Book Club Chat Transcript
On April 21, 2004, Vincent Cannato, author of
The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle To Save New York, and
Steven Isenberg, Lindsay's former chief-of-staff joined Gotham Gazette in an online chat
about Cannato's book and Isenberg's former boss.
Gotham Gazette: Good afternoon. Today we are discussing Ungovernable City:
John Lindsay and his Struggle
to Save New York with its author, Vincent Cannato, and with long-time Lindsay aid Steve Isenberg.
Good afternoon, Mr. Cannato.
Vincent Cannato: Good afternoon to everyone. Thanks for having me.
Good afternoon, Mr. Isenberg.
Hello, Vince and to all online thank you for inviting me.
Mr. Cannato, why did you decide to write a book about John Lindsay?
It started as my dissertation at Columbia. I was looking to write on New York City history.
How did the project progress as it turned from a dissertation into a book?
It got bigger! Actually, it contantly evolved as I got more interested in the topic.
There was so much more that I wanted to say, but time and space contraints eventually stopped me.
Why did you pick Lindsay, and how did your view of him change throughout the project?
I thought that Lindsay stood at the center of this great conflict not just in New York City, but in
America during the 1960s. By looking at Mayor Lindsay, I thought that we might be able to learn a little about what went
on politically and socially during this era.
Gotham Gazette: And, in a general sense, what did you decide about Lindsay?
I think that I grew more sympathetic to him as the book went on. The problems were so large
and deep-rooted. I'm not sure that he handled all of the problems that well.
Lindsay's story is a small microcosm of the changes in American liberalism during this era.
Lindsay engendererd an awful lot of emotions on both sides.
Some people loved Lindsay and what he stood for. Others despised him.
Gotham Gazette: What did he handle best, and what is he not given enough credit for?
Cannato: Good question. I think that he is generally credited with handling the riots
after Martin Luther King Junior's death well. Going up to Harlem was incredibly brave and I think it helped the city.
I think that sometimes he is given too much criticism for dealing with unions.
I think he got off on a rough start with the transit union, but all mayors to some degree have
to play ball with the unions.
Our other guest is Steven Isenberg, who worked at City Hall with Mayor Lindsay from 1969 to
1973, and was his chief of staff from 1972 to 1973. Mr. Isenberg, wwe understand you've read
the book. Do you think it gives Lindsay a fair shake?
I think Vince's sympathy has grown since he wrote the book. He and I have differing views
on the period, itself, and Lindsay, so I would say that Lindsay deserves more praise and
understanding than he is given.
One thing that Mr. Cannato writes about the Lindsay administration -- and this is something
that others often mention as well -- is the mayor's unusual success in bringing young,
energetic people into city government. What was it about the Lindsay administration that
drew you in?
I am someone who heard the call from President Kennedy. John Lindsay was the same beacon,
but in New York. I went to work initially for Fred Hayes, Lindsay's first budget director,
who was unusually open to hiring and giving responsibility to the young. Lindsay drew many
of his city hall staff from Fred's crew. It felt to all of us that we were living, in our times,
in the center ring, working for an extraordinary man who met them with valour and integrity and
How did the abundance of young people affect the way that the Lindsay administration
ran New York City?
We awoke every day with a sense that we could make a difference. Fred Hayes lead the
modernization of a bureaucracy that was almost Dickensian. We were not all young. It was a
world of possibilities and we had a boss in Lindsay
who never shirked responsibility. Some things that didn't go as well might be laid
at the feet of the young, but i think improperly.
CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD
There are several major events that seem to define the Lindsay administration,
and it would be helpful to go through them one by one and discuss how Lindsay handled them,
and what their legacy has been? First, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Mr. Cannato?
The Civilian Complaint Review Board in many ways set the tone for the administration.
It was really the first major issue . A lot of energy was put into it and most of what came
out of it was ill-feelings and major defeat for the Lindsay administration.
In my view, the Civilian Complaint Review Board was largely a symbolic issue.
It was a fight that didn't have to be fought. For many African Americans and liberals,
it was a let down, a civil rights defeat.
Why was it so offensive to police officers to have civilians reveiwing complaints about them?
Well, police, rightly or wrongly, are touchy about these things. More importantly, I think
it gave them the feeling that the biggest problem was the police, not the rising crime rate.
