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A Letter to John Lindsay

November 20, 1965

Dear John Lindsay,

I voted for you because I knew, partly from the private experience of friends, that you have reliably gone to bat against outrageous abuses, even when it might have been to your “political” disadvantage. As Murray Kempton has pointed out, reliable decency is perhaps the most useful attribute of a mayor. And I am confident you will stay decent, in cases of police brutality, rats, officious bureaucrats and school principals, Red-baiting, and so forth.

Naturally I hope for something more, the improvement of the city and the opening of a more Interesting future. Throughout the world, there is a critical need to cope with galloping urbanization, its technology, crowding, anomie, loss of substantive democracy; the current routines are entirely outmoded. It must have struck you during the campaign that it is disgust with the routine ideas of the older generation that animates political youth. But I am not confident that you will come across for us, though you have plenty of determination and good will.

Put it this way, your programs have usually lacked intellect, imagination, and invention. Much can be attributed to campaign prudence, but there was also a good deal of bright Establishment thinking. As was evident also when you were in Congress, you are honest and determined but you do not seem to have much contract with philosophical and creative people who see problems in a new light in which they are soluble and offer a new deal. During the campaign it was the carefree Mr. Buckley who, by his own or his friends’ wit, occasionally hit on something inventive; and this made it all the more appalling that he did not care about our city, and so was an evil gadfly. I think you do care.

You say you will be Mayor for eight years. Good. During the first years, even while you are struggling with the present fiscal, institutional, and moral mess, get proposals for radical reconstruction into the hopper of public discussion, expert analysis, pilot testing. Foment argument and prevent a letdown in the public will for a change. By your third and fourth year we can begin to go somewhere. The American electorate is trustworthy if it is presented with a real rather than a factitious issue, and if it has time for discussion to get over its conformist panic against new ideas. Of the Americans, we New Yorkers are the most receptive to change; but woe! We are also the subtlest and quickest to detect packaging and tokenism, and to withdraw into apathy and say, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Leadership can be prudent but not compromising, and it must have ideas that make a difference to life—otherwise New Yorkers lack perseverance. This is why Reform movements flop as soon as they become “realistic.” And in the state of withdrawal, it is possible to perpetrate enormities on New York, as Robert Moses has done. (No “impossible” “utopian” schemes are as expensive as projects he has performed.)

Fortunately, it is your style to keep going to the people, by TV, mass meetings, and on the street. Any merely political opposition of O’Connor and Company could be an advantage; it will give occasions for public argument. Your mayoralty can be profoundly educative, and nothing less will do, for the problems of ecology and urban sociology that we face require a new level of public understanding; and the decision-making of experts without public participation is absolutely not to be trusted; it never gives human solutions. If engaged, New Yorkers are quite smart enough, including the “culturally underprivileged.”

You seem to have been successful in avoiding compromising entanglements. You can appeal to people like Bill Ryan, Rockefeller, or Bobby Kennedy for support or at least forbearance. (Break through the vanity that is no doubt operating on all sides.) Thus you can confront the public with our problems in a fairly uncompromised state. In my opinion, the chief obstacle to finding real solutions and working them out with the electorate is that public officials are always paying off or placating or winning the next election; nothing is done for its own sake. Instead of educating children, they are expanding the GNP, dampening the dynamite of the slums, rivaling Sputnik, and placating the Daily News. Instead of coping with commutation, they avoid offending General Motors, feed the Port Authority, pander to Harry Van Arsdale’s construction workers, and sell the city to the suburbs. With such complicated purposes, costs skyrocket. Instead of a solution there is a palliative, the problem recurs. The public never hears an unvarnished story. And the resulting artificial package prevents a functional and integrated solution that would soon save economic and social costs, simplify life, and make a radical difference to the city. (The Great Society is full of such false packages.) A better city would be cheaper to run, because it would be essentially simpler and make more use of people as resources. Let me give half a dozen examples.

