclopedia‘s 1,500 pages is an entry on the Internet, and how New York has been changed by it.

“We decided to keep our hands off on that one,” Ms. Keller said. “It was very problematic — there were a few entries we decided were not going to work out well, and that was one of them.”

“We don’t have an entry on shoe stores, either,” Mr. Jackson added. “A shoe store’s a shoe store whether it’s here or in West Virginia.” For something to be included in the book, he said, it had to “explain New York in some way or New York had to explain it.” Besides which, he said, the Internet hadn’t changed the fundamentals of New York life all that much anyway. “Thirty years ago, if you remember, Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt were always writing about how soon enough we wouldn’t have cities anymore — that we were all gonna be sitting on our separate mountain tops and communicating with each other by email or fax or whatever,” he said. “They were dead wrong! We’re social beings! We want to be together. I read this study that said 30 percent of all email messages are about arranging meetings.”

Ms. Keller, who emphasized that an electronic edition of the Encyclopedia was in the works, was not totally on board with this. “Well, we are moving into the future,” she interjected, noting that her son works at Gothamist. “The internet and email are here to stay. It’s changed life in New York in about three or four different critical ways.”

“Broadway’s doing as well now as ever!” Mr. Jackson said, with defiance.

ONE THING THE INTERNET did have an impact on was how the contributors to the Encyclopedia did their research. The Observer talked to a few of them after Mr. Jackson and Ms. Keller got up from their table to start greeting guests. Paula Hajar, an educator who wrote about the history of Arabs in New York for the Encyclopedia, said her contribution to the second edition consisted mainly of updating entries she’d written for the first more than a decade ago. “Doing it in the era of email and internet was such a different experience,” Ms. Hajar said. “I ‘met’ many people from the community that I never really met face to face. We have so many wonderful listservs now.”

Ms. Hajar said she’d been allowed 1,500 words for her main entry on Arabs in general and fewer — in some cases just 100 — for the ones on individual communities. For the shortest entries, she said, like the one on Jordanians, all she had room for was “when they came, how many there are, where they’re concentrated, where they worship, and who their ‘rock stars’ are.”  

By 7 o’clock the party was in full swing: Historians munched on pigs in blankets and flaky spinach things as Mr. Jackson and Ms. Keller dutifully made the rounds.

A young professor of American history from FIT named Daniel Levinson Wilk said there was some disquiet among his fellow contributors about the fact that their entries had not been indexed according to author. Most people couldn’t even remember what they’d written, Mr. Wilk said, as in many cases, they had done their work years ago. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I wrote six or eight entries — I can remember two of them,” he said.  

Mr. Wilk did not have this problem. He had written some interesting entries, including the one on the history of waiters, the one on Joseph Mitchell, and the one on elevators. This last in particular was a passion of Mr. Wilk’s, who has studied the history of elevators extensively, and has even written about how they are used in the 1960 film The Apartment

The Observer wondered whether Mr. Wilk had heard that Nick Paumgarten, the New Yorker writer, was supposed to be at this party? We had seen his name on the guest list! What with that piece he did a few years ago for the magazine about the guy who got stuck on an elevator, he and Mr. Wilk would probably have lots to chat about.  

Mr. Wilk’s face fell at the mention of Mr. Paumgarten’s name.

“That motherfucker!” he exclaimed. “That article was horrible. I actually got a letter published in response to it.”

After a moment, the professor took a breath and explained.

“This is one of my pet peeves,” he said. “When people decide that elevators are worthy of discussion, they always talk about people getting in elevator accidents, getting stuck in elevators, et cetera. Paumgarten acknowledges — it’s buried in the middle of the article — that the elevator is actually the safest form of mechanical transportation known to man. But the entire frame of the article is about this guy getting stuck in an elevator and the emotional trauma he suffers. It’s a problem!”

Elevators, Mr. Wilk said, are a great thing. “The solution to the problem of global warming, peak oil, et cetera, et cetera, is to live more densely, and it’s the elevator that allows us to do that. But no one ever makes that point when they discuss elevators.”

Soon it was time to go home. A sheepish-looking Eric Alterman retrieved his coat and fedora and took the elevator — what else? — down.

In the morning, Mr. Paumgarten told The Observer in an e-mail that he had not been able to attend the Encyclopedia party. Informed of Mr. Wilk’s remarks, the New Yorker writer responded with sportsmanlike cheer.  

“Mr. Wilk is right. Elevators are awesome. Density saves. But entrapment sells,” he said. “Anyway, I prefer to think of the middle of an article as the heart of the thing.”

As for why he wasn’t at the party: “I was stuck in the subway.” At the Yale Club, Historians Toast New Encyclopedia of New York City and No-Show Nick Paumgarten Is Cursed