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Do Mayors Matter?

WHEN JOHN LINDSAY was elected mayor of New York City in 1965, he “summoned” his fellow citizens to fight against “greed, ignorance, bureaucracy, prejudices, and defeatism” in order “to revive the hopes of the downtrodden, the sick, the exploited” and to create “a city in which there will be new light in tired eyes, and the sound of laughter in our homes.” Twelve years later, Lindsay was discredited and Edward Koch began his mayoralty by saying that “all too often those who were charged with caring for the disadvantaged turned the generosity of New Yorkers into a form of folly.” The unfulfilled hopes raised by Lindsay—and other post-war New York policies—may seem like an object lesson about the limits of liberalism, but a far better conclusion is that cities constantly generate problems and that solving those problems requires a painful process of trial and error.

Cities have long enabled economic productivity and innovation, creating opportunity for the less fortunate and the cultural achievements that define civilization. Alone, humans are weak creatures, but when we collaborate and learn from each other in cities, we are capable of miracles. Yet the massing of humanity in dense areas can also have negative consequences. If I am physically close enough to watch your eyes or hand you a book, I am also close enough to rob you or infect you with some airborne virus.

Cities need government to fight the great urban scourges of crime, congestion, and disease, which is why, in the nineteenth century, when the federal government was a pygmy, New York City already had a giant public sector. In 1900, municipal governments spent more on providing clean water than the Federal government spent on everything except for the army and the postal service. It makes perfect sense that New Yorkers today are far more enthusiastic about big government than the residents of Idaho: New York’s density requires far more public management.

Almost all post-war urban policies, from renewal to Lindsay’s local welfare state to Giuliani’s expanded police force, can be understood as attempts to tame the downsides of density. Some policy tools—such as large-scale public housing projects— have proved costly and ineffective. Others—such as improved information technology in policing—were cheap and useful. The change from Lindsay to Koch was not a switch from liberal to conservative—both of them were liberals; it was a change from one eclectic approach to managing America’s most difficult city to another.

These new volumes invite us to re-examine New York’s post-war battle against its demons. Samuel Zipp’s book provides a superb account of four massive building projects, from the United Nations to East Harlem. All reflected the belief that new structures could solve old social problems. Not all of these public projects were failures, but eventually the public came to believe that these grandiose attempts to fix cities by destroying neighborhoods did more harm than good.

John Lindsay saw that New York was not going to solve its problems with more bricks-and-mortar, and he “imposed a new set of values; reigning [sic] in of the automobile; pedestrianism; lively streets; mixed use; historic preservation; and community preservation.” Sam Roberts’s new collection of essays reminds us that Lindsay was a smart, innovative leader who tried hard to better New York during difficult times. Many of his innovations still help the city today, but Lindsay lost his big bet that a generous local safety net would solve the city’s problems. He vastly increased public spending, but the number of murders increased by 144 percent between 1965 and 1973.

The city’s fiscal crisis and rising crime rates led to the election of Ed Koch, who cut spending and talked tough on crime. But Jonathan Soffer’s new biography of Koch reminds us of the the mayor's complexities. His electoral success was not a wholesale repudiation of New York’s progressivism. It was, rather, the election of someone who sold himself as a “liberal with sanity,” which might just mean a liberal who learns from the past. Koch was lucky enough to preside over a much more economically dynamic period of New York history than Lindsay, but he helped his luck along by getting the city’s finances in order. Still, neither he nor his successor, David Dinkins, managed to make the city safe. Their failure ultimately led to the election of Rudy Giuliani and his far more radical approach to crime.

Deng Xiaoping famously quipped that he did not care if a cat was black or white as long as it caught mice. New York City’s political history is not an object lesson in the values of liberal or conservative values. In the early nineteenth century Aaron Burr enlisted Alexander Hamilton to convince his Federalist friends on New York’s Common Council that public water works would lead to “burthensome taxes.” Burr wanted a private water company that was subsidized with the then-rare right to operate as a bank. Burr’s company did not produce much water, but the Bank of the Manhattan Water Company, later Chase Manhattan and now J.P. Morgan Chase, has had a long and successful run in finance. 

Big public infrastructure—the Croton Aquaduct—was needed to bring in the aquasana that reduced infectious disease. This was not an ideological question. The city’s political history is a tale of leaders who kept experimenting with different approaches to solving difficult urban problems. New York does not teach either a conservative gospel or liberal one. It teaches only—and always—the need to try new things and toss out the techniques that fail.

