Sunday, January 3, 2010

"The Ungovernable City," by Vincent J. Cannato

Vote people into power and they'll send police to beat you when there's a disagreement.

Ever has it been, save for a unique time in New York City from 1965 to 1973 when a tall, handsome, patrician man -- a Republican of all things -- succeeded in governing a different way.

He left the mayoralty exhausted, his political fortunes in ruin. He aged without the benefit of any commemoration or recognition of merit. His health was failing and, because his time in city government had been so short, lacked a pensioner’s health care until then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cooked up a job for him.

In the end he could not afford to live in the city over which he once reigned glamorous and intellectually challenging, and moved to South Carolina where he died a mostly forgotten man.

But today we remember John Vliet Lindsay for the unique, almost odd, position he held in American politics, and the meritorious way he chose to look into the eyes of those he governed, rather than down on them.

The information gathered for this essay comes from a fantastic book by Vincent J. Cannato entitled, The Ungovernable City

So complete is the author’s job that consulting related books seemed pointless given the work's size (675 pages) and myriad sources. highwayscribery consulted its own library and came up with “The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment, 1960-1975,” and found the information covered but a thin outline for Cannato’s meatier rendering.

The author himself seems conflicted about John Lindsay for he has dedicated a goodly portion of time and talent to study a man he considers a failure, which is okay. Life's purported "losers" have much to teach us and this he seems to know.

Cannato's analysis is that Lindsay stitched together a unique coalition of ritzy Manhattan liberals, poor blacks, poor Puerto Ricans, and ambivalent Jews to assume power, but failed miserably at understanding or governing to the benefit of ethnic Irish, Italian and German middle-class elements in the outer boroughs.

More on that further down. Now we recall, remember, and reminisce.

Lindsay was wildly disliked by the New York Police Department which rightly felt “handcuffed” by him. Elected as a reformer willing to tackle a city of “power brokers,” the new mayor stumbled over the very first issue he chose to focus upon - police brutality.

Lindsay felt the people of New York, minorities in particular, had a reasonable gripe where the issue of police violence was concerned. In response, he proposed a Civilian Complaint Review Board to weigh their protests.

Toward this end the mayor assembled a Law Enforcement Task Force to draft a report with recommendations for shaping the proposed entity.

Marjorie Friedlander, at the New York City Review Board Conference, supported the report and highlighted its, “avoidance of a spirit of repression and punitiveness in crime control...its humanitarianism and rehabilitation orientation in law enforcement.”

Cannatto peppers the tome with his own interpretations of things said 40 years ago, which is perfectly fine and good for the discussion that was not happening until he wrote “The Ungovernable City.”

Here he paraphrases Friedlander: “Thus civilian review was needed not only to curb police brutality, but also to foster a more humanitarian vision of criminals. Since crime was a product of social forces such as poverty and discrimination, ‘repressive’ law enforcement techniques would only add more oppression to the lives of the poor and increase crime."

Opponents of the Civilian Complaint Review Board took their battle to the ballot box where Lindsay, hands full running the madcap city, was not up to a proper counter-campaign and lost.

And so the police remained accountable to essentially no one but themselves.

But there would be further battles against the NYPD, most of which Lindsay, sitting atop the city’s hierarchy and aided by detective Frank Serpico's timely revelations of police corruption, would win.

They were uncommonly difficult years to be at loggerheads with the police. Years when people hit the streets and demonstrated over long-festering grievances.

One was racial, what was called at that time, “the Negro question.”

American cities burned with the rage of American blacks and they, in turn, suffered death and injury by violent state reaction. In New York, Lindsay sought to limit the damage, to prevent the kind of riots that signaled the permanent downturn of cities such as Detroit.

Cannato observes how Lindsay actively contrasted himself with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who ordered his police force to shoot rioters dead and maim looters. “We happen to think that protection of life, particularly innocent life, is more important than protecting property or anything else," said Lindsay. "We are not going to turn disorder into chaos through the unprincipled use of armed force. In short, we are not going to shoot children in New York City.”

There were opportunities aplenty to shoot (or not), the most prominent being Martin Luther King's assassination.

Lindsay was at a Broadway play with his wife Mary. Harlem went bonkers and, against the advice of police officials and aides, the mayor decided upon wading into the maelstrom.

“[S]omebody has to go up there,” he told them. “Somebody white just has to face that emotion and say that we’re sorry.”

