There has been a recent flurry of interest in John Lindsay, the former Congressman who was mayor of New York from 1966 through 1973. He has been the subject of a special exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a documentary film produced by WNET and a book edited by Sam Roberts of the New York Times. A liberal Republican who later switched parties to run for president, Lindsay became a prominent figure on the national stage as a spokesman for urban America when cities were being denigrated for their poverty, crime and racial strife. His efforts on behalf of racial minorities and the poor made him a controversial figure, not only in his own party but also among local Democrats, who did not appreciate his attempts to integrate blacks and Hispanics into the ethnic enclaves that controlled city politics.
History has not been kind to Lindsay. The handsome young mayor who could calmly walk the streets of Harlem on the evening that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed while other cities burned has never been able to pass the scrutiny of scholars without taking a few whacks. His politics could be inflammatory. His attempts to appoint a Civilian Review Board in the Police Department and put angry militants on community school boards divided the city along racial lines. Because of his generous labor contracts and a redistributive agenda that exceeded city revenues, Lindsay has shared blame for the 1975 fiscal crisis, which brought New York to the brink of bankruptcy.
Accounting charades dating back to Mayor Robert Wagner were partly responsible for the unraveling of the city’s finances. Used to justify the city’s reliance on short-term debt, the gimmicks were not just dysfunctional; they were illegal. New York had historically assumed financial responsibility for services rarely found in municipal budgets, such as hospitals and higher education. State regulations required the city to pay an unusually large share of welfare and Medicare costs. Things had to change.
As a result of managerial and financial reforms that Governor Hugh Carey imposed between 1975 and 1978, New York recuperated from fiscal calamity. Over the long term, however, not everybody has benefited from the recovery. And something larger has been lost, since the gritty politics of the ’60s that bred so much turmoil had put the city on a more just course. If New York and other cities were condemned for harboring so many of the country’s problems, they also sparked its conscience. John Lindsay was more than a mayor. As vice chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, he was a spokesman for people who had been marginalized by politics and the economy.
The post–fiscal crisis correction was both financial and political. Some urban scholars had determined that New York City was “ungovernable” because it had fallen victim to a malady called “interest group liberalism,” which rendered vote-hungry politicians powerless when faced with excessive demands by unions, welfare advocates and other organized groups. Governor Carey appointed an Emergency Financial Control Board dominated by bankers and corporate executives that could resist ordinary political pressures to overspend.
More sympathetic political economists concluded that local governments lacked the fiscal capacity to fund redistributive services for the poor, so they suggested that such burdens be borne by the federal and state governments, which had broader taxing power. Municipalities were advised to focus on police, safety and maintenance functions; state and local governments were urged to put more effort into economic development. National welfare reforms later enacted by the Clinton administration succeeded in moving people off public assistance and into jobs. Between 1996 and 2010, the welfare rolls in New York City decreased from 1.2 million to 350,000. The drop was part of a national trend in which the caseload went from 12.6 million recipients to 4.6 million.