David Dinkins, who died Nov. 23 at 93, made history as New York City's first black Mayor but had some significant achievements overshadowed by his indecisiveness in handling two racially charged crises that limited him to just one term in office.
Some of his biggest accomplishments, from the U.S. Tennis Center in Corona, Queens that Mayor Michael Bloomberg later called "the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country," and the redevelopment of Times Square, were either unjustifiably criticized or taken credit for by the man who succeeded him, Rudy Giuliani.
Other smaller-but-notable achievements included expanding on the success of an ambitious moderate-income housing program that he inherited from Mayor Ed Koch, an expansion of library hours in the city's poorer neighborhoods to remedy what one aide called "a pattern of library racism," the consolidation of the city's economic-development agencies to improve efficiency and a social-club taskforce to address safety hazards of the kind that produced 87 deaths at the Happy Land Social Club in The Bronx less than three months into Mr. Dinkins's term in 1990.
But the former Mayor predicted after leaving office that the the four days of rioting in Crown Heights that erupted in August 1991 "will lead my obituary in some newspapers." It is generally agreed that his indecisiveness in responding to that crisis, a year after he allowed the boycott of a Korean grocery in another Brooklyn neighborhood to fester even after the protesters took virulently racist positions against an owner whom they had accused of bigotry, was the biggest factor in Mr. Giuliani reversing the outcome of their initial 1989 mayoral race in the 1993 rematch.
Put Blame on Brown
In his 2013 autobiography, "A Mayor's Life," Mr. Dinkins faulted his Police Commissioner, Lee P. Brown, for taking too long to order cops to act forcefully against the violence by young black men that followed an incident in which someone in the motorcade of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ran a red light, lost control of his car and fatally struck a 7-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato. The boy's death and the quick spiriting of the driver away from the scene as an angry crowd gathered, ignited antagonisms that had long existed between black residents and Hasidic Jews who had moved there over the previous 30 years.
After Mr. Dinkins had bottles thrown at him by a small group of rioters as he climbed the steps of the Cato family's home to pay a condolence call two nights after the boy was killed and his cousin injured, the following morning he angrily confronted Mr. Brown, he wrote in the book, about how he'd allowed the situation to grow so out of control.
When the Police Commissioner responded, "We're looking at the types of charges that can be brought," according to Mr. Dinkins, he responded, "Well, what about freaking riot?! Why don't we start with that?"
But he also acknowledged in the memoir, written with Peter Knobler, "In many ways, the Police Department failed and the buck stopped with me, the Mayor."
Later that day, strong enforcement by police led by First Deputy Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, a former commander of the local precinct who by the following year took Mr. Brown's place, put an end to the rioting without generating credible complaints of excessive force.
The Mayor was further damaged by a report issued in mid-1993, during the heat of the mayoral campaign, by Gov. Mario Cuomo's Criminal Justice Coordinator, Richard Girgenti, that found Mr. Dinkins had not been informed of how bad the situation in Crown Heights had gotten by his most-trusted aide, Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch.
Didn't Relay Concerns
Twenty-four hours after Gavin Cato was run down and a mob a couple of hours later cornered a rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, who was fatally stabbed by a black teenager, Lemrick Nelson, two members of the Mayor's Community Assistance Unit visited Crown Heights and returned to City Hall shaken by what they had observed, the report stated.
It said they informed Mr. Lynch that strong action would be needed to get the violence under control, but according to Mr. Girgenti, the man who had successfully managed Mr. Dinkins's 1989 campaign did not share that information with his boss.
Mr. Dinkins wrote that he believed the report unfairly criticized him, and said that he complained to Mr. Cuomo, who responded that he had softened some of its passages because "I was trying to help you."
The Mayor said that his angry reply was that if that was what he thought he'd done, in the future, if the Governor saw him wrestling with a bear, he'd prefer that he helped the bear.
The man suspected of fomenting some of the violence on the streets, Sonny Carson, had actually helped get out the vote in Brownsville for Mr. Dinkins during the 1989 campaign, being paid $9,500 for his time and expenses, despite a conviction more than a decade earlier on a kidnapping charge. When a reporter wrote during the campaign that he was anti-Semitic, Mr. Carson responded that this was unfair, because he was "anti-white" rather than someone prejudiced against a single religious group.
Mr. Dinkins wrote in his memoir, "I had had dealings with Carson for years and knew he was a radical rabble-rouser who had spent time in prison and was a difficult man, but clearly, if I'd known he was a bigot, I would have had nothing to do with him."
More Trouble With Carson
Less than two months into the Dinkins administration, Mr. Carson had created an early crisis for the new Mayor by leading a boycott of a Korean grocery store in Flatbush where the owner had accused a black woman of shoplifting and tried to grab away the goods she had taken. The woman was initially portrayed sympathetically in media coverage, but when those on the picket line at Mr. Carson's urging began chanting anti-Korean slurs, public sentiment changed.