Urban renewal is one of those great failed experiments. Zipp’s book begins in the heady days at the end of World War II, when the victorious allies were envisioning the United Nations and “the concerns of liberal internationalism and urban renewal dovetailed.” A wide range of leaders, from Truman to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (who donated the land), supported the project, and only 179 families needed to be relocated. As urban policy, “trading slaughterhouses for United Nations was an easy decision.” Eliminating the East Side abattoirs was likely to make the city healthier and more pleasant.

As the U.N.’s shimmering Secretariat rose in Turtle Bay, the promise of urban renewal seemed enormous—but Zipp notes that “we now know that this was an opening episode in a decades-long attack on industry and blue-collar life in Manhattan on the part of urban redevelopment policies.” Zipp’s second case was Met Life’s construction of Stuyvesant Town on the Lower East Side, which “made headlines because it represented more than just new housing or a wise investment; it became a symbol of the postwar world to come, standing for the promise of a new, modern, more humane way to live in cities that would transform old, seemingly outmoded nineteenth-century urban space.” Met Life had the support of legislation “granting eminent domain to municipalities and partial tax exemption to builders … for the purpose of slum clearance” and was spared “the requirement that the developer make adequate provision for displaced tenants.” Public leaders—Robert Moses, Fiorella La Guardia, Thomas Dewey—backed Stuyvesant Town because it offered to replace the grime of the Gas House District with better, cleaner, safer housing.

Stuyvesant Town remains a pleasant place to live, and as Zipp remarks, “in the long run, Stuyvesant Town was a success for Met Life and most of its residents”; but it was a messy success. Zipp estimates that 11,000 people needed to move to make way for Met Life’s big project, and the early years of the project were marred by Met Life’s support of residential segregation. New York City’s public power and financial favor had been to create a racially restricted community, walled off from the wider city, protected by its own uniformed police who would escort minority children off the playground.

Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City || by Jonathan Soffer

Zipp then gives us Lincoln Center, which was built with federal support “to strengthen the cultural position of the United States around the world.” City leaders again liked the idea that a tough neighborhood—the setting of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story—would become a glittering cultural center that would enrich the city. Neighborhood advocates argued effectively that the human costs of moving thirteen thousand people were enormous. Zipp records that “by 1968, when West Side Story returned home to a transformed Lincoln Square, the original version of urban renewal had been all but discredited.” And Zipp’s last example, the rebuilding of East Harlem, shows urban renewal at its worst. Neighborhoods were torn apart to create little new housing, and to produce projects that became synonymous with human suffering. I grew up about two miles due south of those structures; they served as a stark reminder of the terrible inequities of life.

It is unwise to interpret the failures of public housing as a general indictment of big government or grandiose public infrastructure. The Croton Aquaduct and the Erie Canal provide ready counter-examples against such a sweeping negative view. But the failures of the Manhattan Projects do reflect the limits of a physical approach to urban distress. City after city has tried to halt urban decline with unnecessary new buildings. The hallmark of declining places is that they already have plenty of infrastructure relative to demand. Investing in people, not structures, is usually the wiser response to decline.

John Lindsay understood the failings of old-style urban renewal. According to the architectural historian Hillary Ballon’s essay in the Roberts volume, Lindsay’s “achievements in the realm of urban design made his administration one of the most remarkable and creative chapters in American urbanism.” He also knew the value of human capital. Between 1965 and 1970, inflation-adjusted city spending on public schools rose by 62 percent. Higher education spending increased 186 percent.

The Roberts collection makes it quite clear that Lindsay was an intelligent leader who tried to reduce “the innumerable accommodations and sacrifices exacted from those who live in an urban society.” Lindsay, like Koch, was an anti-corruption reformer, who promised that “there will be no protection for indolence, incompetence of graft.” His integrity helped him to attract a great stream of talent: “idealistic college graduates, ambitious lawyers, and others who shared his vision of a shining city accessible to all.”

Lindsay tried to make New York more beautiful and more enjoyable, presciently grasping that modern cities would succeed not because of ports or railyards, but through their ability to attract people with pleasure as well as productivity. He was an innovative manager, who improved the efficiency of the Sanitation Department and introduced computers that assisted in everything from tracking capital improvements to reducing children’s exposure to lead. He was responsible for policing innovations such as the 911 Call, focusing on high-crime areas and community policing. Lindsay’s support for a “Civilian Complaints Board,” certainly made him unpopular among cops, but it was not an unreasonable response to the problem of police abuse and corruption. And while he could not stop rising crime rates, he did prevent a major riot through a combination of effective outreach and overwhelming—and usually non-violent—police presence. There is some truth to Roberts’s statement that while “the supposition that anybody ‘kept New York from burning’ seems almost quaint,” Lindsay did just that.

