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 …

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