City Journal Autumn 2014

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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

Fred Siegel
Unrepentant and Unreflective
Twenty years on, David Dinkins hasn’t learned much from his time as mayor.
9 October 2013

A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, by David Dinkins with Peter Knobler (PublicAffairs, 408 pp., $29.99)

David Dinkins waited 20 years to write an account of his single term as mayor of New York City, but you wouldn’t know it from his new book. The chapters are as predictable as the long, meandering hearings he was famous for holding at the Board of Estimate—which always concluded with his long-held, long-known opinions. In A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, we learn that while Dinkins made some mistakes during his tenure as Gotham’s first African-American mayor, he quickly corrected them—except when he didn’t. We learn that he “felt the voices of youth were very important to the city” and that he “loved kids,” and that his failings as mayor can be attributed to the mess he inherited from Ed Koch (a charge with some truth) and the mean-spiritedness of Rudy Giuliani (not so much). His critics, Dinkins suggests, were almost always showing their racism.

The Dinkins administration got off to a shaky start in 1990, when the new mayor failed to respond effectively to the racist boycott of a Korean grocery on Church Avenue in Brooklyn. The boycott was the brainchild of Robert “Sonny” Carson, a career criminal and black nationalist who made his living shaking down Korean groceries that had “invaded” black neighborhoods. Carson the separatist and Dinkins the integrationist had long clashed. Church Avenue, it so happens, is just a half-dozen blocks from my house. I walked by the Red Apple Grocery repeatedly while Carson’s “boys” shouted about slitting the throats of “slant-eyed gooks” and threatened anyone who entered the store. Had Dinkins, a longtime critic of black separatists, chosen to walk through Carson’s pickets to buy a carton of milk, most of the city would have broken out into applause. But even after a judge issued a restraining order against Carson, Dinkins refused to enforce it. His autobiography should have been the chance for Dinkins to explain himself, but he waits until page 225 to make his first mention of the Church Avenue fiasco, and he is more interested in blaming the New York Post for playing up the story than in examining his own failings.

Dinkins is happy to devote 15 pages of A Mayor’s Life to his support for creating the National Tennis Center in Queens, a wise decision that has paid off handsomely. But we hear nothing about how Dinkins was the first mayor to serve under a new city charter that eliminated the old borough–based Board of Estimate and vastly increased the power of the city council and the mayor. City council speaker Peter Vallone understood the change and stepped forward as a civic leader. Dinkins, who had become a member of the Board of Estimate by winning the Manhattan borough presidency on his third try, never assumed the increased mayoral powers made available to him. Written with a depth more appropriate to a magazine feature than a political memoir, A Mayor’s Life offers little insight into the Dinkins mayoralty. (For that, the reader should turn to Chris McNickle’s fair-minded The Power of the Mayor, published earlier this year by Transaction Press.)

What we do learn from A Mayor’s Life is that Dinkins was more than just a Harlem hack. He was, in his own way, a relentless ideologue. For Dinkins, all evidence to the contrary, social-services spending is the great cure-all for social problems. Government, he implicitly argues, can and should replace the family with wrap-around social programs for youth, beginning with an early breakfast, going on to after-school tutoring and playground activities, and concluding with late-night basketball. Dinkins explains that “if we invested what funds we did have in preventive services, we could see substantial future returns. If we taught and encouraged parents to care for and not abandon their children the city . . . would benefit.” He provides no proof for this assertion, no evidence that government run by flawed people can teach even more dramatically flawed people to lead moral, effective lives. It’s been a half-century since the Great Society’s War on Poverty sharply expanded New York’s already extensive social-welfare state and, with a few marginal exceptions, the gains Dinkins assumes have never been in evidence.

The Crown Heights Riot—which, like the Church Avenue fiasco, made a mockery of Dinkins’s rhetoric about New York as a “gorgeous mosaic”—erupted in the summer of 1991. It was triggered when a car in a Hasidic Jewish motorcade ran a traffic light and killed seven year-old Gavin Cato, a child of Guyanese immigrants. The accident ignited the already considerable tension between a Caribbean population that correctly felt that the bloc-voting Hasids were given special treatment and a Jewish population that lived in fear of young black men. Dinkins and his police commissioner, Lee “Out of Town” Brown, were slow to call in a strong police presence, even as thugs roamed the streets threatening Crown Heights Jews. It was only when Ray Kelly, Dinkins’s last and best police commissioner, seized command that the police imposed themselves on the marauders. As for Dinkins, he did what Dinkins always did. He “brought in representatives from the social-service agencies” to talk about talking about reconciliation.

This paralytic approach to leadership colors Dinkins’s view of his predecessors. He sharply criticizes Ed Koch’s approach to homelessness. Koch’s concept, says Dinkins, boiled down to: “Don’t make shelters too nice because it will coddle people and they’ll stay there too long.” Willfully ignoring their mental health, drug, and alcohol problems, Dinkins asserts that the homeless are just like the rest of us. He can’t bring himself to accept that sizable numbers of people gamed the system set up to aid those truly in need.

Similarly, Dinkins can’t come to grips with how Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, transformed the city. Dinkins credits himself with New York’s dramatic drop in crime over the past 20 years. It’s true that, under pressure from Vallone and the New York Post, he slowly added cops to the force. It’s also true that crime dropped in his last year in office, when Kelly became commissioner. But while Dinkins was mayor, he showed no interest in Bratton’s transformation of the subways with Broken Windows policing, even as one of his best commissioners, the dynamic Harvey Robbins, had instituted a version of Broken Windows by ordering abandoned cars quickly towed.

What David Dinkins has never understood—whether in terms of the Church Avenue deli boycott, the Crown Height Riots, or ordinary street crime—was that much of the city lived in fear during his tenure, as it had for years before he became mayor. The issue was not just crime, but the pervasive sense of disorder and menace that wasn’t dissipated until Giuliani and Bratton’s reforms took hold. If you only have time to read one book on Dinkins, read Chris McNickle’s. Most of us can safely avoid slogging through this testament from an unreflective captive of ideology.

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