Strange Times in New York

Our first entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest considers “A New Season,” the contest theme, through an examination of New York City Mayor John Lindsey’s creative attempts to reshape the public sector. The city, in the midst “of social, economic, and political distress” during the 1970s, presented an opportunity for a new season of “wild experimentation.” 

By Ryan Donovan Purcell

It was difficult to believe such a story at first. I rechecked my sources multiple times, and it was clear. In the summer of 1973 New York City Mayor John Lindsay announced a program to privatize the NYPD. I found the story strange not because of New York’s historically tenacious municipal unions. Transportation, sanitation and education disputes riddled Lindsay’s mayoral career. The police were no different. Nor was the weirdness of this story due to the fact that Lindsay himself was such an unusual politician. As the first Republican Mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay was quite progressive—a social democrat in all but name.

Lindsay NYT

What made this story so bizarre was that it read like a science fiction plot of that era.[1] Films like Soylent Green (1973) presented New York as it might appear in the near future. Set in 2022, Soylent Green shows us a city that is falling apart. The city’s dilapidated infrastructure and housing have long since served its swollen population, now 40 million. Most New Yorkers live on the streets, homeless and unemployed. The lucky few with jobs survive on rations produced and distributed by the Soylent Corporation. Public services are virtually non-existent. The subways don’t run; the water doesn’t work. The NYPD barely hangs on as an impotent remnant of the city’s forgotten past. Detective Frank Thorn, the story’s central protagonist, has a two-year backlog of unsolved murders, which is characteristic of the public sector’s inefficiency more broadly. In this narrative, a private corporation supplants the role of the government in sustaining a population— in this case through food manufactured from the bodies of populace itself.

Soylent Green Still 1
Soylent Green (1973)
Soylent Green Still 2
Trailer for Soylent Green (1973): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_jGOKYHxaQ&t=18s

And it is hard to separate this depiction from the actual physical condition of New York in the 1970s. Housing literally disintegrated. Residents were denied basic public utilities. New York’s park system and roads were in ruins. To many, graffiti that began to mark subway trains in the early 1970s signaled the end of times.

Lower Manhattan May 1973
Lower Manhattan, May 1973. Wil Blanche/NARA
Alphabet City ca 1970
Alphabet City, ca. 1970
SoBro ca 1975 1
South Bronx ca. 1975, Joe Conzo Jr.
SoBro ca 1975 2
South Bronx ca. 1975, Joe Conzo Jr.

Escape From New York (1981) envisions a slightly different urban history set in 1997. In this film, the U.S. government converts Manhattan Island into the country’s largest maximum-security prison following a 400% increase in crime during the 1980s. Here, New York’s municipal government is absent—conceivably relocated to the urban periphery. An organized criminal government has emerged in its place. The city, in this way, functions less like a prison than a separate country ruled by inmates. The city is in ruins, and as in Soylent Green, public services do not exist. When a terrorist attack aboard Air Force One forces the President of the United States to crash-land in Manhattan, the police commissioner hires a private contractor to perform the rescue, not the police or even the military.

Escape from NY
Escape from New York (1981): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckvDo2JHB7o

Oddly enough, these films contextualize Mayor John Lindsay’s crime policy. From 1966 (the year that Lindsay took office) to 1974 (when Mayor Abe Beame assumed office) New York City’s crime index increased 49.5%–not quite the 400% imagined in Escape from New York.[2] Struggling to manage a dwindling municipal budget, the Lindsay administration experimented with ways of improving public sector productivity while cutting operating costs.[3] The 1973 proposal to privatize the police was one such experiment that nearly took hold. The initial phase would be implemented gradually. It called for a fifty-man private security force to supplement the municipal anticrime effort in Midtown. Armed with walkie-talkies, and some with guns, contractors were not authorized to make arrests, but would act as surveillance units with direct communication with the police, reporting trouble or suspicion. The plan also employed private building workers, superintendents, and doormen who would use code numbers to preserve their identities. At first the force would be assigned to follow police beats from 42nd to 59th Streets, between Second and Seventh Avenues, from 6pm to 1am. Upon successful implementation of the initial phase, the program would expand, and ultimately encompass all five boroughs. “This is a very important development,” Lindsay declared at the inaugural ceremony in front of the Time-Life building on 6th Avenue and 50th Street. A formation of armed security contractors stood behind him. “[T]he involvement of the public is essential in fighting crime,” he continued. “The worst thing that can happen is an apathetic public. Here we have proof of an aware public.”[4]