I was not there for it, but are we not grateful today, both within the police and without,
that someone raised these matters? Look what we have today. You must know something of the
police unions then, the racial history of the city and nation and policing nationally.
Whether that campaign was well run, its legacy is police accountability and this something
the police of today i believe benefit from as do we all. We are a long way from those days,
in the law, in policing, and in our society.
Shouldn't we all be reminded of the racial and ethnic composition of the police forces
then and now? This was the beginning of a large change of who lived in New York who held
votes and power and who wanted to work in all area of the civil service. Without a good sense
of the nation and the city in the late fifties and into the sixties, assessments go awry.
Mr. Cannato, Wasn't there a real problem of police brutality at the time, especially
in minority neighborhoods? In your book, you site a poll that said that 13 percent of
African Americans had either been victims of police brutality or had witnessed it first hand.
That seems like a large number.
It certainly was an issue. But the Civilian Complaint Review Board issue did little to
stop police brutality. If anything it had a hugely polarizing efffect on the city.
Two thirds of New Yorkers voted against it. I think the question is -- why?
Do you have any ideas?
I think that it showed that the main concern of most New Yorkers, white and black,
was fear of crime. And they just didn't see how the Civilian Complaint Review Board
was going to do anything about that.
What is the situation now with the Civilian Complaint Review Board? What is its make-up
I'm honestly not sure. Maybe someone else here knows.
Do you know, Mr. Isenberg?
I am not current with the present Civilian Complaint Review Board, but a former
student of mine is an investigator and seemed respectful of the process.
OCEAN HILL-BROWNSVILLE AND COMMUNITY CONTROL OF SCHOOLS
Let's move on to some other controversies you focus on in the book. How about
Ocean Hill-Brownsville? What was it, and how did Lindsay handle it?
Ocean Hill-Brownsville was an experimental district in Brooklyn. Community control of
schools was a big issue, after the problems of intergrating city schools appeared
insurmountable. As most people know what ended up happening is a fight between the
city, the teachers union, and the school district. It was a situation that got out of
control and I think still leaves a mark on the city.
In what way?
The decentralization law passed in the late 60s in the wake of Ocean Hill-Brownsville
had a hugely negative effect on the schools.
Today, public schools seem to be more centralized and uniform, with increasing government
and bureaucratic oversight. Is this trend in reaction to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville of
the 60s or Lindsay's work? Is Mayor Bloomberg's recent ending of social promotion a success?
NYC schools were both highly centralized at 110 Livingtson and decentralized with
local school boards. The 1969 decentralization law was written without Lindsay's input.
He was shut out by the state legislature becuase of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy.
As for social promotion, there seem to be mixed messages coming out of Chicago,
where this was tried recently. At least, Bloomberg is putting the issue on the table.
SCATTER-SITE HOUSING IN FOREST HILLS
And the battle over scatter-site housing in Forest Hills?
Like Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Civilian Complaint Review Board, this had a polarizing
effect on the city. It pitted middle and working class Jews against the administration.
Can you explain what scatter-site housing means?
Originally, the plan was to put a number of high-rise low income projects in middle
class neighborhoods. It was designed to both solve the housing problem and integrate
white neighborhoods. Today, most people seem to agree that large scale, high rise projects,
in whatever neighborhood, is not a good idea. Ultimately, there was a compromise on the
plan and the eventual projects were built with a minimum of problems.
A PRODUCT OF THE TIMES?
In each of these issues, there is a large element of race. Mr. Cannato, you criticize Lindsay
for ignoring middle-class white ethnics and focusing on issues only from the perspective
of minorities. Was Lindsay serving at such a polarized time that it was simply impossible
to address the concerns of one group without alienating another?
Probably because of the times, yes it would have been. On the other side, there were mayors
like Frank Rizzo in Philly who alienated blacks. What was missing was a politician who could
articulate a message for both working and middle class black and whites. Lindsay really didn't
come out of the New Deal tradition of American liberalism and I think some working class whites
felt left out of his vision of the city.
Consider what I said earlier about the police and the racial setting of the city and
nation now decades and decades ago. take that into account when it came to the schools and
housing. Vince said integration in the schools had failed. Polarizing is a word that is
chalked up to trying to change the system to makes the schools, the teachers, the police,
housing, reflect the racial composition of a changing city and to bring fairness and
opportunity to so many who were shut out. The impulses were good, they were at the heart
of the city's ideals. When you are the first to take all this one, of course there will
be a reaction and there was. And there were mistakes. But for all that this city has come
so far and it was because, not in spite of, John Lindsay and what was done.
First of all, the idea that Lindsay and his aides were the first is not correct. The city
and state were attempting to integrate the city's schools since 1954, although
Vince, I did not say they were the first. But the world said poor parents pay attention
to your kids' schools. Be involved. Perhaps decentralization wasn't the best method. But,
again, think of the inntention, the impulse, the pressing need.
What was the "intention", Steve? There was no plan with Ocean Hill-Brownsville,
no direction, no planning, no foresight. Lindsay, the Board of Ed, and the state,
and Ford Foundation, stumbled into community control with disastrous results.
The decentralization plan of Lindsay and Bundy, was not what occurred at Ocean
Hill-Brownsville. It's a complicated set of events.
Then, when things went bad, Lindsay gave in to the union and agreed to dismantle
Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The union never trusted him and blacks in Brooklyn were upset
that he seemed to selll them out.
For those interested in more about
Ocean Hill-Brownsville, by the way, there is a new book by
Jerald Podair on it.
I am not going to flog that horse. I just want to be sure that there is an insistence on
historical understandings, without which arguments become soundings from today's situations.
Pick up the National Commission on Civil Disorders. Try to imgine yourself back into those days.
And then add the wear and tear of assassinations, the Vietnam war, the drop in the economy.
This is something other critics have said as well. Andrew White wrote in the American
Prospect that your book doesn't offer "a reasonable assessment of the social and economic
forces that buffeted urban America at the time," and therefore doesn't provide sufficient
context to decide whether New York's problems were John Lindsay's fault, or were the result
of national trends during the 1960s and 1970s. Can you speak on this a bit?
Well, contrary to Steve, there is plenty of historical understanding in my book,
just not the kind
that Steve wants. But I'm not going to flog that horse.
I was calling for historical understandings by all of us.
I think that some critics complained that I blamed Lindsay for the city's problems.
That's not true. He made mistakes, but I was clear that many of the problems predated his
administration, inlcuding schools, crime, fiscal issues, etc.
There is a tendency among some to argue for a structural explanation for the city's problems.
I think there is merit to it, but we must also look at how politicians and individuals dealt
with those problems.
Was there an urban politician at the time who confronted the same issues in a better way?
I think that some people, like Esther Fuchs, has argued that Chicago came out of this
era better fiscally, although it had its share of racial problems.
Vince, I know you don't line up with that view.
Chicago and Daley did it better.
Did Chicago nearly go bankrupt?
They didn't have Abe Beame and Nelson Rockefeller.
It's easy to make Daley out as a bad guy and Lindsay also seemed to play himself
off Daley, but he's much more of a complex figure. See the recent bio of him by
Cohen and Taylor. This is what has always bothered me about Lindsay defenders. Everyone else seems to be the
villain. No, John Lindsay is not solely responsible for the fiscal crisis. There is enough
blame to go around.
LINDSAY THE REPUBLICAN:
Jocelyn Rudell asks: Is there a similar polarizing trend going on now in New York
between racial and ethnic groups e.g. in the mayor's
treatment of different groups or immigrants? Could Lindsay have found a uniting message?
I think that today is so different, because you are dealing with a plethora of immigrant
communities, with both similar and different needs.
Lindsay was a Republican, from the Upper East Side. He looked the part in the most legant
way. He had no natural constituency a Democrat would have, even an ethnic politician would
have had. Jocelyn, I believe Lindsay wanted unity, above all. He acted from conscience and
perhaps could have strengthened his hand by know how to pay better attention to middle
Yes, I think that was a problem. There was no natural Lindsay consituency.
There was an attempt to build a new political coalition of young people, minorities,
liberal whites. That has been a problem for the Democratic party. Ultimately, you have to
find a way to get the middle class in there.
Critics don't see Lindsay as a "real Republican." People seem to say this about all the
Republican mayors of New York. Why is that?
There are only about 10 percent Republicans in NY.
Republicans need to be a hybrid to attract Democrat votes.
He was, in his time, a real Republican. There were some. Think of where they were
on civil rights.
OK, guys, Mr. Isenberg has time for one last question, and I'd like to have you both answer it.
Was John Lindsay a good politician and a bad administrator, or the other way around?
I've heard some people say that he was a bad politician and a good administrator.
That might be more accurate than the other way around.
I must go off to teach the novel of growing up. Today we finish Great Expectations.
perhaps that's way to sign off. Best to Vince, he worked hard on this book and while I don't
agree with him on many matters, he came to a subject that needs a lot more work and worthy
books. My final word: John Lindsay was a far better administrator than he is given credit for.
He didn't look the part, but was. And the politics of the time were so fractious and brittle,
it was hard to be a master. If he had taken that Senate seat when Robert F Kennedy died,
Thanks a lot, Mr. Isenberg. It was a pleasure. Mr. Cannato is going to stay with us,
and answer a few more questions.
Mr. Cannato: you write that since Lindsay's day, the politics of New York City have
switched from reform versus machine to liberal versus conservative. Why hasn't this
contest ever been Democrat versus Republican?
First, there aren't enough Republicans. Second, when one party tends to dominate a
city or state, the biggest fights tend to be inter-party fights. But why haven't there ever
been enough Republicans -- not in the entire 150 year history of the Republican Party?
In the beginning, the Republicans were the party of native born, white Protestants
in cities, which were usually a minority in NYC. The working classes and ethnic classes
were usually tied with the Democrats. Republicans could only win if they mustered enough
outrage over Democratic machine corruption.
In more recent times, the Republicans party has become a suburban,
exurban and rural party. So there has not been much appeal for it.
Today, New York has a mayor that is like John Lindsay in many ways. Michael Bloomberg
is a liberal Republican who seems out of synch with the national party, who has little
experience in city government, and who has at times had trouble negotiating the New York
City political world. Of course, the two men are not identical. For one thing, Bloomberg
is almost ten inches shorter than Lindsay was.
From the perspective of someone who has
studied Lindsay, what is your take on Mayor Bloomberg?
Bloomberg has some of the same problems. He has chosen small symbolic issues liike smoking
that seem to irritate many people. He has no natural constituency in the city.
On the other hand, he has taken the school issue and tried to implement mayoral control over
it. Whether that will succeed, I don't know. There have been some slips, but he seems a
little more surefooted on that than Lindsay.
In the beginning of the chat, Mr. Isenberg said that your view of Lindsay has changed
since your book was published. How so?
Steve was being facetious. My views are still basicallly the same. Yes, there are people
who think that I was too easy on him. What I was trying to say is that as I was writing
the book, my views toward him softened. I still don't think he was successful, but
the problems arrayed against him were big. I tried to show that in the book. Those who
like Lindsay don't think I did enought of that. Those who don't like Lindsay think
I was too easy on him.
Giuliani was the police mayor, Bloomberg says he is the school mayor.
What mayor was Lindsay?
I think that if you read Steve's comments, you can see that Lindsay would like to
be seen as the civil rights mayor. He truly felt the
issue in his bones and I think he
would like to believe that he did some good. Or maybe the anti-riot mayor.
I think that race relations were more polarized under Lindsay and continued
to be for 30 years.
Thank you to our guests for coming, and thank you to everyone else who joined us.
We will be continuing our discussion about this book and the Lindsay administration
next Thursday, April 29, at the next in-person meeting of our book club.
Mr. Cannato, we know that the Lindsay administration is still a polarizing topic,
so we have this last question for you to help us prepare: do you know whether previous book clubs have
ended in shouting matches? Why so much emotion abou a mayoralty that ended 30 years ago?
Good questions. Lindsay engenders a lot of emotion. Those who love him love him and
always will. To them he can do no wrong. To those who hate him, he can do no good.
These are the issue of the 1960s, race, war, etc. They are still with us today and still
engender shouting matches.
That is why Lindsay is so interesting. Because he brings out that debate, which still rages.
It's an important debate. I hope that no one got hurt during the shouting matches.
I think that maybe we can all learn some lessons from that era. We certainly have progressed
as a city.
Well, thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Cannato. We'll let you know the decibel
level next week.
Thank you for having me. I'm honored that you took time to read my book.
Again, we will be continuing our discussion about this book and the Lindsay administration
next Thursday, April 29, at the next in-person meeting of our book club. The meeting will
take place from 6 PM to 7 PM at Borders book store at 100 Broadway in Lower Manhattan.
If you are planning on attending, please send an email to email@example.com.
You can continue this conversation on our message board.