Despite these successes and the great hopes that accompanied his inauguration, John Lindsay presided over a terrible time in New York history. The city lost 800,000 manufacturing jobs between 1965 and 1973. Its population fell from 7.78 million in 1960 to 7 million, twenty years later. New York City went from having 836 murders in 1965 to having more than two thousand in 1973. Yet we should be careful not to judge our political leaders based on events beyond their control.

I am not sure I can answer an unequivocal “no” to Roberts’ rhetorical question, “Would anyone else have done better in dreaming a dream and delivering on it in those tumultuous times?” But still I cannot blame Lindsay for most of the industrial exodus from Manhattan. New York’s great industries, such as sugar-refining, publishing, and garment manufacturing grew up around the port and railyards, benefiting from easy access to raw materials (such as pirated English novels and unrefined sugar), immigrant labor, and access, courtesy of those transport links, to far-flung consumers. New York’s infrastructure was built around nineteenth-century transportation technologies—the railroad and the elevator—that enabled the city to soar up and spread out.

In the mid-twentieth century, newer transportation technologies—the car, the truck, the container—made New York’s erstwhile advantages obsolete. People and firms left for the suburbs and the Sunbelt, choosing larger homes, warmer climates, and less heterogeneous neighbors. The economic crisis that hit New York in the 1970s was common to every older, colder city regardless of who happened to be in the mayor’s mansion, and so were the social problems that so often accompany economic decline.

Lindsay was not responsible for New York’s decline, but I cannot convince myself that he was a good mayor, even though he was a good man. The rise of the city’s annual expenditures from four billion dollars in 1965 (twenty-seven billion dollars in current dollars) to 10.8 billion dollars in 1973 (51.6 billion dollars today) represents an astounding 90 percent increase in the city budget. Lindsay was spending more in 1973 than Bloomberg was spending thirty years later. To pay for all that spending, he turned to a city income tax, making the city less attractive, and to increasingly ornate budgeting procedures.

The vast increase in spending reflected an understandable error—excessive confidence in the benefits of a local welfare state— and a dramatic defeat— Lindsay’s inability to defeat the demands of the public sector unions. Lindsay, writes Joshua Freeman in the Roberts’ volume, “came into office determined to reduce the power of union leaders, impose a more formal system of public sector labor relations, and restrain the economic gains (and costs to the city) of labor unions.” But when he was immediately faced with a paralyzing transit strike, he agreed to an extremely generous settlement.

Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City || by Jonathan Soffer

Much of the spending increase can be understood as Lindsay’s attempt to fight poverty and crime by spending billions on the less fortunate. Many smart people thought this approach would work, and it was far more humane than locking up hundreds of thousands of young men. Lindsay erred in his confidence in the social welfare approach to urban distress. The money did little to reduce crime and much to make prosperous New Yorkers unhappy and eventually un-urban. Businesses and wealthy people find it much easier to flee a municipality than a country—which makes redistribution an appropriate function for national, not local, governments.

History has not been kind to the Reagan era view that reductions in national tax rates could actually boost tax revenue by inducing people to work harder and innovate more.  But there is considerably more evidence supporting the hypothesis that some city governments do operate close to the point where higher taxes actually lead to lower local revenues, because of the flight of wealthy workers and capital. And the easy exodus of the resource-rich can mean that trying to right social wrongs at the local level leads to little but the isolation of the poor. Surely, if one believes in caring for the least fortunate Americans, then the costs of that care should be shared throughout the country, not just born disproportionately by the people who have to live in the same locality. By 1977, middle-income New Yorkers certainly seemed fed up with the idea that they had to suffer to sustain their poorer neighbors.    

New York’s fiscal crisis and crime waves set the stage for Koch’s victory in 1977. Like Lindsay, Koch had been a liberal congressman with little experience either balancing budgets or fighting crime, but with the help of the media consultant David Garth he “used his long-time support for the death penalty, unusual for a liberal Jew from Manhattan, to reach for more conservative outer-borough voters” and kept his “focus on the fiscal crisis, portraying Ed as the competent candidate who would solve the financial mess.”