Garry Winogrand
Garry Winogrand, Mayor John Lindsay with New York City Police, 1969, printed 1970s

The Association for a Better New York, a consortium of New York-based corporations, pledged an “open checkbook” to finance the program, according to chair Lewis Rudin. “We have come to realize that the proliferation of crime— specifically crime against persons—is what is hurting our city more than anything else,” Rudin explained at the ceremony. “We have decided than an all-out commitment of our resources to stop crime is mandatory if we want to make New York better.” It made sense to see the executive leadership of the Building Owners and Managers Association standing next to Rudin on the speaker’s platform. It must have been strange, however, to see Sanford Garelik, former NYPD chief inspector, and representatives from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “The fact that we are using the security guards in this fashion is not to be construed as criticism of the police,” Rubin qualified. “We worked with the police in setting this up and will continue to coordinate our activities with the police.”

Others were less reserved. To Alton G. Marshall, president of Rockefeller Center Inc. and former executive secretary to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Lindsay’s program signaled a turn toward more effective city governance. The blustery ex-Marine could hardly contain his excitement while talking to reporters after the ceremony: “This is the kind of attitude the city has wallowed in for years—let the government do.” His animated bushy brows punctuated his speech from behind his iconic thick wide-framed glasses. “There is no reason, for instance why 30,000 private security people can’t be organized to supplement the police,” he said, adding, “At Rockefeller Center we have our own security force.”

Alton Marshall
Alton Marshall at Rockfeller Center, 1979 (NYT– http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/26/nyregion/26marshall.html

Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD never fully materialized. That spring, after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, he announced that he would not run for a third term as Mayor. Democrat Abe Beame, who was elected mayor in November, did not renew Lindsay’s program. In October 1973, the Arab oil embargo began to shock the American economy, nudging New York City along a path of fiscal insolvency. By June 1975 the city had run out of cash and it nearly declared bankruptcy.

This story struck me as so unusual because it was like an urban dystopian fiction that could have become very real. And in some ways it did. The principal architect of the privatization program, Lindsay’s deputy administrator E.S. Savas, went on to found the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership that continues to steward the park. By 1980, he was advocating privatization on a federal level as Assistant Secretary of HUD during President Reagan’s first term. Where else might we find the legacy of these initiatives?

“The seventies,” Kim Phillips-Fein suggests in Fear City, “marked the moment before the rise of neoliberal New York, the emergence of Donald Trump, the stock market’s climb—a time when New York (and America) still felt open, when one could dream of a different future in a way that no longer seems possible.”[5] To make sense of Lindsay’s plan to privatize the NYPD we might say that it was a product of this feeling of “openness” and “possibility.” We might say that it emerged out of a particular cultural logic, of which the films Soylent Green, Escape from New York, and the advent of subway graffiti were part. Each was a product of wild experimentation during a time of social, economic, and political distress. The fabric of American culture was in flux, and New Yorkers struggled to recreate meaning through new ideas, cultural forms and ways of life—some of which remain with us, while others are forgotten. If nothing else, however, this story illustrates the fact that sometimes history can be just as strange as fiction.

Ryan Donovan Purcell is a history PhD candidate at Cornell University, where he studies 20th century American popular culture and urban history. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, College Art Association, and Hyperallergic, among other venues.

[1] For more discussion on 1970s New York and film see: Stanley Corkin, Starring New York: Filming the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s (Oxford UP: 2011); Carlo Rotella, Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (U. Cal. Press: 2002), chapter 3 particularly analyzes the depiction of New York’s “grittiness” in 1970s film.

[2] According the FBI crime reporting statistics, NYC’s crime index increased from 609, 465 in 1966 to 911, 703 in 1974– https://www.ucrdatatool.gov/Search/Crime/State/StatebyState.cfm?NoVariables=Y&CFID=228455794&CFTOKEN=d3af00ce1132c6dc-64C8B77D-C426-E0B9-CAA10D5FA4F7661D.

[3] See David Rogers, “Management versus Bureaucracy,” and Charles R. Morris, “Of Budgets, Taxes, and the Rise of a New Plutocracy,” in Joseph P. Viteritti ed, Summer in the City: John Lindsay and the American Dream (John Hopkins U. Press, 2014)

[4] Murray Schumach, “Private Security Guards to Join Midtown Patrols,” NYT, June 8 1973

[5] Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and The Rise of Austerity Politics (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2017): p. 307

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