The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save
New York By Vincent J. Cannato. Basic Books, 702 pages, $35.00
Before the sun had risen on John Lindsay's first day
as mayor of New York City, the Transport Workers Union went out on strike. It was
the dead of winter in 1966, and the city's subways and buses would remain idle
for 12 more days. Labor leaders thumbed their noses at the new mayor, and they
weren't alone. Even Lindsay's immediate predecessor, Robert F. Wagner, snubbed
Lindsay by leaving for a Mexican vacation instead of attending the inauguration.
Yet the strike turned out to be more than the new administration could
handle. In his negotiations with the TWU, Lindsay revealed not only a disregard
for the conventions of collective bargaining, according to Vincent Cannato's
Ungovernable City, but a fundamental lack of political skill. The mayor was
unable to convert public disgust for the union's actions to his own advantage.
Instead, he gave the TWU everything it asked for, including a 15 percent raise.
In Cannato's biography, the mayor's mishandling of the transit strike is but
one of many painful episodes that, in sum, describe eight years of naive liberal
idealism in action. For Cannato, a fellow at the neoconservative Hudson
Institute, Lindsay personifies the beginning of the end of the liberalism America
once knew. And in this version of the story, the mayor's wrongheaded politics and
policies accelerated, even caused, the demise of a great city that was crashing
toward fiscal insolvency and a calamity of crime, welfare dependency, antiwhite
racism, and disregard for the city's hardworking white middle class. "John
Lindsay failed because he could not make the city work," Cannato writes.
"Liberalism sputtered because of the tragic failure of men like Lindsay."
While The Ungovernable City, in its 579 pages of narrative, is ostensibly
about Mayor Lindsay, another character looms throughout: the current mayor,
Rudolph Giuliani, also an idealistic leader inclined to moral passion. There's
not much direct comment about Giuliani until the penultimate chapter, but his
approach to governing is quite obviously the filter through which this entire
account was conceived and written.
The title is intentionally ironic. A quarter-century ago, a book of the same
name was written by the Yale political scientist Douglas Yates, and it became a
minor classic in urban studies. Yates argued that New York and other large cities
were burdened with an outdated City Hall-based governance structure that couldn't
possibly cope with the complexities of modern urban life. Each major city's
problems were usually regional or even national in scope, he wrote. As the
demographic makeup of cities became ever more fragmented, the variety of services
City Hall had to provide had simply become unmanageable.
Cannato's book makes the counterargument. In placing the spotlight on the
flawed ploys of stumbling liberals, he attempts to show that New York
City--under the right kind of leadership--is governable after all. Evidently, the
author would have us conclude that New York could have been spared a truly
horrific period in its history had its leaders been guided by hard-nosed
Giuliani-esque values and respect for the white middle class instead of so much
Is it a legitimate comparison? Like Giuliani, Lindsay was a crusader and very
good at making enemies of potential friends and allies. His moral compass,
however, was nothing like Giuliani's. While the current mayor made pariahs of
welfare recipients, homeless people, truants, and pot smokers, Lindsay was
committed to a fault to fighting poverty, to making government more responsive to
the demands of communities long excluded from power, and to the notion that
urban problems could be solved through technocratic innovation.
He began his political career as a Republican congressman from Manhattan's
Upper East Side and eventually served four terms. During the late 1950s and early
1960s, Lindsay championed civil liberties and helped lead congressional efforts
to shut down the reactionary House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1964 he
was a key strategist in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Although his
electoral base in the socially liberal and wealthy Manhattan district was secure,
he was no more than a marginal player in the national Republican Party.
While still in the capital, Lindsay stated his devotion to an ideal of
leadership freed from the controlling hands of "antiindividual, antilibertarian
forces that stem from every organized power group, whether that power group be
the central government, the industrial-military complex, the big city machine or
the local constabulary." In 1965, as a fusion candidate of the Republican and
Liberal Parties, this focus on independent-mindedness and good government
propelled him to victory in a three-way mayor's race against the Democratic Party
clubhouse candidate Abe Beame and National Review founder William F. Buckley,
Jr., who was running on the Conservative Party line.
Lindsay's winning coalition included wealthy Republican
financiers and liberal reform Democrats, blocs that would stick with him through
much of his career. But the 1965 victory also depended on the votes of white
Republicans from the boroughs outside Manhattan, as well as middle-class Jews.
The deterioration of his relationship with these voters is one theme of Cannato's
book. Throughout his first term, as the mayor churned his staff and dived
headfirst into racial politics, he seemed to forget entirely the basic political
work of solidifying and expanding his electoral base. Instead, while reaching out
to blacks and Puerto Ricans, he largely abandoned the constituency of
middle-class white voters who had helped put him in office.
Still, Lindsay had some early successes. He won state-legislative
assent in implementing a more progressive revenue structure, including a city
income tax. And although Cannato tries hard to debunk Lindsay's reputation as a
riot stopper, there's no denying that New York's black communities avoided the
kind of rampant destruction other U.S. cities experienced in 1966 and 1967.