Still, Koch’s center-right campaign notwithstanding, he had much in common with Lindsay. Both were anti-machine reformers and civil libertarians. Koch had broken with the Democratic party to support Lindsay in 1965 “because he was against patronage.” Both men hired good people. Both were reasonable men, but not great managers. They also had similar flaws. Both men had the hubris to let unwise runs for higher office mar their second terms. Both men let their positions on international affairs distract from the business of city government. Mayors have more than enough on their plate without also taking responsibility for ending the Vietnam War or bringing peace to the Middle East.

Lindsay was far better at bridging the racial divide, and better at inspiring the best and the brightest. Koch could speak more directly to the fears and the dreams of middle-income New Yorkers, but he infuriated, unnecessarily, the African-American community. Most important, they both shared traditional liberal dreams: housing the poor, more healthcare, getting more out of Washington and Albany. Koch did evince far greater enthusiasm for tough policing that Lindsay, but much of that was bluster: he was no Giuliani. Unlike Giuliani, who did radically reduce crime, Koch did not significantly increase the resources for policing. He may have talked tough, but he left the hapless Benjamin Ward in charge of the NYPD for five painful years during which crime steadily rose— not as dramatically as during the Lindsay years, but there were more murders in 1989 than there had been in 1977.

Koch and Lindsay also shared their troubles with the transit workers, but the outcomes of those brawls illustrates the most important difference between the two mayors, and why Koch, but not Lindsay, is—as Kenneth Jackson writes in the Roberts volume—one of New York’s great mayors. Koch clearly relished the fight, and cheerfully stood welcoming pedestrians walking into Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge. With the help of the anti-strike Taylor law, which had been passed in 1966, Koch managed to hold the transit workers to modest wage gains, and he insisted that they pay legally-mandated penalties for striking. That victory was part of Koch’s fight to get New York City’s finances under control, and on that front he achieved amazing success. Between 1977 and 1981, the city’s expenditures dropped by more than 30 percent in real terms. It is true that he balanced the budget on the backs of the poor, but as he once remarked, “Who do we spend the budget on?”

So New York fared much better under Koch than it had under Lindsay. Median family incomes rose by 29 percent in New York City between 1980 and 1990, while national incomes only increased by 8 percent. Between 1980 and 1990, New York City’s population increased by more than 250,000, while Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all continued to decline. The total number of workers employed in New York City increased from 2,918,183 to 3,257,584.

And yet it makes no more sense to credit Koch with this success than it does to blame Lindsay for New York’s earlier decline. Koch benefited from trends that he did not cause, though he deserves credit for reinventing the city’s government, and bringing in an ethos of living within its means—that achievement should be enough for any mayor. Still, we need a more sophisticated understanding of how and why these things happen. However important politics is, the history of cities cannot be reduced to the personalities who govern them.

New York’s comeback was created not by Ed Koch, but by industries that exploited the urban ability to connect smart people and spread ideas. The great urban paradox is that, since the 1970s, increases in information technology that should have made it easier to transcend place and telecommute from Tajikistan actually seem to have made cities, such as New York, more important than ever. One explanation of this paradox is that globalization and new technologies have increased the returns to being smart, and that humans get smart by being around other smart people.

Above all, New York’s economic health came to depend on the financial industry—the sector that places that highest premium on access to the latest piece of knowledge. A chain of connected innovators—Michael Milken’s junk bonds enabled Henry Kravis’s leveraged buyouts—created an engine of wealth. Even after the crash in 2008, finance accounted for 40 percent of the $215 billion dollar payroll on the island of Manhattan. Michael Bloomberg’s entrepreneurship, where he used the traders’ wisdom that he acquired at Salomon Brothers to create an IT giant, tells us more about the sources of New York’s success than his terms as mayor.

New York has been fighting with the problems that come with density for close to four hundred years. Urban renewal and John Lindsay’s local welfare state were two of the less successful attempts to improve urban life. Their failure led to the more modest public policies of Ed Koch and the police-oriented rule of Rudy Giuliani. The right lesson of those years is not that big city government or fighting for social justice is always wrong. The right lesson is that cities need to experiment, and that they need to quickly abandon strategies that do not work. The greatest gift of the city is its ability to transfer knowledge, and this is as true in city government as in any other realm of urban life.

Edward Glaeser is the Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard. He directs the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. His most recent book is Trumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier