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John Lindsay

John Vliet Lindsay (1921 - 2000) was a Congressman 1959-1966, and mayor of New York City, 1966-1973.

John Lindsay, archetypal limousine liberal, was a upper class Anglo-Protestant lawyer trying to govern a working class and ethnic city. Controversial as mayor, Lindsay is credited with helping the city survive the 1960s without a major riot, but his policies were directly responsible for the City's fiscal crisis of the late 1970s.

Lindsay was a liberal at a time when the cracks in the liberal coalition were becoming chasms. Nationally, working class white ethnics felt that they were disproportionately paying the "costs" of integration. The mainstream civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and the NAACP was losing its footing, being overshadowed by the radicalism of H. Rap Brown, Sonny Carson, and the Black Panthers. Public sector unions refused to continue as "involuntary philanthropists," and began to make demands on the City that would severely hurt its ability to provide services. Overall, it was during Lindsay's tenure that New York became "the ungovernable city," and the job as mayor of New York became known as "the second toughest job in America."

Table of contents
1 Early Years
2 Mayoralty
3 Assessment

Early Years

John Lindsay was born in New York City on West End Avenue to George and Florence Vliet Lindsay. Contrary to popular assumptions, John Lindsay was not a blue-blood, nor very wealthy. Lindsay's paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1880s from the Isle of Wight, and his mother's family was only upper middle class. John's father, however, was a successful lawyer, and was able to send his son to Buckley, St. Paul's, and Yale.

After service in WWII Lindsay practiced law for a few years before gravitating towards politics. Lindsay could easily have become a regular Scarsdale golf-course Republican, this interest in politics displayed his unique compassion, as well as his ambition.

Elected to Congress from the "Silk Stocking" district in 1958, Lindsay established a liberal voting record, known for his strong support of civil rights legislation. In 1965 Lindsay successfully ran for mayor as a Republican in a three-way race, defeating National Review founder William F. Buckley and Abe Beame, then City Controller.


Lindsay inherited a city with serious fiscal and economic problems. The old manufacturing jobs that supported generations of uneducated immigrants were disappearing, many middle class residents were fleeing to the suburbs, and public sector workers had won the right to unionize.

Public sector union militancy would turn out to be the bane of Lindsay's administration. On his first day as mayor, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) led by Mike Quill shut down the City with complete halt to subway and bus service. The transit workers truly were underpaid, but the strike was also effort by an old guard Irish leadership to reinforce its power over a black and Puerto Rican union. The leader of TWU had predicted a nine-day strike, at the most, but Lindsay's refusal to negotiate delayed a settlement, and wound up making the strike a twelve day torment, and a grievous wound to the City.

The settlement of the strike, combined with increased welfare costs, and general economic decline, forced Lindsay to push through the State Legislature in 1966 an income tax and higher water taxes for New York City residents, plus a new commuter tax for people who only worked in the City. By 1970, New Yorkers would be paying $384 per person in taxes, the highest in the nation. For reference, the average Chicagoan paying $244 per person. (source, Can Cities Survive? The Fiscal Plight of American Cities, Pettengill and Uppal, p. 76.)

Lindsay's next few years on the labor front continued to be difficult. In 1968 the largely Jewish teachers' union (the United Federation of Teachers – UFT) went on strike over the firings of several Jewish teachers in a ghetto school in the neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Demanding the reinstatement of the dismissed teachers, the four month battle became a symbol of the chaos of New York City, and the City's inability to deliver what suburbanites could take for granted.

That same year, 1968, also saw a week long sanitation strike. Here, Lindsay was widely blamed for letting the disaster happen by his neglect to make a counteroffer to pre-strike proposal made by the union. During the strike, quality of life in New York reached its nadir, as 10' tall mountains of garbage grew on New York City sidewalks.

The summer of 1970 saw perhaps the least responsible strike in the history of New York. Over 8,000 workers of District Council 37 walked off their jobs for two days. Those 8,000 included the workers on the City's drawbridges and sewer plants. Drawbridges over the Harlem river were locked in the up position, barring transit by cars; hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage flowed into area waterways.

New York City also became a major home to the counterculture. Thousands of hippies set up in Greenwich Village, making life unpleasant for people who lived there. In hope of finding someone to control the hippies, the Lindsay administration put Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin on the City's payroll at $100 a week.