He met the crowd and spoke, protected by a Harlem group known as Allah’s Five Percenters, which aide Barry Gottehrer had cultivated. The mayor's presence diffused a situation spun out of control in other American cities that evening.

Jack Newfield of the “Village Voice” wrote: “In the collective American fantasy of ‘High Noon’ updated, tall, grim Lindsay strides down Lenox Avenue, into a subsiding storm of bricks. It’s a comforting fantasy Lindsay has earned because he is the only white Mayor in America…to have the grudging trust of the black underclass.”

Columnist Jimmy Breslin was more generous still: "He looked straight at the people on the streets and he told them he was sick and he was sorry about Martin Luther King. And the poor he spoke to who are so much more real than the rest of us, understood the truth of John Lindsay. And there was no riot in New York.”

Cannato asserts that there was a riot and arrests and vandalism, but grudgingly concedes that it was on a much smaller scale than elsewhere in urban America. He dubs Lindsay's intervention, “a high point in his administration.”

The Lindsay strategy of cordoning off a rebellious area and letting what happened happen without the use of billyclubs and police violence became common practice throughout his term; a remarkable achievement and unique approach to governance and civil order.

An odd and ultimately extinct animal known as the “liberal Republican,” Lindsay saw the forces of law and order as social agents that could be used in pro of the disadvantaged and rebellious rather than against them.

During a difficult sanitation workers strike in 1967, Lindsay butted heads with another liberal Republican, Governor Nelson Rockefeller who opposed bringing in the National Guard to clean up the accumulating trash for fear of inciting a riot.

Cannato notes that, “Lindsay countered that not having the National Guard visible in the inner city cleaning up garbage would reinforce the feeling that government was unconcerned about poor minorities. Like almost every other issue that he faced in his term as mayor, Lindsay viewed the garbage strike as a civil rights issue.”

Black anger was not the only issue that separated Chicago’s Daley from Lindsay. There was the other great street expression of those times, the anti-war/student left.

Here's Cannato again: “He said youth of the time included a ‘prophetic minority,’ of activists and protesters who, ‘react to the world not by turning their backs upon it, but by facing it honestly and forthrightly -- as it is…Those who would rebel against the conventions of our society have sound grounds, in logic and in conscience, for doing so. I should remind you, however, that the rebel who overturns society’s conventions, must take on the corresponding obligation to construct new and better conventions in their place.’”

This good mayor said things that are not said today regarding the impact of war expenditures on urban America. Another reason why we focus upon him here.

Addressing Harvard students in April 1968, Lindsay stated, “For the truth, I’m afraid, is that we cannot achieve either the cities or the society we would like as long as we continue the war in Vietnam. We cannot spend more than $24 billion a year in Vietnam and still rebuild our cities. We cannot speak of non-violence at home when we are displacing, maiming, and killing thousands of Asians for the professed purpose of protecting the peace in a land halfway across the world.”

He told a Greenwich Village rally for a Moratorium on the Vietnam War that theirs was “the highest form of patriotism. It is an attempt to turn this nation away from a dangerous, self-defeating cause…Those that charge this is unpatriotic do not know the history of their own nation and they do not understand that our greatness comes from the right to speak out.”

Who has the guts to say such a thing today? To risk political oblivion in response? Which is to say Lindsay's stance did not go down well with everyone.

Ordering the American flag be pulled to half-mast at all city buildings for Moratorium Day, Lindsay ran up against a police force that refused to follow his diktat. Something of pitched battle ensued at Gracie Mansion, the New York mayoral residence, where the stars-and-stripes were drawn up and pulled down by alternating forces of Lindsay aides and recalcitrant officers of the law.

It was a scary episode that demonstrated the extent to which the American consensus is rooted in acquiescence by civilian leaders to those with the guns, who threaten to step in and set things right as they understand them to be right, and not as those elected to direct them do.

In 1971 the city’s police, those charged with its safety and security, called a wildcat strike. Cannato attributes the ensuing calm to the fact it all went down in the dead of winter, but that's his opinion and begs the question about why we call a riot involving police a "police riot."

The cops struck, not for wages and pensions, although those herrings were served up as rationale. They struck because they did not like the mayor and the people he chose to work with rather than beat up.

They had no respect for a boss that would cooperate with, say, Yippie rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman whom Lindsay dispatched aide Ted Mastroiannni, head of the Lower East Side Task Force, to deal with.

Cannato writes that, "The Lindsay administration used the same theory on Hoffman as it used with black militants in the city’s ghettos. They would try to co-opt him and get him to help cool down the tense East Village."