  1. My first suggestion may seem odd to a mayor-elect of New York City. It is to pay farm families and use the rural countryside to help with urban problems, e.g., to take care of the old in existing villages and the harmless insane on farms; to encourage new immigration toward more congenial rural environments; to provide vacations on farms. Especially, education would be improved during the junior high school years if kids who had never been more than a few blocks from home could experience the culture shock of a year in a country school. At present, city and country confront each other like hostile camps, as in the controversy over reapportionment; but, for ecological reasons, this won’t do. Like other cities New York has pathological symptoms of population explosion, while beautiful areas upstate and in neighboring states are losing population. Beyond a certain point, crowding and forced conformity make decent life impossible unless we use other environments, as, of course, rich people do for their vacations and the schooling of their children. Meantime, for petty economies in cash-farming we have destroyed many farms and incurred heavy extra urban costs in housing and services for the displaced. Thus, it would be wise to channel much of our urban social service money back into rural life and try to support rural economic and community reconstruction. We ought to aim at 20 per cent rural population rather than the present 6.7 per cent, and this is an urban problem. Instead, we have been underwriting the worst possible plan: blighted center and suburban sprawl.

  2. Anomie—normlessness—is now a chief factor making cities unworkable, whether it appears as the hopelessness and delinquency of poor people or as the privatism and negativism of the middle class fleeing to suburbs. Your disposition to provide “neighborhood City Halls” for complaint and consultation is good. Finally, however, the only way to remedy powerlessness is to give power: in their neighborhood City Halls, the local citizens must exercise initiative and make decisions, including making trouble and/or mistakes. Change the present districting of municipal functions—schools, police, etc.—which was designed for the convenience of various central departments. Make cohere the districts for community planning, welfare, schools, police and elections, and give to each of the neighborhood City Halls a share of money to hire its own professionals and budget on its own. Then citizens may get to look at their neighborhood City Hall as a genuine means of contact with public life. The town meeting is not an impossible idea. (Working with the local planning board, the School of Architecture at Columbia is now working on plans for a neighborhood City Hall for Washington Heights. It is a difficult aesthetic problem: how to express the importance of a public thing without the pomposity of a Public Thing.)

  3. A major function that needs more local control is policing. Your merely technological proposals for safety have been disappointing (even alarming). You say little about the causes of trouble, e.g., the narcotics laws, and almost nothing about the method and spirit of policing. The current popular remedy, the Civilian Review Board, which you endorse, can achieve little, except in outrageous cases and after long delay. Let me suggest, therefore, that we draw on the philosophical distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, and try to police the misdemeanors—rackets, petty theft, moral offenses, disorderly conduct, delinquency—by neighborhood police, with a local Chief, according to local mores. The purpose of misdeameanor-policing is to keep the peace; it is absurd to try to police Harlem, as we do, by the mores of a Long Island suburb plus corruption and uncomprehending brutality. Live and let live. Maybe this suggestion entails impossible administrative and legal difficulties, but it is worth exploring because it is natural.

  4. In Welfare, we need more economic sense and less petty bourgeois means-testing, less social worker theorizing about cultural deprivation. The comprehensive welfare costs for a poor family now amount to a handsome middle-class income. The costs for training camps and “head start programs” designed to get people into some other stream of behavior are startling. Would it not be better to use this kind of money to provide business capital for people to employ according to their own lights? (Here the Black Muslims have been bang right.) I am impressed by an experiment in Columbus, Ohio, where poor people have formed their own corporations for useful services. Negro cooperatives have come to exist in the South. With capital, and their own labor exempt from union scales, such corporations might remarkably improve their own housing and neighborhoods, at very cheap cost. The way to calm activist pressure groups is not, as the Great Society now seems to have decided in panic, to withdraw funds and disown them, but rather to encourage actions that result in direct and tangible satisfactions, freedom schools, playgrounds, renovation, useful jobs. (We certainly need several years of simple labor to improve the rivers and the subways.) As Robert Theobald says, a chief characteristic of the poor is that they have no money. And no options, nor access to their own professionals.