1968 also saw the riots at Columbia University. The nominal cause of the riots was the university building a gym in Morningside Park, but it was really just the spirit of the age. Columbia was closed down for several weeks; no one was killed, and Lindsay was not to blame, but one policeman, Frank Gucciardi, was paralyzed when a rioter jumped on him from a second story window.

Another difficult trend of Lindsay's administration was growing black radicalism. 1967 was the year of riots in Newark and Detroit, 1968 saw a series of riots in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination. New York City, unique among large cities, was spared any major violence. Lindsay's courage in walking the streets of Harlem the night of MLK's assassination is credited with keeping the city peaceful.

Despite NYC's avoidance of a major riot, NYC was no interracial utopia during Lindsay's term. Protestors would march on city hall with signs saying "no money, no peace." Sonny Carson in 1967 sent a letter to Lindsay saying it "would be a 'cool summer' if Lindsay kept funneling money to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)."

Crime soared in NYC during Lindsay's term, as it did in other cities. From 1961 to 1965 NYC had 7.6 homicides per 100,000 people, 1971 to 1975 New York City had 21.7 homicides per 100,000. (source Encyclopedia of New York City, 297). Unfortunately, even though whites committed the majority of crimes, many white New Yorkers associated crime exclusively with minorities. Jonathan Reider, in his well known study of the white backlash in Canarsie, Brooklyn had this to say: "Canarsians spoke about crime with more unanimity than they achieved on any other subject, and they spoke often and forcefully. . . One police officer explained that he earned his living by getting mugged. On his roving beat he had been mugged hundreds of time in five years. 'I only been mugged by a white guy one time" (Canarsie, 67)

Years after Lindsay was out of office, Lindsay budget aid Peter Goldmark would admit that his administration's basic problem was this: "We all failed to come to grips with what a neighborhood is. We never realized that crime is something that happens to, and in, a community." Assistant Nancy Seifer said "There was a whole world out there that nobody in City Hall knew anything about . . . If you didn't live on Central Park West you were some kind of lesser being." (Cannato, 391)

Lindsay was seen as being far from sympathetic to the needs of working class white ethics. Republican State Senator Joseph Calandra in 1968:

"The North Bronx area has suddenly and without any prior notice had its garbage collection reduced from 3 weekly pickups to 2 . . . Why the decline in service by City Hall, which had a record $6 billion approved for it by our "rubber stamp," so called City Council? Rumor has it that men and equipment have been diverted to the South Bronx. The North Bronx pays most of the taxes yet the South Bronx, which pays hardly any at all, gets all the services and facilities from our Mayor and City Departments. If more money is needed for our Sanitation Dept., then I suggest that our fun-loving Mayor 'find it' in the same way he found $7 million for the Youth Corps after that disgraceful, illegal, and wanton riot at City Hall." (Cannato, 391)

Despite not being able to clear the streets of Queens of snow in February 1969, Lindsay secured his reelection by gaining the support of the public sector unions. The transit workers received an 18% salary increase, and extra week of vacation, and the City paying their full pensions; District Council 37 got a raise and a deal allowing retirement after 20 years; the teachers received increases of 22-37%.


Lindsay left office in 1973 an unpopular mayor, and his reputation has fallen further since then, with the decline of liberalism and the spectacular 1970s fiscal wreck that Lindsay was most responsible for. Lindsay had allowed one in seven New Yorkers to work for the city, almost as high a percentage to be on welfare, had been overgenerous with the unions, and had borrowed for operating expenses. In his the Ungovernable City, Vincent J. Cannato bluntly says Lindsay was the wrong man for the job of mayor. Lindsay was more concerned with solving the enormous social problems of NYC's poor, instead of delivering basic services. (by the early 1970s over 70% of NYC's budget went to non-common functions) A fine Senator Lindsay would have been, but he was too aloof and stubborn to make it as an executive

Lindsay retired to practice law, his 1980 comeback bid for the Senate was not successful. He died poor in South Carolina, a relic of a different time.

Containing a conservative bias, but well-written, biography is Vincent J. Cannato's The Ungovernable City.

An in-depth discussion of Lindsay's fiscal policies is contained in Mayors and Money by Ester Ruth Fuchs.

Two pro-labor treatments of New York City public sector unions are In Transit and Working-Class New York by Joshua Freeman.