Jack Eichenbaum ChE ’63

Jack Eichenbaum 1

Geographer Jack Eichenbaum ChE ’63 is retired from his job as a City Assessor for NYC Finance, but he isn’t inactive: He is the official Queens Borough Historian, continues to provide walking tours and teach, is active in local (Flushing and Queens) civic associations and remains on the Board of Directors of GISMO, an organization he founded to unite people working in Geographic Information Systems in New York City.  Jack has a Ph.D. in Urban Geography from the University of Michigan(1972).  Although he didn’t work at Pier 92, it is indisputable that the mapping center that sprung to life there after the September 11th tragedy could only have happened, manned by GIS volunteers from around the city, because of the close friendships that had already formed at GISMO under Jack’s leadership.   Jack was recently interviewed by Barry Drogin EE’83.

You grew up in Queens and came to Cooper during a special time of transition.

When I entered Cooper in 1959 the neighborhood was the Bowery and Lower East Side; when I left it was becoming the East Village. I had classes in the Foundation Building in my freshman year. After that, engineers had classes in the new (now demolished) engineering building at 51 Astor Place.

You were always interested in geography and history, but came to Cooper to learn engineering.  Can you explain that choice?

Who knew what to study at age 16? It was the post-Sputnik era. Engineering was a well-paid profession and Cooper was a free education. I always did well in math and science. I had no idea that Geography was studied beyond the fifth grade. When I worked on an M.S. in Chemistry at Indiana University, I discovered they had a graduate program in Geography one floor below the Chemistry Dept!

You studied and lived around the country and around the world.  Then you came back to Queens and found your Cooper education had given you special skills.

Cooper was not just classrooms. I learned from the evolving Village/East Village environment. I was active in Green Camp and got to know students in art and architecture. I commuted on the subway and became a “New Yorker.”  I lived in 4 other states and 3 other countries during 13 years away. I eventually realized that NYC and my native Queens were the best places for me.

Obviously, the assessment of property taxes is very important to The Cooper Union, because that determines how much money Cooper gets from its three properties.  Describe some of the work you did for NYC Finance.

I was part of a team that was computerizing the valuation system. First I spent three years all over the city taking photos of every property and collecting data on all 1-2-3 family homes. (This is the most common property in NYC and the easiest to valuate using a statistical comparative sales approach.)

Tell us about the founding of GISMO.

In 1990 I was using Geospatial Information System (GIS) to generate computerized property valuation for property taxing purposes in the NYC Department of Finance. I needed information about crime, school quality, demography and other data to help explain the variation of property value based only on physical characteristics. I also needed to learn more about GIS technology. With the blessings of my supervisors, I was able to devote time to organizing GISMO which stands for Geospatial Informational Systems Organization. GISMO is an affiliate member of the New York State GIS Association.

I’ve been on so many types of walking tours, but I have to admit that it is amazing going on a tour with a geographer.  Tell us about some of your tours.

My favorite walks are in Flushing (home) and in Long Island City (my “pet” neighborhood) which I have been monitoring since 1976. When the Metrocard was introduced, I pioneered all-day Life Along a Subway Line tours with the International Express (#7 train.) On my website www.GeogNYC.com all of my public tours are described.

You’d like to do a tour of the neighborhood Cooper Union is in?

I already have. It’s called Conforming to the Grid. Cooper Union is located where the Manhattan grid plan collides with earlier street systems.

Did you have to do a lot of research when you became the historian for Queens, or did you already know most of it?

Nobody knows “most of it” and every day adds more.

You came to celebrate the agreement between the Board, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Committee to Save Cooper Union.  What are your thoughts about the mission and the future of the college?

I am delighted that Cooper Union is returning to its mission to provide free merit-based higher education. This important step should not be subjugated by bloated administrative cost, the “edifice complex” and “publish or perish.”  I hope that this is a shot heard round the world of higher education!