- Historic Sites
The Corrupting of New York City
It began early. It’s not going away. It’s about a lot more than payoffs and ward politics. And it’s about a lot more than New York.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
Tammany rule, said the muckraker Lincoln Steffens, is nothing more than “corruption with consent.” New Yorkers had sold their sovereignty for “kindness and petty privileges.”
The election of 1961 ended DeSapio’s twelve-year reign. No single successor emerged. The sputtering machine survived, but instead of one big chief, there were lots of little ones. Even if one chief had emerged, the resources that he controlled would not have rivaled the resources that Robert Moses controlled, and hence his power would not have rivaled Moses’s. DeSapio himself eventually served two years in prison after being convicted of bribery charges in connection with a scheme that also led to the conviction of James Marcus, commissioner of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity in the administration of the reform mayor John Lindsay.
The Marcus scandal was not the only one to shake the Lindsay administration. In April 1967, in a secret meeting with Lindsay’s staff liaison with the Police Department, a police sergeant named David Durk and a plainclothes cop named Frank Serpico leveled charges of widespread corruption in the department. There was no serious follow-up, however, until 1970, after Serpico, Durk, and a police inspector, Paul Delise, began to meet with reporters and editors of The New York Times . At this point, knowing that the Times was about to break the story, Lindsay rushed to appoint a special committee to investigate police corruption.
The 264-page report of the Knapp Commission, released in December 1972, concluded that corruption was an “extensive, department-wide phenomenon” and that the Lindsay administration had failed to respond appropriately to the charges made by Serpico and Durk in 1967. Policemen selling heroin, policemen selling information in return for heroin, policemen protecting dealers by registering them as informants, policemen financing heroin transactions—all these activities were “typical,” the Knapp Commission reported. Five weeks after the report was published, New Yorkers learned that between March 1969 and late 1972, as much as 398 pounds of pure heroin and cocaine, worth $73 million, had been stolen by members of the police force from the office of the department’s own property clerk.
(The big story in New York in the 1970s was the fiscal crisis that brought the city to the edge of bankruptcy in the middle of the decade. Though graft plays a part in it, it is a story that transcends graft, transcends corruption. It is a story that would have to be told in any history of the government of New York City, but it need not be told in a history of municipal corruption in New York.)
Should you find yourself with a free morning in New York, you might want to pay a visit to the dingily impressive ltalianate building at 52 Chambers Street, near City Hall. City Hall Park, with its view of the Tweed Courthouse, is a nice place to sit and think about democracy. I spent a pleasant hour there in the spring of 1986, when each day seemed to bring fresh revelations in the current scandal. Nearly a century had gone by since the English political scientist James Bryce described the government of America’s cities as the “one conspicuous failure” of democracy in the United States. “The faults of the State governments are insignificant,” Bryce wrote in The American Commonwealth in 1888, “compared with the extravagance, corruption, and mismanagement which have marked the administrations of most of the great cities.”
In those cities, Bryce went on, “we find able citizens absorbed in their private businesses, cultivated citizens unusually sensitive to the vulgarities of practical politics, and both sets therefore specially unwilling to sacrifice their time and tastes and comfort in the struggle with sordid wire-pullers and noisy demagogues. In great cities the forces that attack and pervert democratic government are exceptionally numerous, the defensive forces that protect it exceptionally ill-placed for resistance.”
The newspaper that I was carrying did not suggest that much had changed. As a citizen with an interest in history, I could not help remembering the response of Boss Tweed in the midst of an earlier scandal: “Well,” Tweed growled, “what are you going to do about it?”
In truth, I thought, as I watched the sun brighten the facade of Tweed’s courthouse, I did not intend to do anything about it. If the opportunity came, I might cast my vote to throw out the rascals, but that was all. Let someone else fight the good fight against thieves in government. Let someone else worry about making democracy work. I recognized myself as one of those well-meaning citizens whose “fitful and clumsy labours” are described in the 1876 report of a commission of the New York State legislature—citizens who would like government to be honest but who are “averse to engaging in what they deem the ‘low business’ of politics … hopeless of accomplishing any substantial good in the face of such powerful opposing interests. …”