Bill de Blasio’s victory on September 10 in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor is a reminder that through some inexplicable emanation, certain New York mayors have caught perfectly the gestalt of the city. Who can forget Abe Beame, the five-foot-two-inch Polish Jewish accountant, subsumed in the fog of New York’s impending bankruptcy and crumbling streets? During Beame’s administration in the mid-1970s, money was so tight that a subway maintenance worker told me he would rip up track from one part of a tunnel to repair damage somewhere else down the line.
David Dinkins, whose one term ended in 1993, was New York’s last Democratic mayor. He was also New York’s only black mayor, elected partly as a corrective to Ed Koch, who many felt had needlessly inflamed racial tensions in the city. Dinkins spent his early childhood in Trenton, New Jersey, where his father ran “a one-chair barbershop on the ground floor of the row house in which we lived. I shined the shoes of the men who came for a cut and a shave,” he writes in his autobiography.1 When he was six he moved with his mother to Harlem. “We never stayed in one place very long; we moved when the rent was due. My mother and grandmother both worked as domestics, cooking and cleaning for white folks for a dollar a day.” He describes himself as “an obedient child,” and it was that diligent, survivalist hardship of the Depression years that formed him. As mayor, he appointed Ray Kelly to be police commissioner and was widely praised as a conciliator after the Rodney King verdict in 1992: while riots erupted in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and elsewhere across the country, New York City remained peaceful.
A year earlier, however, Dinkins had been politically undone by a neighborhood civil war between members of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect and West Indian blacks in Crown Heights. Stewing resentments between the two groups came to a boil after a young boy was killed by a car in the Lubavitch rabbi’s motorcade that had swerved out of control. A few hours later, a group of black men killed a rabbinical student on the street. In his handling of the crisis, the mayor weakly fell under the spell of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and, worst of all, radical neighborhood activists, or so the news stories suggested. An exaggerated sense of encroaching lawlessness and racial fear took hold of a large swath of New Yorkers, and in 1993 they elected Rudolph Giuliani, an outer-borough, parochial school–educated, Italian-American Catholic, a product of one of the most racially segregated and conservative communities in New York.
Giuliani attended Bishop Coughlin High School in Brooklyn, “the Exeter or Andover for working-class Catholic kids from Brooklyn …
1 A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic (PublicAffairs, 2013). ↩
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A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic (PublicAffairs, 2013). ↩