Former New York City mayor John V. Lindsay was an unforgettable, charismatic figure on Gotham’s political stage. His passing late last year, at the age of 79, evoked in many New Yorkers nostalgic memories of the days when the debonair mayor strode confidently about the city in shirtsleeves, jacket slung casually, but with elegance, over his shoulder.
Though we mourn his passing, candor compels us to note that the patrician Lindsay’s two terms as mayor of New York were a catastrophe from which the city, and even the nation, have still not entirely recovered. The pure embodiment of the elite orthodoxy of his day, Lindsay helped transform the debate on race in America with an agenda that provoked white flight from cities, welcomed militant black separatists into the mainstream, and introduced a vision of social welfare that encouraged dependency among the poor and nearly destroyed New York’s economy.
Four-term congressman Lindsay catapulted into the limelight during the 1965 New York mayoral race, when his walking tours of Harlem and other black neighborhoods helped him capture 45 percent of the black vote and win the election-a remarkable achievement for a Republican from Manhattan’s Silk-Stocking district. His neighborhood forays later helped New York avoid the ugly race riots that afflicted so many American cities during the sixties.
But during those tours, Lindsay made common cause with black militants like Sonny Carson, whose followers spouted viciously anti-white and anti-Semitic diatribes. The militants were restless for power, and Lindsay gave it to them. Appointed vice chairman of the Kerner Commission studying race riots in America, it was Lindsay who persuaded his colleagues to declare that racism was entirely to blame for the ghetto’s problems. The commission’s report helped push America away from an inclusive urban agenda that emphasized racial integration and toward a divisive, counterproductive one that stressed black power and community empowerment.
Under Lindsay, New York became a testing ground for that new agenda. The mayor pressed the Board of Education to experiment with community control of schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The school district fell under the control of militants, who contemptuously fired mostly Jewish white teachers, lowered educational standards, and installed an ethnocentric curriculum.
Lindsay reshaped the notion of public assistance, previously considered a short-term safety net; anything more, in FDR’s prophetic words, risked becoming “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” Lindsay funded seminars on how to recruit ever more welfare recipients, abandoned screening of applicants’ eligibility, and set no time limits on benefits. Under his welfare commissioner, “Come and Get It” Mitchell Ginsberg, welfare rolls doubled, even though black unemployment was just 4 percent when Lindsay first took office.
To pay for this, Lindsay instituted New York’s first-ever personal income tax, and he hiked corporate taxes. Otherwise, he showed little interest in the private sector. Unsurprisingly, New York’s now tax-crushed economy crashed at the start of his second term, proceeding to lose a remarkable 610,000 jobs, or 16 percent of its workforce, over seven years, as corporations crowded the exits. The city teetered on bankruptcy, and Lindsay’s overmatched successor, Abe Beame, had to go begging in Albany and Washington for a bailout.
A man of good intentions and impeccable personal integrity, Lindsay was so convinced of the moral justness of his cause that he dismissed anyone who questioned him (especially any outer-borough white) as a bigot, and rushed ahead with his ideas. Their unintended consequences still haunt New York, and the nation.