At times, New York City politics can seem like midnight television, the same sitcom reruns airing in an endless cycle. Such was the feeling this fall, when former Mayor David Dinkins released his new memoir, A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, at the apex of the mayoral campaign. Shortly after it came out, Republican candidate Joseph Lhota ran an advertisement smearing his opponent with footage meant to evoke the Dinkins years from 1990 to 1993—shots of police tape, angry black crowds, and an overturned police car alternated with images of a biker gang’s attack on an SUV earlier this year. In stentorian tones, the ad warned that Bill de Blasio would bring back the high crime rates of David Dinkins’s mayoralty, in whose administration the Democrat got his political start (and met his wife, Chirlane).
The ad only served to cement Lhota’s own dated image. Twenty years earlier, his ploy might have worked. But in 2013, it fell flat. Its formula for victory—harnessing white voters’ fears of black unrest and criminality—was strategically tone-deaf. Today, people don’t leave the city to escape crime—they leave because it’s just too expensive to stay. “The rent is too damn high” has spawned an entire electoral platform. New Yorkers fear being held up by their landlords more than they fear being mugged on the street. De Blasio tapped into that economic desperation, riding it into office. None of this stopped commentators from warning late in the campaign that de Blasio would drag the city back into the Dinkins morass—a time when the city was ungovernable, mired in debt, terrorized by the violence of Crown Heights and hamstrung by the naive idealism of City Hall.
There are, indeed, many cautionary tales in the Dinkins administration. But reading A Mayor’s Life makes it clear that its real lessons don’t have much to do with rampant liberalism. Dinkins inherited a New York still shaking with the aftershocks of its fiscal crisis in the 1970s, when the city had nearly declared bankruptcy, its budget placed under the supervision of a state agency that enforced steep cutbacks in services. Manufacturing firms that had once supported a far more prosperous and equitable city continued to flee for more profitable pastures. The public institutions that had once nurtured New York’s thriving working class continued to stagnate. Wall Street was beginning to boom, but much of the city was mired in the bust.
In a clear shift away from older approaches to city governance, DINKINS pursued tax breaks and incentive packages for financial companies and helped to bring Disney to Times Square.
As mayor, Dinkins sought above all to show that he was hardheaded enough to hold the budgetary line while also out-toughing those who were tough on crime. In his signature initiative, Dinkins hired thousands of police officers. At the same time, he threatened to close all the city’s swimming pools and cut millions of dollars from health care and social services. And in a clear shift away from older approaches to city governance, he pursued tax breaks and incentive packages for financial companies and helped to bring Disney to Times Square. He justified these policies with arguments that have now become routine—corporate headquarters and a high-end service sector built on finance, insurance, and real estate would bring jobs and tax revenues to the cash-strapped metropolis. De Blasio’s win might show that such trickle-down logic no longer persuades voters, but in the Dinkins administration corporate-friendly policies defined the new urban politics of the time.
Curiously, though, Dinkins does not use his memoir to hold forth about New York politics or urban government more broadly; instead, he tells his story as an American bildungsroman, a tale of upward mobility against the odds. He presents himself as an exemplar for African Americans—what used to be called a “race man,” whose life is a credit not only to himself but to his people, and, in the context of the city’s machine, a political leader who was able to deliver the material goods for his constituents, in the form of services, aid, and jobs. Yet his ascent through the ranks of New York’s Democratic Party transpired at the very moment when consensus politics came to center on an austerity agenda run by technocrats. As a result, Dinkins’s ability to improve the lives of the people he claimed to represent ultimately came into conflict with his aspirations to respectability. At an earlier point, he had been able to marry identity politics with the actual ability to service his district, in whatever limited way the old machine had afforded. But as the Democratic Party came to embrace the politics of fiscal stringency, Dinkins’s personal success story came to seem cut off from the lives of black New Yorkers, the people who had propelled his upward rise.
