A Conversation About the Mayors of New York

HOWARD WOLFSON: Your new book, “New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation,” is out. I've been interviewing the mayoral aspirants this year and thought it would be exciting to talk to you about the mayors you look at in your book. You begin with a discussion of Ed Koch. Tell me about him.

THOMAS DYJA: Ed Koch was an underdog. He was not a favorite of the political establishment. He ran from outside. Hugh Carey, the governor, was pulling for Mario Cuomo and he went through a bruising primary and then a runoff against Cuomo. Over his three terms, he did a remarkable thing. He really did bring a lot of life back to the city in the face of enormous challenges.

But as with everyone, there were dark sides to it. He racially charged the city in ways that were destructive and that, to his credit, he recognized later in his life and tried to publicly apologize for.

But in other ways, on his housing initiative, for example, he brought about a paradigm shift in how we look at housing in this city. Koch laid the groundwork for renewal, not just in the kind of rah-rah, “New York is back” way, but by opening the city to new housing and new ideas.

The first successful wave is the whole urban pioneer thing that brings back the boomers and begins the gentrification of the city. Then there was a second wave that brought in immigrants and helped them settle in neighborhoods. This created an order that allowed crime to come down.

Another thing he did was create an administration that had an enormous impact on the city over the long term. You see many of the same names and faces that he brought in to City Hall turning up later under Mike Bloomberg and in all the kind of superstructure that surrounds the city. This is started by Koch saying, “I want good people in here who can do the right thing, and I will field the political flak.”

HW: One of the things I found powerful in your section about Koch was that you made his and the city’s response to AIDS central to the narrative, where I think in a lot of other discussions about his tenure, it’s sort of off to the side.

TD: It was devastating. We still have no idea of how much of an impact, how many people we lost. The complication of his own professed identity adds another layer. How did someone who most of the gay community consider one of them deal with the AIDS crisis? To me, it wasn’t just that one through line — that through line had an impact on everything. And that was just like so many other through lines in the book. You couldn’t just talk about housing as a discrete topic, or cultural things as a discrete topic — real estate has an impact on the art business. It goes on and on.

HW: As New Yorkers, we like to think that we’re in control of our own destiny. Certainly there have been times over the last 40 years where reality disabused us of that fantasy or that belief. Was the fiscal crisis solved by Koch and New Yorkers, or did larger economic trends enable the city to recover?

TD: New York is an odd place in that it has its own micro-economy. It’s the city economy that is open to the influence of what’s happening in the rest of the world, but its banks make it a leader, dictating a lot of what’s going on in the global economy.

One of the most important factors to keep in mind is that no one ever really thought the city couldn’t eventually pay its bills back. There was a philosophical decision that was made by kicking the city out of the credit market. But the city was going to be able to refinance and get going. It was able to take advantage of changes in the economy that weren’t necessarily a product of the people of New York, but were derived from powers based in New York: lower interest rates, the ability to refinance.

If the people of New York brought it through the fiscal crisis, it was by surviving that era. So Koch is defeated by Dinkins in the [1989] primary in large measure because of the racial divisions that had developed and really sort of exploded.

Everybody’s also tired of Koch. There is a kind of Koch fatigue, where even he admits he’s running on fumes. The city was so ready to move on at that point.

HW: One of the things that is surprising to me is how incendiary and routinely divisive Koch’s language was, especially around race, but also in response to any sort of routine criticism. It makes me wonder, was New York a rougher place during that period?

TD: When I moved here in 1980, it was definitely surprising how visceral it was. And the press loved the fact that Koch would spout off and insult people in a way that was kind of amusing at first. By the second term, it stopped being amusing; the press was not so tickled by it, but in general the city was more and more exhausted by it.

I do think the city was a matter of survival then. You had friends who got mugged and people’s cars being broken into; if that was the worst of it, you were lucky. It was a hard place to be. I remember the convenience of big-box stores when they first came in and thinking, Wow, look at all those towels. And buying hardware. Before, there weren’t big hardware stores; there were small ones and you were lucky if they had what you wanted, and they were expensive. There were things that were difficult about life in New York and almost intentionally so. That changed over time and became better, but we ended up not necessarily liking the results. Koch’s New York was a much testier place. We look back with amusement and nostalgia, but the reality is that it was exhausting.

HW: In the last couple of years of the Bloomberg administration, there was a mini boom of ’70s nostalgia that developed. Obviously there were some exciting things happening in the arts and culture, but it was a difficult time to live in New York in a lot of ways.

TD: Nostalgia is about loss, not just in a kind of historic sense or an objective sense about place, but it’s so often about ourselves. One of the things I really insisted on myself in looking at this was, I can have all the warm and fuzzy emotions I want to have about my memories, but I really needed to look at it as objectively as possible.

