New York City Mayors and Snow

John Lindsay

Having recently published biographies of New York City mayors—America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York and Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City—we’ve been following Mayor Bloomberg’s recent battles with snow storms. While the post-Christmas blizzard won the first round, Bloomberg was clearly ready for the most recent snow fall, undoubtedly recognizing that providing plowed streets and other basic services are key to a mayor’s success.

One only has to look at the experience of John Lindsay whose mayoralty almost came undone by a blizzard in 1969 (see above picture of a lonely Lindsay surveying the storm). In America’s Mayor, Jeff Greenfield, CBS News senior political correspondent and a former speechwriter for Lindsay, describes how the snowstorm hurt an already weakened Lindsay:

Even the gods—and a sclerotic bureaucracy—conspired against him: a freak snowstorm in early 1969 that dumped nearly two feet of snow on eastern Queens had paralyzed much of that borough for days, offering a Currier & Ives portrait of a Manhattan-centric mayor indifferent to the plight of middle-class homeowner.

Sound familiar?

In other New York City Mayor news, New York Magazine recently gathered a group that included scholars, political consultants, and Al Sharpton to weigh in on what makes a good mayor of New York City and who might have been the best.

While La Guardia comes up on top, the participants in the very lively conversation had the following to say about Koch and Lindsay:

Smith (moderator): Ed Koch steered the city through economic crisis and was a brilliant cheerleader.

Mollenkopf (Distinguished professor of political science at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and director of its Center For Urban Research): If you could look only at Ed’s first term or the first half of his span, you would say something different from looking at the whole stretch.

Cunningham (Media consultant and political strategist): I’m not suggesting it was of his own making, but Koch’s last term was plagued by the worst corruption. It was almost the beginning of the ethics plague that is still playing out.

Hardt (Political director and executive producer, NY1): Race relations in the last five years of Koch were pretty lousy. Not necessarily because of him, but he was not the right person at the right time to really deal with a lot of issues that Dinkins tried to confront, also somewhat unsuccessfully.

Mollenkopf: Whatever you think of the Koch administration, the city and the state did put billions of dollars into rebuilding the subway system, and that’s one of the things that’s been fundamental to the turnaround of New York from the downward trajectory that it was on.

Smith: Conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t even discuss John Lindsay.

Sharpton (activist): I remember growing up in the sixties and seventies in Brooklyn. I don’t really remember Wagner, but I remember Lindsay walking the streets in Bed-Stuy and Harlem. Now, we may have been in the toilet fiscally back then, but I don’t remember that because we’ve gone to hell and back ten times since then. But when you say John Lindsay, I have an endearing memory of him because he was a tall, lanky guy who had all the power, and he came to our community.

Cunningham: I also have to stick up for Lindsay. Look at not just what was happening with New York at the time but urban America, with white flight and really no safety net or an urban policy in this country. And if not for John Lindsay, this city would have been living through a situation probably much worse than what Detroit and Newark and other big cities wrestled with. I always thought it was amusing when Giuliani became “America’s mayor,” because America’s mayor was first John Lindsay. It’s just sort of a pet issue of mine. I think the best leaders are the ones who try to encourage people to have faith in public service, faith that government is a force for good, can do right by people. The people we saw go into the Lindsay administration—Mario Cuomo, Carl McCall, and a host of people who didn’t go on to be elected officials—they brought new energy to public service. And I do media for a living, and Lindsay used TV commercials that were pretty sophisticated for their time, the David Garth cinéma vérité, direct-to-camera stuff.

Hardt: PR-wise, Lindsay did everything right, especially his first term. But if you talk to the budget number crunchers of the world, they’ll just shake their heads and mutter, “Oh my goodness.”

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