John Lindsay's Hard Times

John Lindsay's Hard Times


America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York
Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue at 103rd Street
Through October 5

The Museum of the City of New York is host to a wonderful exhibition: America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York. It is a collection of posters, photographs, filmed interviews and comments, models, drawings, first person accounts from some of the period’s eminent journalists, and mementos of eight turbulent years in the city’s history: 1966 through 1973. Those who were not around when it took place will be amazed at the emotional intensity of the displays; those who lived through the period will be able to revisit it. Nobody will be indifferent to the story it tells.

The exhibition is also the occasion for the publication of a book containing wonderful original essays on the period. It is illustrated with many of the same often-electrifying visual images that are in the show and thus conveys almost as much of the excitement of the period. But, unlike the exhibition, the authors of the essays in the book (many of whom appear in the exhibition) are able to step back and provide some of the perspective the show lacks.

The title is direct in disclosing its intentions to present eight years as portrayed by pundits of the period and Lindsay Administration insiders. John Lindsay was New York City’s mayor—not America’s—and he did not “reinvent” New York. Most New Yorkers did not think they were typical of America and certainly did not want to be re-invented. The posters and photos in the show convey how deeply the administration felt that New York needed to be changed and that a reinvented New York could become a beacon for America—and perhaps even catapult Lindsay into the presidency.

One of the first images encountered is a 1965 campaign poster proudly quoting Murray Kempton, a popular journalist of the day, saying: “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” Campaign officials were so eager to convey that Lindsay’s opponents were tired that they failed to perceive that the message was: “everybody” in New York is tired.

A similar blindness affected the admirable efforts to deal with what the administration correctly perceived as a “City in Crisis.” It was a time in which every city, including New York, experienced alarming increases in crime and addiction, demonstrations by the disaffected, and riots in minority neighborhoods. Perhaps the most inspiring images of Mayor Lindsay show him in his shirt sleeves walking in poor neighborhoods trying to cool the anger ready to boil over into race riots. At the same time, it is no surprise that the exhibition has no images of the mayor empathizing with the city’s white, working- and middle-class majority upset at the absence of subway service (due to a strike), or streets strewn with uncollected garbage (due to a strike), or school children unable to attend class (due to a strike).

There are wonderful photos of park commissioner Thomas Hoving’s “happenings” in Central Park that provided an opportunity to experience the “Fun City” that Lindsay promised, but none of the damage they caused to the park itself. More important, nowhere is there an explanation that happenings were part of an inspired effort to regain the confidence of millions of New Yorkers who were avoiding Central Park because of its bedraggled appearance or out of fear of being mugged. Recapturing this constituency was vital to obtaining the support needed for the park’s restoration. It was this inability to understand that its actions simultaneously generated both good and bad results that afflicted the Lindsay Administration. It also afflicts the exhibition, but not the more critically sophisticated book.

For architects and planners the show is a must-see. The big achievement of the Lindsay Administration, and most particularly Donald Elliott, chairman of the City Planning Commission from 1966 to 1973, is in the fields of architecture, urban design, and planning. Elliott pioneered special zoning districts (beginning with the Theater District), vest-pocket redevelopment, scattered site housing for low-income residents, neighborhood planning, and industrial renewal. He spearheaded the effort to get city agencies to hire better architects, among them Davis, Brody & Associates, Giovanni Passanella, Jordan Gruzen, and Richard Meier.

Many of Elliott’s and Lindsay’s greatest achievements are missing from the show, including the extension of the 6th Avenue subway under the East River at 63rd St., revitalization of downtown Brooklyn, redevelopment of Roosevelt Island, and neighborhood improvement efforts throughout the city. Instead it displays projects that never happened: the pedestrianization of Madison Avenue and redevelopment of the mid-40s on the Far West Side and along the waterfront.

While the exhibition mentions the three Model Cities Program Areas, it neither explains what the Model Cities project was supposed to accomplish, what it did achieve, or why it disappeared without much of a legacy. More significantly, it mentions the fiscal crisis, but unlike Steven Weisman’s excellent essay in the book, it does not explain how it eventually led to the city’s near bankruptcy or why it happened in the first place.

Mayor Koch appears in the exhibition saying: “The greatest thing that John Lindsay did was to bring wonderfully able, intelligent civic-minded people into city government.” Among them were Leon Panetta, Peter Stangl, Nathan Leventhal, and Peter Goldmark. This was particularly important because the people that LaGuardia had attracted to city government during the Depression were retiring.

Many New York residents will be disappointed that their neighborhood does not appear in the exhibition. Those neighborhoods were not of much interest to many Lindsay-era public policy pundits or public officials. But every New Yorker interested in its history will find much that is fascinating and will come away understanding what a dedicated group of the best and the brightest set out to do and why, despite the best of intentions, they left behind a “City in Crisis.”