Liberalism's Mayor

In the familiar sad story of the decline of liberalism and the rise of the right in the 1970s, New York City deserves a particularly long chapter. The aphorism, "A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged," originated in New York, where robberies rose 900 percent from 1964 to 1974. The first generation of neoconservatives, defined more by their cautious domestic policies than by global hawkishness, was bred in the experience of New York in the late 1960s. For others, the mere phrase "Ocean Hill-Brownsville," referring to two Brooklyn school districts that became the site of a showdown between teachers and community activists, is sufficient shorthand to evoke the many-layered misunderstanding between white (especially Jewish) liberals and African Americans that threatened the hopeful alliance of the civil-rights movement. And it was in the outer boroughs of New York where the white working class broke most visibly from the New Deal liberal coalition.

In the journey from the glamorous and safe New York of Mad Men to that of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning (the title of a superb book and miniseries about the city in 1977) the central figure inevitably is John V. Lindsay, elected mayor in 1965 after embracing columnist Murray Kempton's description as a campaign slogan: "He is fresh and everyone else is tired." Lindsay left office eight years later widely considered a failure, responsible at least in part for the phenomena named above, and with the city a few years away from near bankruptcy. Although he had run for president in 1972, Lindsay was never again a significant public figure in the years until his death at age 79, in 2000.

But what if the familiar story of Lindsay, as a naive and failed liberal, isn't quite right? If we rewrite Lindsay, how much might our view of the story of modern liberalism change as well? That's a question brought to mind by this month's tripartite blast of Lindsay revisionism, which takes the form of an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a one-hour documentary, Fun City, which aired on New York's WNET and can be seen in full online, and a book of essays, America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York . (I've seen the movie and read the book, but have only seen the online version of the exhibit.)

It's hard to be completely revisionist about Lindsay, without resorting to excuses for failure. New York might have been, to borrow the title of Vincent J. Cannato's definitive account, The Ungovernable City. Even America's Mayor which is more generous than the film and mainly consists of essays by journalists and former Lindsay administration officials, along with photos and original documents, acknowledges that mistakes were made. Those mistakes started the night before Lindsay took office, when he decided to end the practice of quiet backroom deals with municipal employees' unions -- the result being a 12-day transit strike that began 10 minutes after his inauguration. Sanitation and teacher strikes followed, though by his second term, Lindsay (a liberal Republican who won re-election despite losing his party's nomination in 1969 and later became a very liberal Democrat) had a far better relationship with labor and dramatically improved the lives of municipal employees.

The second big mistake, this and other accounts agree, was running for president in the Democratic primaries in 1972, a quest that, much like that of his successor Rudolph Giuliani, ended quickly when transplanted New Yorkers in Florida failed to show any interest. The campaign pulled him away from the city at a critical moment when its finances were cracking.

Lindsay himself said, in a legendary television ad in his re-election campaign, that "we all made some mistakes," and listed several, along with his achievements: "I brought 225,000 jobs to this town -- and that was no mistake." Lindsay's devotion to bringing African Americans to full participation in the city was certainly no mistake, for all the animosities it stirred up. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., New York was the city that didn't burn, in part because the mayor, as he often did, went immediately to Harlem and stayed out on the streets until the early morning hours when an aide forced him into a car to go back downtown. The value of such negative accomplishments -- imagine if riots comparable to those in the much smaller city of Newark, New Jersey, had engulfed New York! -- is hard to calculate against more visible missteps, such as the awkward experiment with the  decentralization of New York schools.

Lindsay's commitment to civil rights, and more than that, to the idea that black New Yorkers should move toward power in their communities and the city in the same way that white ethnic groups before them had done, was unflinching and entirely admirable. As journalist Jim Sleeper puts it in a brief comment in America's Mayor, "He was one of the only big-city mayors to bring both the civil rights movement and these modern management ideas -- good government, clean reform, and modern technocratic management -- into the government." Neither one of these was going to be easy, and together they were not just a lot to bite off -- they might have been incompatible.

A mayor less devoted to "good government" and community decision-making might have had an easier time pushing through the agenda of racial equality, through quiet deal-making (by which he also could have avoided strikes), and a mayor less concerned about civil rights and participation might have implemented technocratic government more smoothly. Instead, ideas like decentralized control of schools were rushed into place in districts where there was no infrastructure of community organizations to take advantage of the opportunity.

The essays in particular emphasize the magnitude of the change in New York City during the Lindsay years. Some of those were external changes with which a mayor could barely keep up, such as the rapidly increasing black and Puerto Rican population (the great migrations were far from over), but others involved Lindsay's own initiatives. It was in those years that the Central Park roadways were closed to cars on weekends and the park opened for Shakespeare, that New York became a center for film production, that Lincoln Center was built, that former manufacturing zones like SoHo became residential neighborhoods with just a hint of what was to come.

New York as we know it was born in the Lindsay years. By contrast, during the current administration of Michael Bloomberg, for all the attention given to grand development projects, the city has "hardly changed at all," Justin Davidson argued recently in New York magazine. "New York is an aging city in a culture transfixed by youth," Davidson writes, in words that mirror Kempton's on Lindsay. But Lindsay's "Fun City" was young (the median age dropped by three years while he was mayor) and changing fast, demographically as well as physically.

In the final chapter of the book, Kenneth T. Jackson, a distinguished historian of New York and Columbia professor, makes the strongest case for rehabilitating Lindsay's reputation and adding him to the small pantheon of the city's great modern mayors: Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. (In a sense, this is damning by faint praise, not just because Giuliani doesn't belong anywhere near such a list but because after those four and Lindsay, who together served 49 years and counting, there are very few other 20th-century mayors other than one-term failures, flamboyant crooks, and Lindsay's three-term predecessor Robert F. Wagner, whose reputation takes a hit for Lindsay's benefit.)

Three years ago, Jackson, along with planner Hillary Ballon, who also contributed to America's Mayor, undertook a strikingly similar effort to upgrade the reputation of Robert Moses, the master planner of midcentury New York. (That project involved three simultaneous museum exhibits and a book -- see Thomas Bender's assessment here.) Given that Lindsay battled Moses, stripped him of his last powers, and had an entirely different vision of the city, it's implausible to rehabilitate both of them -- it's like being for Hamilton and Jefferson or Betty and Veronica. But Moses and Lindsay represent two sides of the coin of failed liberalism -- the first, the centralizing, grandiose impulse to transform everything (think of the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Vietnam War); the second, the decentralizing, communitarian street-level dream that people can make decisions for themselves. Each side of liberalism has its failures, but with the distance of history, we can better appreciate their successes and aspirations as well, and learn from both.

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