City Lit: The Power Mediocre

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If 1960s politics were a cataclysm, New York City was the epicenter. A biography of John Lindsay, the city’s youthful photogenic liberal Republican mayor could tell a lot about the juncture of city government and social movements in hard–or at least interesting–times.

But Vincent J. Cannato’s The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York is not about Lindsay, and even less about cities. It’s more an ideological hit on modern liberalism, using our sainted incumbent mayor as a template to judge another man and another time. By ignoring Lindsay and his era to score political points, Cannato fails to shed any light on our own. Despite its nearly 600-page girth, Cannato’s anecdotally rich but analytically mendicant book offers little evidence of what exactly Lindsay did wrong, as opposed to what went wrong.

And yes, a lot went wrong. From a crippling transit strike the day he took office and divisive battles over community control of schools and scatter-site housing, to a paralyzing snow storm, skirmishes with former patron Nelson Rockefeller, and a failed civilian-dominated police review board he had stumped hard for, Lindsay became a magnet for urban dissatisfaction, and a symbol for the ills of a nation–especially its cities.

Yet it is never clear what narrative Cannato is telling. In Cannato’s world, context is nothing: There are no failed federal housing or lending programs, no police violence, no intractable segregation, and no Nixon-era counter-intelligence efforts to subvert and marginalize dissidents. The possibility that the grinding and seemingly endless Vietnam War had any economic or psychic impact on city policy or popular behavior doesn’t seem to have occurred to him; likewise, he ignores the shift in national priorities from butter to guns, blithely unaware of its impact on jobs, patronage or declining revenues–exactly the terrain in which the decade’s internecine community-based ethnic battles over schools and housing were fought. Cannato sees no structural social, economic or political problems here–just friction generated by frenetic white radicals, self-loathing liberals, and an extortionist black underclass with an effete WASP idealist at the helm.

Cannato insists that Brownsville, the site of the ferocious 1968 battle over public school decentralization, with its deplorable lack of sanitation and other basic city services, was ripe for rebellion, not a school-governance revolution. But why were conditions so bad? Why did Lindsay and his predecessors let them fester? It’s a fair question, but Cannato does not raise it.

Yet while trivializing the real agony of low-income people of color, he accepts as well-founded the white ethnic whining that produced such abominations as the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything (SPONGE, get it?). He even slams Jimmy Breslin and others sympathetic to community control as having no empathy for their lower-middle-class white brethren. A slur by an opponent of integrated housing at a Queens community meeting–that progressive, secular Jews, including Lindsay aide and community liaison Barry Gottehrer, were “not real Jews”–is accepted by Cannato as legitimate. For Cannato, the problems are all politics, posturing and gutlessness–with black militants allowed to run riot by Lindsay, while Italians, Irish, Jews and other outer-borough ethnics were shortchanged on city services because they had no paladin in City Hall. Nothing is that simple, but Cannato’s schema is no more complex.

On the macro level, the book is weakest where it should be strongest: in understanding cities and urban policy. Aside from a too-quick (and too-accepting) summary of the Gov. Rockefeller-impaneled Scott Commission report, which slammed the mayor and his administrative skills, Cannato gives little attention to how Lindsay’s agencies actually worked. Was it a good thing that super-agencies such as the Human Resources Administration and the Health and Hospitals Corporation were consolidated? What long-term plans did the city develop? What ideas were shot down?

Cannato even suggests that Lindsay’s municipal rescue mission was doomed because urban centers, of which Lindsay was poised to be spokesperson and advocate, were not growing. “The United States was not an urban nation,” he blithely asserts, “but rather one of suburbs and small towns”–glossing over the sizable growth in metropolitan areas and the increasing need for regional planning. He calls the Lindsay-authored Kerner Report on causes of domestic disorder, commissioned by LBJ, “alarmist” for predicting predominantly black, impoverished center cities. And he ignores the equally alarming growth in census tract segregation–amply illustrated by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, among others.

Even the role of the finance, insurance and real estate sector–which would play the dominant role in the city’s fiscal crisis of the next decade–doesn’t figure until almost the end of the book. Even then, it’s only mentioned for comparison, as an employer whose workforce contracted after 1969–in contrast to the conservative bugbear of a growing city public sector.

Sure, this is a hard read for progressives, but not because it lands any punches. Certainly a legitimate case can be made against the hubris of storming heaven on the back of government, but Cannato doesn’t make it. The self-satisfied tone would not be so irksome if there were a larger theory that the book elaborated, a big idea that helped move the discussion of the future of cities. But there isn’t. After nearly 600 pages, we still do not know what Lindsay could realistically have done differently. The book’s coda, “He failed to live up to the promise of his early years and meet his own standards for reforming the city,” can be said about any municipal pol. By failing to go beyond his own narrow sensibilities, Cannato writes less a history than a morality play–one in which everything is asserted, and nothing need be proven.

Here, if you offer up enough red meat–including an overblown chapter on the Columbia University uprising and how its “virus of rebellion spread to other city campuses”–Lindsay and a generation of urban reformers can be caricatured rather than understood. A solid book on Lindsay, the 1960s and urban politics would be a valuable read. This isn’t it.