September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
John Vliet Lindsay was hardly New York’s greatest mayor. He made plenty of mistakes, particularly when it came to the bungled decentralization of the city’s school system. Yet he had the misfortune to preside over a period of almost unrelenting urban crisis, a time when American cities were beset by racial tensions, drugs, skyrocketing crime rates, aging housing and infrastructure, deinstitutionalization, and both white and black flight. Lindsay took the brunt of it all; typically, he was pilloried both for giving generous salaries to city workers and for neglecting the white, outer-borough middle class who made up most of the municipal work force. His recent obituary still dwelt on the fact that he was slow to get some Queens streets cleared of snow after a blizzard … back in 1969.
For all that, New York was almost the only American city never to suffer a major riot during his eight years in office, not even during the plague year of 1968. This was due in large part to Lindsay’s willingness to reach out to the citv’s minority communities and to his courageously walking the streets to ease tensions in the wake of such events as the King assassination. He stuck to this response of reason and moderation even as his opponents offered an array of alternative political fantasies ranging from the Marxist to the neofascist. Oh, and for all you good folks still complaining about a single snowstorm, 32 years ago: Go buy a shovel.
In contrast to New York, Chicago endured two major riots in 1968 alone, one of them a police riot, largely instigated by the legendary Richard Daley. Daley’s advocates liked to refer to Chicago as the city that works and to the fact that he got the litter picked up and the potholes filled—what might be called the Benito Mussolini School of Urban Theory. Daley’s actions during the 1968 Democratic National Convention—in which his police ran amuck, beating up demonstrators, reporters, and passersby alike, while he himself screamed obscenities at the podium from the convention floor, all in favor of a war he did not actually believe in—left an indelible stain on American democracy. Moreover, for all of Daley’s vaunted efficiency, his decades-long support of de facto segregation, especially his willingness to pack much of Chicago’s African-American population away in dreadful, oversized housing developments cut off from the rest of the city by superhighways, had very costly and negative consequences for his city. If you don’t believe it, just ask yourself who’s footing the bill the next time you watch Chicago dynamiting another 40-year-old housing project.