The owners of the Family Red Apple grocery obtained a court order against the protesters, but the Mayor didn't have it enforced by the Police Department. It was not until eight months into the protests, which had prompted the owner of the grocery to sell it, that Mr. Dinkins visited the store and made some purchases, which had the effect of breaking the boycott. Curiously, he did so on a Friday, when news coverage was relatively minimal, and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which meant that Orthodox Jews who were among those most troubled by the boycott would not be aware of his action.
There were times when Mr. Dinkins's low-key style and the efforts his administration made to build relationships with people in the city's most-troubled neighborhoods paid off handsomely. After the April 1992 not-guilty verdict for Los Angeles cops accused of brutalizing Rodney King after he was pulled over for blatantly speeding during a chase, it triggered riots there and in other cities across the country, but not New York.
The networks built by the administration that were meant to keep the city's more-volatile neighborhoods calm were widely credited, with Mr. Dinkins's most-strident media critic, the New York Post, running a front-page headline, "Take a Bow, Dave."
Worked With Communities
Harvey Robins, who served as Director of the Mayor's Office of Operations, said Nov. 25 that this kind of innovation was a hallmark of the Mayor's tenure, citing the Social Club Task Force, the clearing of abandoned vehicles from city streets and highways and the clearing of 40 empty but rubble-strewn lots to create ballfields as other examples in which "we actually made real significant changes while engaging the community."
Internally, he said, "We got agencies to work together on problems, to share equipment and skill sets of various agencies' employees." At a time when "half the people in the city had little or no discretionary money," Mr. Robins continued, members of his staff traveled around the city checking the hours during which libraries were open. They found glaring disparities based on income level, and not in a good way.
Speaking of one such gap in Queens, he said, "In Jamaica, where they were most needed, libraries were open three days a week, and in Forest Hills, six days a week." Shifts were made in the city's budget to ensure that every library would be open at least five days weekly, and a year later, for six days.
But the penny-pinching that had to be done to come up with the funding to expand library service in poorer neighborhoods was reflective of the hard financial times Mr. Dinkins confronted virtually from the time he took office.
In his first year, 1990, he began October with an announcement of a contract with the United Federation of Teachers granting its members a 5.5-percent raise under a one-year deal—an unusually short duration that was the product of fiscal uncertainty.
Two days later, one of the city's bond-rating agencies downgraded its credit; the day after that, Mr. Dinkins was forced to announce that a scheduled police class was being delayed because of budget issues.
Particularly Bad Timing
He made that announcement at a time when murders, which had climbed above 2,000 at the end of Mr. Koch's tenure, were on their way to a record 2,245 for the year. Alarms were so great that the city got indications that the State Legislature would be willing to approve a tax increase to fund significant increases in the police force.
Mr. Dinkins's deliberative style wound up slowing the process: he initially said he wanted a thorough review done of precisely how many additional cops were needed, with the thought being that part of the tax increase should focus on youth programs that could serve as a non-police deterrent to crime. City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone Sr. eventually convinced the Mayor that he wouldn't be able to get a bill passed in Albany that gave equal weight to, in the Mayor's phrase, "cops and kids," but the measure passed the following year included some important youth programs in addition to funding a major boost in the NYPD's ranks.
One of them was the Beacon program, developed by Youth Services Commissioner Richard Murphy, which was meant to keep after-school activities open for as many hours as the regular school day had been, Mr. Robins said, noting that Mr. Dinkins "cared deeply about children." He said the city also expanded health clinics' hours of service on nights and weekends.
During his last two years in office, Mr. Dinkins used the extra police officers to reduce the crime rate and bring murders below 2,000. By the time he left office, he still hadn't hired all the cops he was authorized to under the "Safe Streets, Safe City" program. That meant Mr. Giuliani got far more of the credit for using those additional officers and the more-aggressive style of policing that he favored as carried out by his Police Commissioner, William J. Bratton, to make deeper inroads against violence.
Trouble With Cops
Mr. Dinkins's younger years living in Harlem had exposed him to the unequal treatment of blacks by the NYPD that was common in the 1950s, and there was speculation that he shied from seeking to have officers swiftly intervene in situations like the one in Crown Heights because he worried that they would overreact and he would take criticism from the black community.
But the tepid early response to the rioting there was partly responsible for 152 officers being injured during the disturbances, and he further angered officers and what was then the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association when he had the city pay for the funeral of a drug-dealer in the summer of 1992 who had been shot to death after he tried to grab a police officer's gun. The gesture was meant to quell tensions in Washington Heights within its large Latino community, but the union and its members thought it implied that the officer—who was ultimately exonerated of wrongdoing—had been at fault.
It produced a demonstration at City Hall in mid-September on a day when the Council was to hold a hearing on a bill to create an all-civilian Civilian Complaint Review Board that was favored by the Mayor. Union delegates arrived at City Hall that morning carrying anti-Dinkins signs that included the message, "Dump the Washroom Attendant," alluding to the racist caricature of the well-dressed Mayor by an obnoxious talk-radio host, Bob Grant.