HW: Koch is beaten by David Dinkins, the only one-term mayor of the mayors that you cover. There’s been a reappraisal of Dinkins, especially after his passing [Nov. 23, 2020]. Where do you come down on the Dinkins mayoralty?

TD: Certainly the years deserve some re-evaluation because he’s handed a combination of peak AIDS, peak crack, peak crime — all the problems that are cresting in the second half of the Koch years crash on top of him. Added to that is a press corps that, when you look at what Koch does and what the press corps does and says during those years, you’re shocked. The treatment of Dinkins is stunning. When you have writers comparing him to Babar — it’s jaw-dropping. Koch goes to the Inner Circle Show in a big Afro wig. These are things that are just not acceptable now. And he faced that.

I think most of all, he faced that he never dreamed of becoming Mayor Dinkins. Out of the Harlem circle of power, he was the least expected to become mayor out of [Charles] Rangel and [Percy] Sutton and [Basil] Paterson. It fell to him in a certain way. He didn’t have that kind of fire in the belly that Koch had to do this and that Rudy Giuliani would have, and that Bloomberg would have.

There was also a bit of a fissure in his administration between being effective and trying to serve the people who elected him. But when we look ahead to what happens — the renewal of Times Square begins under him. “Safe Streets, Safe City” is passed, which lays the groundwork for one of the major sources of money that Giuliani is able to use to staff up the police department. A lot of the groundwork is there. But he was just never able to convince anyone that he really meant it.

One of the things that was surprising to me when he ran for re-election against Giuliani — there is this myth that nice liberals held their nose and voted for Rudy over Dinkins because they wanted a change. But looking at the vote breakdown, the numbers were pretty much the same. It was the turnout that killed Dinkins. In a lot of black communities, turnout was way down. In Staten Island, which had a secession vote on the ballot allowed by Governor Cuomo, there’s a huge boost in turnout. So you have depressed turnout in black neighborhoods and increased turnout in Staten Island, and you get Rudy Giuliani.

HW: One of the characters you introduced during the Koch-Dinkins years is Donald Trump. It struck me that in a lot of ways Trump learned his politics and his mode of discourse in New York City in the ’70s, in the ’80s, and never forgot it. Does that make sense to you?

TD: Absolutely. When the person who teaches you how to function in the city is Roy Cohn, you’re starting at a pretty frightening place. It all leads up to a person burning their way through the structure of democracy for their own needs and their own gains.

The other interesting thing about Trump to me was watching how he started. He was helped along by Brooklyn machine guys like Carey and Abe Beame. The fact that he got that first deal to redo the Commodore Hotel and turn it into the Grand Hyatt — this was actually a positive thing. It was a bit of a boondoggle, but it did flip the switch on that area and really started momentum for the move across 42nd Street. So I guess even a broken clock can be right twice a day.

HW: You say Rudy was essentially attempting to build “a city for the deserving who did what they were told.” That’s a pretty tough judgment. What’s your overall take on the Rudy years?

TD: There was very much a place where I needed to put my personal feelings aside and try to look at Rudy in a clear-eyed way. It’s important to keep in mind that when Rudy first shows up, he’s kind of a guy in a white hat. He’s the one guy who’s willing to go after Wall Street. He’s the one guy who brings down the pizza connection, mob stuff.

He’s kind of a fusion Republican and brought this kind of nonpartisan approach to things. And he did deliver on some of that. He delivered a leadership that we didn’t have under Dinkins. The biggest failing I would say of Dinkins was that sense of letting the city feel like it was out of control, even when it wasn’t. Giuliani made people feel that there was someone in control, and then he crosses the line when he decides to control New York. New York’s not a place that wants to be controlled, but it wants somebody in control of the thing.

I want to give Rudy credit for running the city at the beginning and in a way that was fresh and open to both sides. But that quickly shifts gears into something that is much more about maintaining order over people. This is the first time we start talking about identity politics and political correctness and multiculturalism — these catchwords we’re using now were all aflame in the ’90s. A lot of his political, policy things are tied in with the cultural things that are going on, and much of this is about maintaining control for the old white ethnic powers that are feeling very much under siege.

HW: One of the strands that you draw in the book throughout all of the mayoralties is this question of order versus disorder. There’s always a seesaw, and at some points people are looking more for one than the other. And then there’s a reversal. Rudy clearly is on the order side of things. You posit that by the end of the second term, people had had quite enough of it.