The bottom line is that Hoffman’s anarchic treatise, “Fuck the System,” was funded by the Lindsay administration, however obliquely. Cannato describes the tome as, “a guide for young people to mooch their way through New York. It gave information on free food, clothes, money, rent, movies as well as on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases.”

The paragraph conveys the author’s bourgeois sensibility and is a proper reflection of many a New Yorker's attitude and inability to comprehend the great mayor's approach, to see that if something is free, one is not mooching, that where there is information about sexually transmitted diseases, less diseases are transmitted sexually.

The Lindsay crowd floated upon their own intellectual ether, according to Cannato: “Gottehrer was anything but displeased with the book, which he called ‘everything I expected and more.’ Though he bemoaned the inclusion of information on panhandling and cheating the telephone company and Transit Authority, Gottehrer still found the book ‘perfect’ and ‘hysterically funny’.”

Years later, when Hoffman surfaced from the underground to face criminal charges, the same Lindsay aide stood on his behalf, saying, "His creativity and commitment forced our government in New York and other governments to face up to the inequities of our society.”

Most remarkable about the Lindsay gang was that they cared at all about people like Hoffman and their minions, as opposed to writing them off as loony and unrepresentative of a larger, "normal" public.

Theirs was an unusually open and, dare we say, democratic bent to governing seen, for example, in the administration's approach to the park system.

Lindsay's first appointee to the position of parks commissioner was Thomas P.F. Hoving, a thirty-five-year old curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters, son of the president of Tiffany's, and possessor of an art history background

“He wanted to democratize the use of city parks and take the 'No' out of park signs…" writes Cannato. "Hoving was a whirl of activity. His most famous innovations were ‘Hoving Happenings.’ At one of these ‘happenings,’ on a Sunday afternoon in May, Hoving opened Central Park to adults and children alike to paint away on a 105-foot canvas with paint provided by the city…Hoving also held a kite party in Central Park, though kites had been banned there for sixty years. He organized a huge game of capture-the-flag for children…on the Lower East Side a mound of dirt brought into Tompkins Square Park to fill in tree pits had become a favorite play site for local children. When filling began and the mound shrunk, the community protested. Hoving proclaimed that the mount of dirt would remain, and ‘Hoving Hill’ was born.

This is called yielding to the wishes of those governed and doing so with a flexible mindset. And it is very hard to find.

“Hoving promoted the idea of vest-pocket parks - small playgrounds tucked into empty spaces in the city’s slums. According to Hoving, these parks were designed to ‘keep their [ghetto kids’] fucking minds off getting drugs and shooting each other.’ Hoving’s most enduring legacy was his decision to close Central Park to automobile traffic on Sundays in the summer. It was soon expanded to weekends throughout the year."

But the new access, Cannato continues, "created conflicts over the vision of the park, however. It caused strain on the upkeep of the park’s grass, shrubs, and plants. It also caused political strain as the park became a center for antiwar protests and countercultural activity such as love-ins, drug taking, loud music, and other uncivil behavior. Though a patrician Republican, Hoving was sympathetic to the counterculture. Robert Moses called Hoving a ‘recreational leftist’.”

That's an interesting category and something a person might aspire to in all apparent dignity.

Hoving was replaced by August Heckscher; a man cut from much the same cloth. Years later he wrote, “To put tidiness as the first or only consideration, and to be blind to the big things that were happening seemed a betrayal of the city’s best hope.”

Of countercultural actors, he wrote, “These dissidents and incendiary spokesman were in many cases the best members of the community. For all their faults, they had the breath of life in them.”

Above, it must be emphasized, are the words of a public official, as are those below:

“People in great numbers and of all varieties came out into the parks and squares and streets, and there they professed the values they lived by, exhibited the latest fads and fashions, paraded, demonstrated, acted out their emotions, walked, bicycled, made love, just sat. It was quite a spectacle. It was a source of alarm for politicians who raised the slogan of ‘Law and Order’ to the level of Holy Writ, for bureaucrats charged with keeping the grass green, and for some people scared by the abundance of life.”

Cannato claims that Lindsay himself thought the parks ought to be "a safety valve for all this protest, that they ought to be the area where these great dramas were acted out.”

Dramas to be acted out rather than flare-ups of disobedience to be suppressed by officially sanctioned violence.

