A Curious Politician

Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing

by Mario Matthew Cuomo, with a preface by Jimmy Breslin, an afterword by Richard Sennett
Random House, 209 pp., $6.95

Mario Cuomo, a Brooklyn lawyer, has been designated as their candidate for lieutenant governor by a majority of the members of the Democratic State Committee of New York. That, of course, is only a compliment, and a trifling one, unless his choice is ratified in the Democratic primary on September 10. His account of his troubles as mediator between a group of outraged citizens and their mayor appears then, although only by coincidence, as a kind of campaign autobiography. His modesty and his sense, if not of failure, at least of having fallen short make his book a curious and affecting specimen of a genre that normally has very little room in it for reflections as complicated as his.

Cuomo’s diary covers the three months he spent attempting to resolve the quarrel between a city government which proposed to build a housing project for low-income and welfare families in Forest Hills and the organized residents of that middle-class, largely Jewish neighborhood who resisted it. His thoughts are sandwiched between a journalistic preface by Jimmy Breslin and a sociological afterword by Richard Sennett. Each is a model of its method.

Breslin has the journalist’s bent for tragedies with vaguely hopeful endings; he sees Cuomo, not unpersuasively, as that solitary just man whose “lonely, excruciating work” might redeem the city. Sennett draws rather less hope from Cuomo’s experience; he sees it as “a glimpse into what happens when the political machinery in a city ceases to work.” Admire Cuomo though he must, he judges him at the end of his mission “as much defeated by his role as the community is by theirs.” My guess is that Cuomo, while not quite ready to recognize himself entire in either portrait, might lean more to the Sennett than to the Breslin version.

Still Cuomo did find a formula which, if it did not resolve, at least concluded the quarrel; and yet when the mayor called to thank him, he had trouble thinking of a response, because he wasn’t certain whether he had been right or wrong. Sennett and Breslin are right to admire him; it is difficult not to care about the future of any public man who when being congratulated for a success isn’t sure that it was not a failure.

When Mario Cuomo came to Forest Hills in 1972, it was already too late for a redeemer. Six years before, the city’s Board of Estimate had approved a plan to build 840 units of a low-income housing project there. Low-income housing translates as black, young, and poor; and Forest Hills, if it boasts few remnants of fashion except the West Side Tennis Club, is white and middle class.

This planned incursion of the under-privileged had been largely dictated by the federal government’s transient interest in social integration. In 1965, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had made it a condition that any city seeking federal housing grants demonstrate its readiness to use a portion of the money to build the “scatter-site” housing that could contribute to racially integrated neighborhoods. The Forest Hills project was conceived in haste and approved with an almost contrived failure to consult with the community. By the time the neighborhood recognized that the city was serious, all public hearings were over; those opposed had all but exhausted their legal remedies and were left with no recourse except agitation.

This proved a formidable weapon; Forest Hills protesters followed Mayor Lindsay through his Florida presidential campaign, and damaged him grievously with Miami’s Jewish voters. He came home with a lively appreciation of the force of their anger, and began casting about for ways to reconcile it. He settled upon the most traditional of city formulas, the appointment of an independent finder of facts. He offered this position first to Theodore Kheel, that most traditional of fixers, but Kheel was much too discreet to take it; and the mayor finally turned to Mario Cuomo.

The mayor’s choice of Cuomo was somewhat shrewder than Cuomo’s acceptance of the burden. His main prior civic experience had been as counsel to groups of citizens resisting the encroachment of city government upon their property; that history might seem to exempt him from the suspicion that he had taken the mayor’s shilling—but it didn’t.

Cuomo is liberal, patient, and appreciative of the weight of each side’s argument; he has in other words all the virtues a mediator requires. But he was called to a situation which had all the vices that make mediation useless: one side passionate, the other either invisible or at far remove from the scene, and common sense subsumed long ago in play-acting.