The late-1960s economy was strong, and rising tax revenues kept Lindsay's
expanding city budgets balanced. But the social tumult that defined the state of
the nation at the time made the mayor's job demanding in the extreme. The Vietnam
War and the antiwar movement, fast-rising crime rates, angry white cops, and
increasingly harsh, racially charged vitriol in black as well as in white
communities across the city came to dominate his first term.
The worst of it arrived in 1968 with the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school-control
battle and its aftermath. An ill-defined, Ford Foundation-funded experiment in
community oversight of a handful of schools went badly awry after an activist
board of residents of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn tried to transfer 13
white, unionized teachers out of the five schools under its control. The ensuing
walkout by 350 fellow union members and the battle for school leadership that
followed led to a series of citywide teachers' strikes that pitted blacks
directly against the heavily Jewish teachers' union. Though Cannato acknowledges
the prominent role of Jews (and a white Catholic priest) in the Brownsville
community-control movement, he is especially keen to document the anti-Semitic
epithets and low-level violence that became routine in some schools, as well as
the racist wrath that punctuated the media statements of several black leaders.
The anti-Semitic fringe of the black community came to the fore, further
alienating middle-class, outer-borough Jews from Lindsay, whom some perceived as
an ally of black leaders. Worse, the bewildering, autumn-long teachers' strikes
left a million students coming up short on their education and working parents
struggling to find care for their children. Then, in February, an unpredicted
snowstorm shut down the city and the administration was slow to plow the streets.
It was a classic foul-up. The mayor and his city were stumbling from crisis to
It seemed that the city had slipped out of control. Is Cannato right, though,
in placing all the blame on racist blacks in Brownsville and Harlem, on the
countercultural youths who flouted the authority of police, on the student
radicals who held Columbia University hostage, and on liberals like Lindsay who
tolerated the intolerant and failed to challenge extremism forcefully? This line
has been championed for so long by the neoconservative movement that it has
become almost a kind of conventional wisdom. But, of course, it is an
Cannato fails to offer a reasonable assessment of the social and economic
forces that buffeted urban America at the time. Think about the way that city
neighborhoods had changed. With the federal government guaranteeing cheap
mortgages and building highways to the suburbs--even as banks and the Federal
Housing Administration turned away from financing homes in urban
areas--middle-class whites began to abandon whole swaths of the city. Between
1946 and 1960, more than 1.7 million whites moved out of New York City. Their
homes often were rented to very poor migrants from the American South and Puerto
Rico. Meanwhile, urban-renewal projects destroyed hundreds of city blocks,
uprooting and destabilizing countless families. Little of this history commands
Cannato's attention; instead, his narrative describes whites driven from the city
by integration and the threat of black-on-white crime.
Rates of violent crime, which had nearly doubled under Mayor Wagner, continued
to rise. The New York Police Department was operating with outdated systems and
strategies. Lindsay desperately wanted reform, but the police department
resisted. Cannato seeks to lend credence to charges that Lindsay's staff
"handcuffed" the cops, restraining them from enforcing the law against radicals,
hippies, and other miscreants. In fact, a quick check of NYPD data reveals that
arrests kept pace with crime during the Lindsay administration. Even misdemeanor
drug arrests increased more than 25 percent between 1965 and 1968. Lindsay's
failure on crime was essentially political: His police commissioners, unlike
Giuliani's, were incapable of gaining control of the uniformed command structure
of the department.
Cannato's sympathies lie squarely with the white ethnics of the outer
boroughs, the men and women he depicts as the core working class of the urban
economy: teachers, drivers, police, construction workers, and others alienated by
Lindsay's elitist, Manhattan-centric attitudes and his policies designed for
black and Latino constituents. By comparison, the author depicts blacks and
Puerto Ricans almost exclusively as troublemakers, radicals, racists, or their
patsies. He makes no significant attempt to describe life in their neighborhoods
or to depict their political efforts as anything other than extremist.
Nor does he mention that throughout the postwar period, blacks and Puerto
Ricans had been excluded by whites from the traditional neighborhood-based
patronage system that had been the standard tool of political incorporation for
the city's white ethnic groups. Is it any surprise that black and Latino
neighborhood activism, so long suppressed, exploded with such vengeance in the
Despite these glaring weaknesses, Cannato's wealth of detail and research does
make clear why Lindsay's mayoralty was a turning point in New York City history.
This is the first Lindsay biography written since the man was in office, and
Cannato tells stories that are well worth telling. Despite ideological blind
spots, he does a decent job describing how the modern urban crisis exploded
onto the national stage in the 1960s.
Lindsay was no hero; during his second administration, he began to turn into
the kind of patronage-minded, machine-building politician he had earlier
despised. But Cannato's imposition of wry, late-1990s neoconservative sensibility
on nearly every topic discussed in the book is facile. This approach to history
shifts blame for the urban disasters of the 1960s and 1970s away from American
policies and culture that, in fact, did not represent liberalism at all. These
were years when America was sending its poor and working-class youth to fight a
losing war in Vietnam, when powerful incentives were in place that encouraged
white abandonment of the cities, and when the nation had yet to provide much in
the way of equal opportunity to blacks and Puerto Ricans.
Perhaps New York City is governable today. That doesn't mean it was 30 years
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)