A “New York Times” essayist, Marya Mannes drafted the darker side: "Litter overflows the baskets near the food stands, lies under benches, catches on twigs. Broken glass glints in the rocks where mica once glittered…" She saw vandalism, “What can’t be plucked or stolen is often mauled and destroyed. This includes most private planting of flowers and shrubs. It also includes tree branches and whole bushes."

Heckscher found it disconcerting but not irrational: “Some of what went for malicious destruction could be seen as an attempt on their part to rectify an error in design or conception: the failure, for example, to put a gate in a place where (from their point of view) it was obviously needed. Again: it is the nature of young people to build up, and then to destroy and to build anew.”

But these were analytical, patient interpretations of conditions that ignored simpler concerns about the city's being filthy, the breakdown in order, and an absence of common decency.

Cannato discusses Lindsay’s, “inability to understand white, middle- and working-class homeowners living outside Manhattan. Secure enough not to rely on the city’s social welfare system but poor enough not to be able to indulge in the leisure style or political reforms of the upper class, these men and women possessed what appeared to Lindsay and his liberal supporters to be parochial concerns: lower taxes, more police protection, better city services, and protection of their neighborhoods.”

It is true, and he correctly points out that all ensuing coalitions pieced together by New York mayors catered to the needs of these groups.

And of course, as Cannato discusses in great detail, New York City was falling apart. That fact was the lynchpin to Lindsay's unseating his predecessor, Robert Wagner. And so it is fair he be pinned with the failure of reversing that same trend, because it easier to critique than to mend.

But there was little awareness then about the way America was selling off its manufacturing franchise, of how globalization would eliminate factory work throughout the western democracies.

The neighborhoods that came undone, that disintegrated into violence and vandalism and welfare dependency during Lindsay's time, were not the product of his policies. They were well beyond the purview of any mayor, president even, to reverse for international capital was on the move and the flow of money is as tough to stop as a stream of demonstrators flowing down Broadway.

Nonetheless, this disintegration and disorder ended the American peoples' fling with liberalism. They were incapable of associating such things with greater freedom and the reaction was/is certainly predictable if not understandable.

But the city of filth was also the city of the Velvet Underground, the city of Andy Warhol's factory, Max's Kansas City, Fania Records, Tito Puente, SoHo, Edie Sedgewick, a metroplis that provided not only America, but the world at large, with artistic vision and direction for many years afterward.

Where are their like in Rudy Giuliani's and Michael Bloomberg's burg of corporate chains and real estate empires? What art stars have occupied a like stage or projected similar, seminal profiles?

None, because there are no John Lindsays to cultivate them; to create the tolerance and permissiveness they need to thrive. And that was an accomplishment of liberalism difficult to trace back to its policy origins and evident only years after its demise. No establishment politician today would dare to understand the needs of the counterculture, or speak in its defense, let alone provide accommodation.

Cannato concludes with the lost opportunity of Lindsay's liberalism, but leans too heavily on finding fault with the man, when it was the larger picture that had distorted and rendered an ideology of cooperation and compassion something quaint and unrealizable.

The author writes, "Lindsay saw the angry extremes of the reactionary and the revolutionary pulling the nation apart. Contrasted with these two extremes, Lindsay saw 'the center based on reason and truth,' of which he was obviously a part. He rued the fact that the ideology of the center was not 'easy to articulate because it is complex and even paradoxical.' Lindsay was speaking for the liberal Republicanism of his youth and the Cold War liberal Democratic philosophy of men like Robert McNamara. But this 'vital center,' as historian Arthur Schlesinger called it, no longer existed. By the late sixties, thanks to the Vietnam War and the challenge from the student left, this kind of politics had lost all claims to moral superiority."

That vital center has been pursued by American politicians for decades now. It would seem that, rather than a bad actor come late to the stage with outdated ideas, the liberal mayor was simultaneously behind and ahead of his times.

As such, John V. Lindsay's role was a difficult one, superhuman even, and still he delivered a rave performance as the "Marvelous Mayor."

1 comment:

  1. For those interested in learning more about Barry Gottehrer and "Allah," please see my essay

    There are also interesting FBI files on the Five Percenters available on the Web at the FBI's The Vault.

    On Barry Gottehrer, the Lindsay Administration and the covert funding of the Yippies via Abbie Hoffman and ESSO, see my essay

    In both my studies, I cite Cannato's very helpful book as well as Gottehrer's own memoir of his life in the Lindsay Administration.

    "Hylozoic Hedgehog"