Cuomo understood, for example, that there was very little profit in treating the opponents of the project as simple bigots; it seemed to him that local people could be both “sincere and reasonable” when they argued that any substantial influx of the poor and the black carries the danger of crime and decay. Yet he soon came to suspect that by the time he entered the quarrel the opposition had also discovered the tactical advantages of appearing as irreconcilable bigots:

The Forest Hills community is convinced that their principal weapon…is to persuade the city fathers and the public at large that it is impossible to expect tolerance and acceptance on the part of the community. To do this they exaggerate their force and resistance. And what is initially in part a pose then communicates itself and feeds on itself and eventually the illusion becomes reality. Yesterday the hundred or so Forest Hills residents who screamed and stomped, cried and shouted, believed what they had earlier pretended to believe. [Italics added]

Cuomo was entirely aware of the danger of casting himself as the redeemer in this theater of the streets. He was troubled by the attention the journalists and the broadcasters paid to his history and his personality when he was appointed. “I think,” he reflected, “that kind of ‘personal’ exposure is not good for the role I am supposed to fill. I would much prefer to come off as vague in personal detail—generally objective and honest, but nondimensional beyond that.”

When he began, he was very certain that it would be a mistake to make himself a character in the drama. And yet, within four days, as Sennett shrewdly notices, the necessities of his lonely position were already forcing him into the role-playing duty assigned him by convention:

I’m to find facts and “display” them. I’d rather do more. It’s difficult trying to suspend individual judgment—it’s easier to make the ultimate decision than to merely “state.” I’m more and more convinced I’d rather argue than arbitrate.

Having determined to be no more than an observer, Cuomo was drawn very quickly to seeing himself as the healer and inevitably to be seen by Forest Hills as the fixer. He devoted himself thereafter to devising a compromise and trying to manipulate its acceptance by all parties. This susceptibility to contagion by the air around him appears understandable, indeed almost unavoidable. Once the appointed political instruments cease to work, the result seems to be not an exhaustion of politics but its proliferation to a degree where everybody becomes a politician. A swarm of amateurs fills the place the professional has deserted. The outsider cannot rely on preaching; you do not, after all, preach to politicians, even amateurs, you bargain with them.

Cuomo’s bargaining efforts, so far as they were intimate and personal, had to concentrate on those who resisted rather than those who supported the project. The middle class lived in Forest Hills; the poor only might live there and were, for the tangible present, only an abstraction without a voice in the argument. (“But is this surprising?” Cuomo asks himself. If the low-income stratum had a real voice, would it be low-income?) Delegations of the enlightened waited upon him now and then, but he could not avoid remarking that “for the most part, they’re not residents of the community and aren’t immediately affected.”

The few natives of Forest Hills who welcomed the transition and wanted to ease its coming he found admirable but disturbingly innocent. One of them “felt that the attitude of Forest Hills residents had to be changed. More specifically, instead of thinking of welfare tenants as numbers and abstractions, they should be thought of as human beings. To accomplish this, he wants to escort the people of Forest Hills to various projects. I shudder to think of the reaction they would have to Queensbridge and some of the other projects I’ve seen.”

His loneliness was increased by the suspicion that, having designated him, City Hall had left him on his own. He was into his third week when he noticed this. “I’ve heard from none of the people who were going to do research for me. Apparently I’ll have to do without that help.” He reached out, went looking for blacks:

I went to Cunningham Park early this morning knowing that a lot of the blacks from South Jamaica would be there in family groups…. These blacks were fortunate enough to have houses of their own in Hollis, Queens. They unhesitatingly said that they would not want the project in their neighborhood. They feel that many of the whites who oppose it in Forest Hills are bigots, but then in an interesting contradiction they themselves admit that they would oppose it in their own neighborhoods.”

Cuomo must have needed some discipline to keep in mind that unseen, only-to-be-imagined-but-real party to the quarrel—“the husbandless, black welfare mother with three children, living in a hovel in the midst of a ghetto that is pure filth.” On the stage before him he could only deal with the actors who had speaking parts and try his skills as uninvited director and prompter.

The chief object of his effort to mold one of the actors to a better part was Jerry Birbach, a realtor turned politician and, as founder and president of the Forest Hills Residents Association, the captain of the resistance. In their private dealings, Cuomo found Birbach “a reasonable fellow and, in a lot of ways, likable…[although] driven to his posturing by his political ambitions.” By July they were bargaining. “Birbach announced…that unless the project is changed so that it will be ‘livable’ in his opinion, he would publicly place his house for sale to a black, and would lead a massive emigration from Forest Hills.” Then Cuomo made his boldest bid to direct the play. Might it not be more “intelligent” for Birbach to denounce whatever compromise was reached and then “add that he would not be chased from the scene and would instead stand and fight to protect the investments of his people by making the most of the situation”? Cuomo had the transient satisfaction of suspecting that Birbach had absorbed the script and had begun to think about it.