  5. The educational system has gotten to be so wrong in principle that one cannot accept its premises, as you do, and make sense. Consider, simply, that it is impossible for any single sociological institution like the conventional School—a building, textbooks, teachers, assigned lessons—to be the appropriate means of educating 100 per cent of New York’s million children. Unless we open a dozen different paths of growing up, most of our money is thrown away and the waste of young life and talent is cruel. You have spoken with some favor of central Educational Parks where large numbers of children would be assembled for integrated schooling. But this would be the ultimate in monolithic mismanagement. Instead, look at the very tiny First Street School on the Lower East Side (Negro, Puerto Rican, and “white”). This school has a pupil teacher ratio of 8 to 1 and employs a good progressive approach, freely using the city itself as a means of teaching; but it costs the same per pupil as the public schools, where the ratio is 30 to 1. Thus the inflation of administrative costs in the Public School establishment is 300 per cent and the children and teachers are reduced to ciphers in the operation.

On the secondary level, study the actual requirements for the common run of jobs and you will find that most of the high-schooling is irrelevant. It would be better, and as cheap, to educate the majority, including very many of the bright and gifted, by paying them to try out as apprentices in various real environments, in order to learn manual, trade, skilled, cultural, sub-professional, and even professional vocations. Provision should be made for re-entry into college when and if required. And the same reasoning holds for the unrealistic requirement of college diplomas for many licenses. We have trapped the young in an obstacle race that very often has no functional use whatever. Naturally they make trouble, and they are going to make more.

  1. Both you and Mr. Buckley have spoken of controlling the inflow of cars, wisely, for it is inevitable. But you treat the matter gingerly, by “attrition,” and in isolation from an integrated street plan and transit plan. Instead, ban the cars from the center of the city, building river piers for parking, and beautiful advantages follow: play streets for children, better air, a fund of prime land for housing renewal without relocation, and express avenues. A few years ago, my brother estimated that we could close one-half to three-quarters of the side streets in Manhattan; and by doubling the number of taxis, which should be small and electric, and providing express buses we could all have better transportation.*

Furthermore, logically prior to any transit plan should be the effort to diminish commutation altogether, for example by a bureau of apartment exchanges to bring people nearer to their jobs. A policy of urban renewal and rental should be developed to bring a higher proportion of residences and jobs into adjacent locations (as was achieved by the garment workers co-operative in Chelsea). Here the benefit is not only in relieving congestion but in saving hours of commutation.

These particular proposals have bugs—I have no special competence except in education—but I offer them as a functional approach that would make a real difference to the city, rather than merely keeping a leaky ship afloat. In the end, urban areas are ceasing to be governable because they are ceasing to be cities. They are treated merely technically (or “politically”), and therefore inefficiently. They do not beautifully and directly fulfill city functions, and they do not enlist the participation of citizens. Reverse this trend and New York will be glorious in the world, for the urban crisis is world-wide, and we need a model to disprove that “Nothing Can Be Done.”

The post to which you have been elected is the most important political post that you or any man can hold. The national government is humanly important mainly because it is the indispensible tax-gatherer and financier in a national economy. (Most money for public goods must come from Washington, and it makes it tough that many in Washington are rogues or fools.) The State governments are becoming obsolete and merely obstructive, though our own State is better than most. But the context in which most worthwhile political problems arise is the region and the city. And it is just in the regions and cities, where experience occurs, that we can begin to recover substantive democracy, citizenly decision-making, and arrest the degeneration to formal consensus and massification.

People degenerate politically and are massified when they are subjected to technologies expanded merely for profits and power, ecological thoughtlessness, bureaucratic administration, self-accrediting Establishments, party machines. Then they are swamped by “urban trends” and the “inevitable conditions of modern times.” People recover politically when their institutions are functional, when they are acquainted with what is going on, and when they have a say. Then they control urban trends and can use the conditions of modern times to advantage.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Goodman

  1. *

    See Percival Goodman and Paul Goodman: “A Plan for New York Traffic,” in Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, Random House.

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