Dinkins was born in Trenton, New Jersey, during the Great Depression. His parents—a barber and a domestic servant—separated when he was six years old, and for a while he lived with his mother and grandmother in Harlem, before he returned to Trenton to live with his father (who would go on to found the city’s Tuxedo Club). As a child and young man, Dinkins lived in a world segregated by fact if not by law, attending all-black schools, hanging out at the “colored Y,” and sitting in the balcony at the movie theater instead of in the orchestra seats. When in 1944, at age 17, Dinkins decided to enlist in the Marines (which had only begun to desegregate in 1942), he was repeatedly turned away, told that the quota of black Marines was full and even that he had high blood pressure and therefore could not enroll. He never challenged this in any political way—“I was not intimidated by white folks, and I wasn’t angry at white folks”—but simply continued to try to enlist until at last he was permitted to do so. After the Marines, Dinkins went to Howard, where he studied math; there, he met his future wife, whom he calls “my bride” throughout the memoir.
After a stint selling life insurance to black Trentonians, Dinkins went to law school. His first few years as a lawyer were difficult; he worked part-time in a liquor store while trying to get a practice off the ground. He seems to have entered politics largely because he was frustrated by the perception of even his black clients that to be taken seriously they needed to have a white lawyer. (The prevailing attitude, as he puts it, was, “If I’m going to get anything done, I need a big downtown white lawyer.”) The best way to meet people and to network was to get involved in the Democratic Party in Harlem, the George Washington Carver Democratic Club, which Dinkins did at his father-in-law’s urging in the late 1950s. The legendary Harlem club located at 145th Street and Amsterdam Avenue (“what old timers called Sugar Hill”) was a bit like a mutual-aid society—delivering turkeys at Thanksgiving, helping to finding year-round jobs (often at the post office), and even dispensing legal advice to its members in return for the vote. The neighborhood was so crowded that an entire election district often consisted of one square block. Dinkins—who started as an election worker, but quickly became district captain—knew all the people in his district, becoming familiar with their problems as they brought them to the clubhouse to be resolved, and on election day, he would organize his team of workers to turn out the vote and deliver it to the party candidate. Dinkins made his closest political allies—men like Congressman Charlie Rangel and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton—in the club, and thanks to its support, he won his first elected office as a State Assemblyman. There, he helped to found the first legislative caucus for black and Puerto Rican New York State politicians.
Machine politics transcended neighborhood divisions. Dinkins describes Abraham Beame, elected in 1973 as the city’s first Jewish mayor, as a “sweetheart” who had “an accountant’s attention to detail,” which is ironic, given that Beame would preside over the city’s near default. Beame appointed Dinkins Deputy Mayor—the first black deputy mayor in the city’s history. But in a minor scandal, Dinkins was found to be delinquent on income tax payments and had to step down. He was only able to get back into politics through serving as City Clerk, which he did for 10 years, before becoming Manhattan Borough President (it took several tries for him to win). Yet in a way Dinkins was lucky to get out of the Beame administration, as only a year after Beame’s election, the city’s fiscal crisis exploded. Beame was forced by the city’s financial elite to turn on his old machine friends, and take the ax to the budget, closing firehouses, cutting spending on public health, and pursuing such policies as imposing tuition at the city university. After Beame, the city’s Democrats were no longer primarily focused on delivering services to the base; instead, they knew that their power relied on making their fiscal rectitude crystal clear, as Ed Koch, Beame’s immediate successor, did.
One has the impression that Dinkins was caught between two modes of Democratic Party politics: the service delivery and ethnic and racial loyalty that drove the party machine and the technocracy of the post-fiscal crisis era. Neither stance is especially ideological. Dinkins hardly mentions the civil rights movement in his memoirs. Black power is raised briefly, but only in Dinkins’s account of a confrontation in which the Democratic machine faced a challenge from radicals whom Dinkins opposed. There’s a brief, obligatory condemnation of Reaganism, but the impact of the cutbacks that followed the 1975 fiscal crisis on the city is scarcely discussed. Instead, Dinkins focuses on his ideas about language (“I am not a supporter of ‘Ebonics’”) and his sense of the paramount importance of having clean fingernails and tidy hair. In a world in which white people might point to the thinnest fictions to exclude blacks, it was important not to provide them with any excuse. For Dinkins, ambition meant adhering to the right codes, being exceedingly careful never to be seen as too “wild-eyed” or too angry. He depended on the allegiance of African Americans, but his end goal was to find a way into the mainstream.
