--Lindsay Campaign StickerIt was a return to another era in NYC politics at the Museum of City of New York Tuesday night when politicians, journalists and historians gathered to assess the meaning, the impact and the successes and failures of the administration of John Vliet Lindsay, 103rd Mayor of the City of New York from 1966-1973. Mayor Lindsay (or “Lindslee” as he was chided by many disaffected New Yorkers) came in brimming with ideas, energy and enthusiasm, and cadres of young activists seeking to revitalize the political scene and New York City under his leadership. The event was moderated by Sam Roberts of the New York Times (and editor of the companion volume to the new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, “America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York.”) Roberts opened the symposium by asking to identify audience members who had worked in the Lindsay administration: a forest of hands filled the air. This lent a certain clubby quality to the event. In addition, the panel included former Congressman Major Owens, former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who held positions in the administration and Jay Kriegel, Mr. Lindsay’s Chief of Staff. They were all vocally supportive of the energy and vision of Mr. Lindsay’s mayoralty, acknowledging that the strikes and widespread political unrest were circumstances beyond his control that may have played a role in derailing many of the administration’s efforts at implementing new ideas. Jerry Kretchmer, former Manhattan Assemblyman, campaign aide to Robert F. Kennedy and environmental commissioner for the Mayor, in the audience, took umbrage with suggestions that it was a failed administration. They took risks, made many advances, but were hobbled by the political climate, the unions, and other issues beyond their control. But at least they were willing to try new things.
Lest it devolve into a hagiography, journalists Gabe Pressman, Pete Hamill and Jeff Greenfield, and especially author and U. Massachusetts professor Vincent Cannato, added some much needed brio to the discussion, taking a more balanced view on the Lindsay administration, pointing out the unique strengths of the activist, media-genic Mayor and his progressive administration but also its weaknesses, failures and shortcomings, including the operational (failure to plow out Queens following the blizzard, the attempts to dislocate Queens homeowners at the behest of developers), the political (failure to intervene in the Ocean-Brownsville community control situation that led to teacher strikes and political unrest) and the simply tone deaf (failure to recognize the identity and political clout of the working class and unionized white ethnic voters, which resonated with suggestions of elitism.) Mention was only made en passant of the Knapp Commission’s police corruption investigations which in fact, according to news reports at the time, back In the day, brought a panelist and mayoral aide to the brink of an indictment for allegedly changing his testimony regarding the handling of the early reports of corruption. (When Officers Serpico and Durk reported corruption to Mayoral Aide Kriegel, did he or didn’t he tell the Mayor?-- Sources indicate that the administration, fearing possible summer unrest in minority communities, chose not to challenge the NYPD establishment at the time.)
After the symposium, the opening reception at the Museum gave a much more nuanced, heavily documented, and fascinating overview of all facets of the Lindsay years. At the same time, it provides a wonderful flavor of that era in New York City. An incredible amount of political activity, cultural events, and rampant creativity. Political and cultural memorabilia and tzatzches, newspaper headlines and magazine covers, movie posters, layoff letters to teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute, photos, books, municipal government handbooks and documents – the exhibit does a fabulous job of exploring the nooks and crannies of the era. I loved the recording of the Mayor’s Inner Circle dinner song, I believe with Florence Henderson, that went something to the effect of “I go to bed every night/wondering what the hell we did right!/will there be another strike? ”
I was not aware that his administration was responsible for formalizing the creation of “SoHo” as a mixed residential commercial district, or the creation of Westbeth Housing. And the efforts that the administration made for popularizing art and culture, with “Arts and Crafts Mobiles” and movies and theater in the parks, and the expansion of NYC as a filmmaking center, helped to transform the city. The panelists addressed with conflicting views the complexities of the Mayor’s support for the expansion of welfare and social services which showed him as an activist with a heart, but at the same time, helped to create deficits that led to a fiscal crisis. “America’s Mayor” gives a colorful and intriguing view of New York City during a tumultuous and exciting era, of a rara avis today -- a Liberal Republican (who later became a Democrat.). The exhibit, from this perspective, doesn’t attempt to answer questions about “success” or “failure” but it does help to fill out, with broad historical and cultural brushstrokes, a more defined portrait of the man, John V. Lindsay, whose bio had begun to fade a bit into obscurity.
I was in my young teens in those years, but in looking back through the lens of “America’s Mayor,” you can’t help but to love New York City more and more, where we are, where we have come from, and hopefully still where we may be headed.
America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York City at the Museum of the City of New York, May 5 through October 3
Tomorrow, Thursday, on WNET 8 PM--Fun City Revisited--The Lindsay Years