Cuomo himself has very little vanity and that hope was the only time it betrayed him. For Birbach was trapped in the role he had taught his audience; and, by October, when the city’s Board of Estimate grumpily approved Cuomo’s compromise plan to cut the project in half, he could only contrive to get himself arrested outside City Hall and enter the hearing an hour late to be “greeted tumultuously with shouts of ‘We want Jerry,’ ‘Our man Jerry,’ ‘Give ‘em hell, Jerry.”’

Cuomo’s compromise had saved the principle and diminished the inconvenience. He offered two main arguments for this emergency surgery: (1) the original project with its 3,000 residents would be so large that it would be self-contained and isolated from the community instead of integrated with it; (2) the fear and the hostility of Forest Hills, whether morally defensible or not, had reached a pitch where, unless they were in some way mitigated, a mass middleclass flight from the community would result.

Cuomo’s compromise was accepted by the professional politicians and denounced by pretty much everyone else who had a voice. Birbach and his troops sounded just as incensed by the smaller project as they had been by the original proposal, which suggested to the liberals what Cuomo had to concede was “a very legitimate point.” If the middle class will flee Forest Hills “even with the compromise, then why compromise?” Cuomo could only answer that it was his judgment that there would be no exodus because the community was strong enough to hold its ground, “particularly since the project as reduced gives [it] a reasonable chance of success.” He could be right or he could be wrong; but it says something about the condition of municipal politics that he was the only person outside Forest Hills who had learned enough to have any title to guess.

He could not be the final redeemer and, despite his occasional distraction by fugitive hopes, he seems always to have known that. One of his saddest reflections on the experience is that even if he had salvaged the principle in Forest Hills, the whole affair had made it harder than ever for the policy to be carried out anywhere else. Twelve months later no candidate for mayor mentioned scatter-site housing. “The new and safer emphasis was on rehabilitating the ghettos.” Washington had already abandoned the principle; the Nixon administration announced a policy of cash subsidies for the poor to pay for housing wherever they could find it.

At least one federal official,” Cuomo noticed, “stated that Forest Hills had been a significant factor in inducing the new federal program. And after all is said and done, that may prove to be the real tragedy of the Forest Hills experience: that it will not be a producer, but a destroyer; that it will not teach, but will only intimidate; that in the end, it will have helped to kill an imperfect program and create a worse one.”

Although we may take his mission to be successful, its effect on Cuomo was to make him wonder why the political process seems so much at cross-purposes with reasonableness and common sense. “It hardly seems worth the effort to attempt to change it.” But he told himself that it’s the trying that counts. Even so, he was relieved the next day to see that the prospect of a Vietnam settlement had driven Forest Hills off the front pages, letting it pass unnoticed into whatever history there will be. Perhaps we have seen too many redeemers come and go, leaving us pretty much where we were, and that may be why it is so refreshing to come upon a candidate for office who has already learned that tragedies do not often end happily.

It is a curious experience to come upon a politician who finds comfort in the evidence that his name will no longer resound in print and on the screen. And Mario Cuomo is a politician. The names of men of modest means who are not politicians do not often survive the final ballotings of Democratic state committees, and even when he was otherwise consumed by his mission to Forest Hills he took time off to do some service to the Brooklyn party organization by addressing at least one of its clubs. “I said very little,” he reports. “It was the eve of election and hardly time for thinking.”

And yet such party chores—duties, I suppose, to personal ambition—plainly engage him less than the private audience of his diary. This is, of course, an especially useful study of crisis management because its author reveals himself, uniquely for a politician, as someone concerned not merely with getting the crisis past him but with its origins, its development, and what is permanent in its effects, whatever the temporary resolution.

The long run has not been a fashionable concern for public men since Lord Keynes dismissed the subject with the observation that in the long run we will all be dead; one can only be grateful to find that concern back on the table again. But quite beyond that virtue, the publication of Cuomo’s diary suggests something most curious in a politician: an insistence on showing his private face in public places, a need to reflect on how the self appears to the ideal of the self, an appreciation of the value of having someone to confess to. Perhaps it was the presence of those qualities that induced rather less complicated politicians to designate him as their candidate. Lieutenant governors have little patronage and less power. When Democratic state committeemen choose governors, they have an obligation to their cupidity; when they choose lieutenant governors, they can vote from respect, affection, and even from their conscience. The exercise of that liberty served us well when it allowed them to offer us Mario Cuomo.