Some of them also showed up beer cans in hand, and before noon dozens of them were sufficiently lubricated that they charged up the steps of City Hall and tried to force their way into the building, even though Mr. Dinkins wasn't on the premises. By the time they finished acting out, blocking traffic near the Brooklyn Bridge and verbally abusing motorists who objected, they had embarrassed themselves so completely that Police Commissioner Kelly issued a public apology.
Made CCRB a Reality
More damaging, to them as well as to Mr. Kelly, their misconduct so upset Speaker Vallone—normally a strong supporter of the police—that he dropped his opposition to the CCRB bill, and legislation that previously was expected to have no chance of passage sailed through the Council.
But the enmity of the cops, an erosion of Mr. Dinkins's support from other unions for reasons ranging from layoffs he was forced to make to tough contract bargaining to a controversial stand backing his Human Resources Administration Commissioner when she reportedly objected that a promotion list for Supervisor 3 positions was "too male and too white" all weakened the Mayor politically as he began his run for a second term. The Girgenti Report's release in the middle of the campaign offered an unwelcome reminder of the sluggish response to the troubles in Crown Heights two years earlier, and a ballot referendum on Staten Island seceding from the city sharply increased turnout in the borough where Mr. Dinkins was weakest and Mr. Giuliani's support was greatest.
It added up to a four-point swing in the voting from 1989, when Mr. Dinkins had defeated Mr. Giuliani by two percentage points, reversing the outcome. Despite the bitter battle, the Mayor was gracious in defeat, inviting his conqueror to City Hall and urging New Yorkers to support him.
A Quiet Retirement
Unlike Mr. Koch, who kept himself in the public spotlight after leaving office by writing books, doing newspaper and radio commentary that even extended to movie reviews, and endorsing products, Mr. Dinkins adopted a lower profile while teaching at Columbia. Even as he entered his 80s and then his 90s, however, he took a more-active part in some of the political rituals of the city, in contrast to Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg after they left office.
He was a regular at the annual Inner Circle charity show, and would turn up as a panelist on books that interested him, including one that chronicled black firefighters' struggles to gain acceptance and power in the FDNY.
He endorsed Bill de Blasio, who had worked for him as a junior aide to Deputy Mayor Lynch and wound up marrying another Dinkins staffer, Chirlane McCray, after he captured the Democratic nomination for Mayor in 2013. But the former Mayor initially backed ex-City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., whose father had been an old friend of Mr. Dinkins, and expressed hurt when, prior to winning election in November, his former aide didn't seem to want his counsel. Whatever hard feelings existed at that time were dissipated when Mr. de Blasio had the Municipal Building, where Mr. Dinkins had worked as both City Clerk and Manhattan Borough President, renamed in his honor.
The quarter century since he'd left office had produced a greater appreciation for what he'd done while Mayor, perhaps helped along by the decline in Mr. Giuliani's stature in recent years having served as a reminder of his taking credit for achievements that he only partly deserved.
If the latter gentleman had presided over the cleanup of Times Square that restored it as a major, family-friendly tourist attraction, it was the deal Mr. Dinkins made on his way out of office with the Disney Company to take over a theatre on West 42nd St. that later housed "The Lion King" that opened the door for that renaissance.
Pride in Tennis Deal
Mr. Dinkins in a final interview with the New York Times had pointed out that for all the criticism his deal with the U.S. Tennis Association for the new home of the U.S. Open had attracted at the time, the terms were so favorable to the city that it made more money from a two-week attraction than it netted annually from the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined.
Mr. Bloomberg's glowing appraisal of the deal placed it in stark contrast to his decision while in office to renegotiate the terms of the agreements Mr. Giuliani had reached with the Yankees and Mets on their new stadiums as being too generous at the city's expense.
And the man who was Mr. Giuliani's campaign spokesman during that grueling 1993 mayoral battle seconded the praise.
Ken Frydman, who is now a spokesman for several city police unions, Nov. 23 called Mr. Dinkins "a dignified gentleman, an unfortunate rarity in politics today."
He then added, "Rudy mocked him for the U.S. Tennis Association deal, but that turned out to be a good deal for the city."
Even as age made it more difficult for him to get around, Mr. Dinkins attended funerals of people with whom he'd had relationships, including Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau and Larry Hanley, who while president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726 in Staten Island had run Mr. Dinkins's 1989 campaign in that borough, and later became president of the ATU in Washington, D.C.
Philosophy With a Smile
After seeing him at Mr. Hanley's funeral in May 2019, accompanied by a former press aide, a reporter called Mr. Dinkins to ask what he remembered about his work in that campaign 30 years earlier. Mr. Dinkins said Mr. Hanley had been smart and helpful, but when the reporter pressed him for examples, he said he couldn't offer one, explaining that this was one of the bad aspects of being so old.
"Consider the alternative," he was told.
Mr. Dinkins, using the elocution for which he was known, said this wasn't the first time that he had been given that advice.
"The trouble is," he said, "I have yet to meet anybody who had been to the alternative and came back and could tell me how it compares."
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