TD: Cities are like this — they need this switch back and forth between order and disorder. They need that energy that happens when, “Hey, here’s a big thing that’s up in the air, let’s put some order on it.” Or, “Let’s blow this thing up.” Wall Street becomes a massive gusher of wealth because it had been very circumscribed, very much a 9-to-5 thing. And then the Reagan era blows it up. All these different people introduce the unexpected into the markets again, and that creates a vast amount of wealth. What was orderly suddenly becomes disorderly. But what you can never do is try to create a city that is 100% orderly, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a computer model. It’s SimCity; it’s not a real place. Giuliani didn’t get that. I point out that a lot of the things that he talked about with his big civility push, things that everybody was up in arms about, like lower speed limits, were policies Bill de Blasio later put forward. They weren’t necessarily horrible things. But when you put them in a context of, “We’re going to give you five or six things that all happen to most impact people of color,” it’s destructive. Same when you tell people that they have to do these things to be better citizens, to be “civil,” which is a fraught word. You can have too much order.

HW: So he is leaving at the end of his term and New Yorkers have had their fill of him, and then 9/11 occurs, and everything changes at least for a time. Can you talk about the post-9/11 Rudy?

TD: Remember that the months before 9/11 were just crazy. Rudy was saying terrible things about people who’d been killed by the police. Then there’s the whole divorce. It became petty and venal and really unattractive, and we were ready to move on, and then 9/11 happens and somehow he transforms and steps into this role of being the city father. He was an amazing figure for this period. He goes to every wake and funeral; he’s present in such an important way. If only he’d been able to approach the previous eight years with that level of empathy, with that sense of unity, it would have been a remarkable period, because he had it in him somehow.

HW: David Axelrod, the Obama strategist, has a theory around politics. When it comes to chief executives, people look to correct the deficiencies of the predecessor. Often you get opposites: Koch replaces Beame; Dinkins replaces Koch; Giuliani replaces Dinkins. Looking back on it, New York City politics would have been very different absent 9/11. I think in a lot of ways, Freddy Ferrer was better positioned to win the Democratic primary than Mark Green, absent 9/11. The attack upended the political situation both in the primary and the general. So you have the election of Mike Bloomberg, which might not have happened absent 9/11. Talk about the Bloomberg years, recognizing that I’m clearly not objective.

TD: You’re right that the expectation for Bloomberg was that he was going to lose. Every prediction was that he was not going to win. So he won in a surprising way, which is also something Koch had. A lot of the people around him were connected to Koch, too. The sense of the city facing an urgent challenge was something those people understood. I think the most important thing he did getting out of the gate was bringing in the best people and re-creating a sense of service, reconnecting the business community that Giuliani did not really have much of a relationship with, to involve them again in the future of the city.

He did that by drawing on his own connections. It was a different paradigm of the city that he was bringing in — where he was the center point of every network. For all the pluses and minuses of that, it was made to look apolitical, but in fact it was a new kind of political, and it proved to be effective in some places. But in places where I think there might not have been as much personal investment or a sense that maybe this was something that was intractable, sometimes the ball got dropped. Sometimes he gave things to people who were given maybe more rope than they should have been, who should have been reined in much earlier than they eventually were.

HW: You talk about the city regaining its innocence after 9/11. I think that is a very underappreciated factor in the politics and the culture of the city after 9/11. There was this sense of unity and fraternity that was important in setting the tone for that decade.

TD: The wonderful writer Rebecca Solnit calls it a “disaster utopia.” We just clung to each other and did all that we could together. The nature of the pandemic is that you can’t do that. And that has been incredibly difficult — hanging out your window or banging a pot just isn’t the same as getting together with two other families, and going to the firehouse and contributing things.

I think that people were ready to get past the divisiveness of Rudy, but then when you threw in 9/11, we really were pushed together. Now, as time goes by, we hear more from communities of color who feel that they were treated unfairly over time. It became apparent that the security we were so focused on, or many of us were focused on, was built on unfairness to others. When you look at some of the things that the NYPD was doing over those years, what was the cost of that sense of unity?

HW: You briefly touch on Bill de Blasio, because the book really ends at the conclusion of the Bloomberg years. De Blasio in many ways is the reaction of Bloomberg — and his opposite. You’re pretty tough on de Blasio. When you look at the current field knowing what you know about New York City politics and mayoral elections, how do you imagine that the next couple of months might play out?

TD: De Blasio is the only one of these mayors who didn’t come in at a moment of emergency. The other four all walked in the door with people saying “the city’s going up in flames.” Sometimes literally. What crippled de Blasio was the inability to create an idea of one city, no matter how much he talked about Dickens. We need a mayor who is going to be able to ask New Yorkers individually to step up in their lives and look at how we work with each other, how we live with each other, how we contribute to the city in ways that aren’t just about tax revenue and flipping the switch in the ballot box. Which one of those mayoral candidates is that one hasn’t yet been made evident to me, but we’re watching and hoping.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Howard Wolfson has worked in New York politics for nearly 30 years and served as a deputy mayor to Mike Bloomberg from 2010 to 2013. He is currently a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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