"New York Is the Greatest City in the World-And Everything Is Wrong with It": New York City in the Era of John Lindsay

By Stalter-Pace, Sunny | American Studies, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

"New York Is the Greatest City in the World-And Everything Is Wrong with It": New York City in the Era of John Lindsay


Stalter-Pace, Sunny, American Studies


"New York is the greatest city in the world-and everything is wrong with it": New York City in the Era of John Lindsay

AMERICA'S MAYOR: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York. Edited by Sam Roberts. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010.

STARRING NEW YORK: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s. By Stanley Corkin. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

SUMMER IN THE CITY: John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream. Edited by Joseph P. Viteritti. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2014.

On January 25, 1965, the New York Herald Tribune featured a series titled "New York City in Crisis." The opening article proclaimed: "New York is the greatest city in the world-and everything is wrong with it."1 This lede yokes together exceptionalism and disaster; a pairing that has become increasingly more common in contemporary American political discourse. Crisis and exceptionalism are two sides of the same coin, and they both shut down discussion about everyday economic and social structures. New York City had of course been in crisis before-Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives was one of the most important texts from an earlier moment of financial inequality and urban renewal. Yet the Herald Tribune article makes its list of problems so exhaustive that it is difficult to see any reason for the continued belief in exceptionalism or any way to begin moving forward.

"New York City in Crisis" achieved the implicit goals of the paper's editors and publisher: to discourage incumbent mayor Robert Wagner from running for a fourth term (Roberts 11). The only suggestion for how change can be brought about comes late in the article: "Representative John V. Lindsay, a young Republican mentioned increasingly as a candidate for mayor," suggests that the right sort of executive might convince city dwellers to take responsibility for their own city.2 By the time the first "New York City in Crisis" article was published, Lindsay had made a name for himself as a progressive Republican from the "Silk Stocking District" on Manhattan's Upper East Side, siding with the Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and supporting a number of other important liberal bills. By the time the articles were turned into a book in July of the same year, Lindsay had declared his opposition to the Vietnam War and declared his candidacy for mayor of New York City. Congressman Lindsay was an embodiment of the personality-driven, optimistic liberalism of the early 1960s. The complexity of the city in crisis, he felt, could be cut through by someone with strong morals and a deep well of affection for his hometown. Lindsay is quoted in the article as saying,

You hear a lot of people say that the city is too big to be governed by one man. I don't agree with that at all. It's just a cliché. But to run this city properly and get it going again, the Mayor has to be very tough. He's got to ask for the moon and he's got to convince the people to make sacrifices. It will take a man who loves the city and a man who loves its people. If we don't get going again soon, New York will become a second-class city.3

Here we get a sense of the sheer force of his charisma and the immensity of local, national, and international forces against which his administration had to struggle. As the poster-boy for progressive urban politics in this period, Lindsay was dependent on both sides of the "city in crisis" trope: the unique qualities of city space and the unique problems it posed.

Earlier writers about John Lindsay have understood 1965 as a turning point in different terms. In his retrospective essay from 1995 in the conservative journal The Public Interest, George Will says of 1965, "That year was the hinge of our postwar history."4 For Will, and for John Lindsay's most recent biographer Vincent Cannato, this is true because 1965 is the height of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs and the activist Warren Supreme Court. …

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