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A New Year, A New Job, An Old History

By Betsy Gotbaum

On New Year's Day, a tradition believed to have started in Dutch days required that women remain at home to receive guests, while men roam from house to house giving greetings. The one exception to this rule was the Mayor of New York. He was expected to invite everybody in town to drop by his house. Two centuries ago, when the city only had 75,000 people that was more practical, but still a daunting obligation.

On January 1, 1804, the city's newly appointed mayor, DeWitt Clinton, received a New Year's Day call from John Pintard, who stopped at Clinton's elegant home on fashionable lower Broadway. (Although Gracie Mansion had just been built, it would not be the official residence of the mayor for another century and a half).

At the New-York Historical Society, where I was president until recently, you can see Clinton's diary, in which he records Pintard's name among his New Year's Day guests. Ironically, Pintard preceded me as the first leader of the Historical Society, and he would become the city's first public advocate, a role I assume on a New Year's Day two centuries later.

On his New Year's visit, Pintard was down on his luck, and job hunting. In the early 1790s, as a young stockbroker, he had been one of New York's most civic-minded residents. He ran successfully for assistant alderman and state assemblyman; was one of Tammany Hall's first sachems; established the city's first fire insurance company; and is said to have led the movement to change the name of the street where he lived, King, to the more patriotic Liberty. In 1792 Pintard was forced to flee the city and spend a year in debtor's prison when the stock market crashed.

In March 1804, Pintard's New Year's visit paid off. The Common Council created a new job called the City Inspector, to which they appointed Pintard at $3.50 a day with an office in City Hall, then at Broad and Wall streets. (Construction was just getting started on the building where Mayor Bloomberg and I will be sworn on New Year's Day.) The City Inspector was given the vague charge of dealing with "nuisances" that were reported to the mayor and the common council. No one worked for him -- not the street commissioner, nor the ward inspectors, nor the lot inspectors. Pintard's role was to use his powers of persuasion to get the right city employee to take care of the problem. That sounds to me a lot like the job of today's Public Advocate.

In 1804, like today, New York was a city of perpetual crises. Summer was epidemic season. Yellow Fever would hit the following year, sending all who could afford it to rural retreats like Greenwich Village. (The City Inspector stayed behind to oversee public health measures.) Winter was the time for catastrophic fires. The year 1804 would end with a fire that consumed 41 buildings, including the Merchant's Coffee House, destroying $2 million in property.

The role of the City Inspector, as today's Public Advocate, was to make the city better to live in. Pintard spent a lot of his time snooping into backyard privies, and ordering them cleaned. No one knew what caused the summer epidemics, but there was general agreement that poor sanitation had something to do with it. And even if smelly privies did not cause illness, they were certainly "nuisances".

By the summer of 1804, Pintard was leading an expedition in search of the source of the Bronx River. The research of an independent City Inspector had shown that all the old water sources in town were drying up, and only a new supply of fresh water could cut down disease and fire.

Like many experiments in good government, the City Inspector's office lapsed a few years later. I believe it was revived eight years ago as Public Advocate. In another period of great crisis, I am stepping into a role first carried out with great energy by John Pintard.

Because I have a small staff, and I cannot be in all places at all times, I will have to choose my issues carefully. I have been working for the past month with a transition team made up of a former mayor, a woman firefighter, two members of the City Council, several important leaders in government policy reform, and a lot of average New Yorkers who just want to help make the city better. My team has been helping me figure out how to put into practice the goals I identified when I was running for the job. As I promised during my campaign, we won't just wait for phone calls from the public. We will seek out where the problems are. We will have a presence in every borough. We will visit community centers around the city. I will also serve as watchdog over important government agencies, such as the School Construction Authority. I will make sure people know about the benefits that are rightfully theirs; this is even more important after September 11. I am especially committed to seeing that seniors and children get proper medical care.

And, as I promised, I will pursue an open relationship with City Hall, helping the new mayor make things work better; this is not the time for petty squabbling between public officials. As presiding officer at the City Council, I will seek the same kind of cooperative relationship with the largely first-term council. The Public Advocate can serve an important function simply by breaking down barriers between the different branches of government. At the same time, by preserving my political independence, I can provide a kind of moral compass in deals being brokered in the city.

In all these things, I hope I can bring to the job energy and innovation equal to John Pintard, the first real public advocate.

Betsy Gotbaum, as of January 1, 2002, is the new Public Advocate of New York City.

Click here to read Betsy Gotbaum's Inaugural Address

Want more info on the race for Public Advocate? Click here for the Searchlight on Campaign 2001 page.