Dinkins’s account of his mayoralty is muted, almost sad. It was a personal triumph for him—he remembers his elation on the night he was elected—but he seems acutely aware of his failures in office. He discusses his accomplishments: increasing the police force by six thousand, expanding community policing, keeping libraries open, creating the first needle-exchange program in New York, creating community health care centers. But he is well aware that all of this work took place against the backdrop of a perennial shortage of funds, and the threat of losing control over the city to the Emergency Financial Control Board, which had been established during the 1970s to rein in spending. Those who had supported Dinkins’s run for mayor quickly had to adjust their expectations downward.
For Dinkins, the city’s fiscal limits seem so natural that they do not even merit much discussion. He says little in his memoir about the sustained decline of manufacturing, the ascendant power of real estate developers, the relationship between the wealthy suburban ring and the city, or even federal urban policy, all of which set the stage for the city’s recurrent fiscal problems. Yet Dinkins’s decisions abetted New York’s political sea change: he helped to steer the city toward policies that coaxed financial companies, such as Morgan Stanley, to stay in New York instead of decamping elsewhere (in Morgan Stanley’s case, Stamford, Connecticut) by offering them elaborate packages of tax breaks and incentives. Similar strategies were used to woo Disney to Times Square. (Incidentally, Carl Weisbrod, who is now serving as one of Bill de Blasio’s transition leaders, was head of the Economic Development Corporation under Dinkins, in which capacity he helped devise Disney’s sweetheart deal and to put together almost $40 million in tax breaks and incentives for Morgan Stanley.)
Dinkins’s account of his mayoralty is muted,
Still, A Mayor’s Life describes the racial condescension Dinkins felt from Wall Street and the media about his ability to manage the city budget. Despite his background in math, he writes, “[o]pinion makers and people on editorial boards asked my senior staff, in so many words, Can the black guy count?” It was a perfect storm: Dinkins needed to demonstrate his competence as a manager, and the only way to do this was to make clear to all that he fully accepted the underlying assumptions of the fiscal crisis. This meant adopting policies that were geared toward attracting investment above any other goal, even while threatening to shut down services aimed at the poor.
What is especially tragic about Dinkins’s position is that the greatest crisis of his mayoralty—the riots in Crown Heights in 1991—was inflamed by the question of who got social services and who did not. The terrible events began when a speeding Hasidic driver (part of a Lubavicher motorcade) hit two young black children, one of whom died in the accident. A private volunteer Jewish ambulance service arrived first at the scene of the crash and took away the driver, while the severely injured children at the scene remained, pinned under the vehicle. A city ambulance got there quickly afterwards, but rioting began, and several hours later a crowd of young black men shouting anti-Semitic slurs surrounded and stabbed an Australian rabbinical student, who died that night. Several days of serious unrest followed.
In contrast to the widespread image of Dinkins responding passively to the crisis, his memoir suggests that he pushed the police to do more, even shouting at his police chief to lock up the rioters and use whatever resources necessary to bring peace. Still, at the time, rumors spread throughout the Jewish community in Crown Heights that Dinkins’s real sympathies lay with the black community and that the police had been told to “let the blacks vent.” The entire episode was painful, ugly, and frightening. The anti-Semitism of the murder is undeniable and the perception that Dinkins had not done enough to respond quickly stained his mayoralty in the eyes of many voters. The image of the Hatzolah ambulance service driving away, leaving behind a dying child, commanded less focus. While there was no policy against treating African Americans, for those in Crown Heights the simple fact that the public ambulance got there second may have seemed linked to a decade of city hospitals shutting down. Memories of the closings of the historically black Sydenham Hospital in Harlem and of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and Cumberland Hospitals in the early 1980s were still fresh, and the opening of Woodhull, a new Brooklyn public hospital, in 1982, did not altogether allay the anger about the closing of the neighborhood ones. To many, the simple existence of the private religious ambulance service may have stood in for the slow reorientation of the city toward people who could afford to pay for their own services, while everyone else was shut out.
The end of the memoir deals with Dinkins’s recollections of his defeat for reelection by Rudy Giuliani in 1993. When A Mayor’s Life was published, Dinkins was mocked by the New York press for suggesting that “racism, plain and simple” was responsible for his loss. The outrage seems bizarre; the 1993 campaign hinged on Giuliani’s denunciation of “squeegee men,” his warnings about crime, and his description of the events of Crown Heights as a “pogrom”—a rhetoric borrowed from Ed Koch, among others, which played into the fantasy that an African American mayor must have sponsored the violence in the neighborhood. Race figured deeply in the political game too that year. Dinkins reminds readers that Governor Mario Cuomo permitted a referendum that would have allowed Staten Island—the city’s whitest and most Republican borough—to secede from New York City. Dinkins suggests that sweetening a trip to the polls for SI residents may have been organized retaliation: Harlem, Dinkins’s home base, hadn’t turned out for Cuomo when he ran for mayor back in 1977.
Ironically, Dinkins also lost because those very people who had launched his career were tired and disappointed. His politics—Morgan Stanley, Disney, the fiscal crunch—and the trickle-down logic of corporate support failed them. By 1993, Dinkins was in a bind. Other constituencies—white, Jewish, Hispanic—in the city accused him of favoring the black community, but black voters themselves were alienated and disillusioned. Dinkins did not want to be seen as the “Mayor of Black People”; yet he himself had trouble seeing his role in the city outside the frame of identity politics. He lost the election narrowly, by about 2 percent of the vote, with 10 percent lower turnout than in 1989—and a drop-off in the black vote in Brooklyn in particular. He was, he says, sad to lose, but when he outlines the agenda he failed to realize, it is only a faint sketch: “There were people to house, businesses to encourage, Times Square to see rejuvenated, and the USTA National Tennis Center to see expanded.” Perhaps he lost because the people who had helped to elect him—working-class and poor African Americans central among them—were not moved by the cause of tennis in New York. The ambition that had served Dinkins so well all throughout his life could not make him a mayor able to keep his office, in part because he was not capable of taking on the inequalities that were coming to define the city—indeed, that he helped deepen.
Cities are strange creatures. New York, larger than many states and some countries, is at once powerful and weak, dependent on the larger society even as it sets its own priorities. To lead a city effectively in an age when austerity is the conventional wisdom means being willing to challenge all the norms of governance; it also means forgoing the easy appeal to real estate and financial interests, to have a vision of the city as a whole. It means refusing to govern for Morgan Stanley and Disney, for Wal-Mart and Wall Street, for the billionaires the world over who might purchase pieds-à-terre in New York. Such was not Dinkins’s role. Even in defeat, he felt an acute need to maintain his respectability, not simply for himself but as a representative of his race. On the day after the election, he told “my bride” that they had 60 days to find a job and a place to live, and to set up a responsible transition, “lest they say, ‘You let those people in and see what they did.’” He has little to say about the Giuliani years, or what has happened to the city since. In a way, this is appropriate; what comes through most clearly in A Mayor’s Life is how deeply personal Dinkins’s political career was for him. Yet there was a politics to this as well: Dinkins’s embrace of symbolic and identity politics seems linked to his inability to deliver material change. At least on a rhetorical level, in his willingness to pitch a campaign that deals directly with inequality and the social consequences of austerity, Bill de Blasio has adopted a very different style of politics. One hopes, perhaps against the odds, that somehow he will be able to cut loose from the strictures that so constrained Dinkins, to find a different way forward for New York.