The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment 
by Charles Morris.
Norton, 256 pp., £8.95, March 1981, 0 393 01339 1
Show More
Show More

There was a time when New York was a model to which other cities aspired. In more recent years, it has shared in the malaise that has struck most of the big cities of the central and eastern United States, and outsiders have come to look at it with a mixture of fascination and discomfort. The near-bankruptcy of the largest self-governing city in the industrialised world was certainly a circus worth watching, and, as many other American cities soon discovered, it could not be watched disinterestedly. The aversion of investors for bonds and notes issued by New York City soon spread to debt instruments issued by other city and state governments. It became all too obvious that this was not a circus, but a disease and that it was contagious.

Today, six years after New York’s financial crisis was precipitated by the refusal of the major New York City banks to underwrite one of the City’s routine bond issues, New York’s prospects seem healthier, and the lessons to be learned from its fiscal tightrope act seem more appropriate for less developed countries struggling with international bankers than for big cities elsewhere in the industrialised world. New York’s fiscal problems were seen to have arisen, however, at least in part because of the efforts of the City Government to deal with the social and economic problems that beset this city in the decade beginning in the mid-Sixties, and these problems and the solutions applied to them have a special relevance to the economic and racial problems of the major cities of the United Kingdom. The vast amount of publicity given to New York’s financial difficulties, and to the quite separate issue of crime on the streets, has largely obscured New York’s achievements in one area that is of crucial interest in this country today.

Between 1963 and 1968, there were serious riots in cities across the United States. In the earlier part of the period, New York seemed to be just as susceptible to them as any other city, perhaps more so. Its deteriorating neighbourhoods, overwhelmingly populated by minority groups suffering from very high levels of unemployment, seemed to be inevitable riot centres. Yet during the two worst years of American riots, 1967 and 1968, there were no riots in New York City. Nor has there been a riot in New York City since. That is certainly an achievement, but in itself hardly a prescription.

There is little enough agreement on why riots erupt: virtually nothing is offered on why, in communities where problems of crowding, poverty and racial tension are endemic, riots do not start. New York may not have found the preventive cure for rioting, but it was clear in those tumultuous long hot summers of the late Sixties that the City Government and the New York Police were doing something right. It is easy to forget that John Lindsay, still burdened with one of the most harshly negative public reputations among American political figures, was hailed in 1968 as the politician of the future, the man who had kept the city cool and who offered hope that the liberal experiment for the renaissance of the inner city could succeed. The ambitions certainly exceeded the achievements, but the achievements were tangible, and they are worth looking at.

When the Commission for Racial Equality released copies of the written evidence it submitted to the Scarman inquiry into the Brixton riots, the most widely-quoted message, as reported in the Times, was that ‘Britain has been slow to learn the lessons of the American race riots’ and, unless urgent preventive action is taken, ‘can count the days to the next Brixton’. Images of America in the mid-Sixties are immediately brought to mind. The Civil Rights movement was moving to the North in full force and becoming radicalised. As Morris writes, ‘the civil rights leadership seemed to expect economic parity with whites, or something approaching it, to follow closely upon the achievement of full legal equality. When no such decisive change was immediately apparent, the failure was taken as evidence that racism was more deeply rooted than anyone had suspected, and the movement quickly radicalised. The riot in 1965 in Watts, a black neighbourhood of Los Angeles, for example, was termed a “manifesto” in quite respectable circles.’ Charles Silberman, an editor of Fortune, recommended, in his influential Crisis in Black and White, the Saul Alinsky technique of ‘rubbing raw the sores of discontent’. Change would almost certainly be accompanied by violence, Silberman wrote. Nor was it intellectuals alone who saw violence as the logical outcome of the social and economic conditions in the cities. Lyndon Johnson, as Morris says, was ‘only one of many politicians to justify new programmes – almost any new programmes – by the need to forestall riots, which by 1967 seemed to be viewed almost as a reasonable mode of expression’. Hubert Humphrey announced that if he had to put up with conditions in the slums he ‘would lead a mighty good revolt’.

It was, and is, easy to accept as a logical construct the proposition that once social, economic and racial conditions in an urban environment have deteriorated to a certain point rioting will ensue. This proposition spurs the liberal instinct to try to relieve unbearable conditions and at the same time provides a justification of sorts for those who rebel. It is, however, a trap. It has become quite clear from the example of the major American cities that there is no specific link between the level of environmental pressure and the incidence of rioting. The fact that Lindsay guided New York through the hot summers without rioting, or that there have been no serious riots in the intervening decade, cannot be ascribed to a significant improvement in the overall conditions of life in the urban ghetto. Although one may be out of sympathy with the motivation of those who have pointed out that the residents of the poorer neighbourhoods in Glasgow did not riot, while those in Brixton and Toxteth did, the observation is far from irrelevant. If the principal justification for taking governmental action to improve living conditions in the poorer sections of cities is to avert the threat of riot, the impulse to improve conditions will slacken sharply in the absence of an immediately perceived threat of riots. The even more perverse consequence is that rioting becomes institutionalised: local communities feel that they must riot in order to inspire positive government action. The perversity lies in the fact that in the great majority of all riots it is the rioters who are hurt and killed, and their neighbourhoods, stores and homes which are destroyed.

The Sixties gave Americans a greater opportunity than they wished for to study the anatomy of riots. Much of what they learned suggested that urban riots, once under way, have little to do with causes or protests. This does not mean that social and economic conditions have nothing important to do with riots. They have a great deal to do with the possibility of riots: there are not many riots in middle-class garden suburbs. Morris, while hesitant about making generalisations, offers a description of a hypothetical riot: ‘A disturbance could begin as a serious protest but easily transform into a rampage. A crowd would gather; someone would throw a rock through a window; more windows would be broken; some teenagers would start to loot; when there were no reprisals, adults would gradually join in; and the next morning would see old ladies with shopping carts scavenging through the debris.’ He quotes an observer: ‘Within a one-hour period of time, a person might walk from a bar or a residence to the scene of a street arrest; chat with friends and acquaintances; curse the police; make a pass at a girl; throw a rock at a departing police car; light someone’s cigarette; run down the street and join others in rocking and overturning a car; watch someone set the car on fire; drink a can of looted beer; assist firemen in extinguishing a fire as it spreads to an apartment house.’ The extensive rioting and looting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, although ostensibly a spontaneous expression of outrage, in some areas quickly lost its focus. One youth, asked why he was rioting, is reported to have said: ‘Because what’s-his-name was killed.’ Another rioter shouted that it was ‘early Easter shopping’.

The New York response to riots, or rather to potential riots, is instructive. It was a response at two levels – from the City Government and from the Police – which seemed instinctively to avoid the major errors of government and police in other cities. Certainly no one had assumed before the mid-Sixties that either Lindsay or the New York Police Department had any special qualifications for riot control. Perhaps it was just good luck mixed with some good judgment that made the difference.

Lindsay was by instinct a government leader who wanted to be where the action was. He was the very antithesis of the permanent civil servant planning and working at a considerable remove from the local communities. He surrounded himself with people who acted as his ‘ears’ in the local communities. Such unlikely types as the mobster Joey Gallo, James Lawson, a Harlem hustler with a long police record, and two black militants, Charles 13X Smith and Charles 39X Kenyatta, were only a few among many who brought news of discontent in ghetto neighbourhoods directly to the attention of the Mayor. When it looked as though particular neighbourhoods would explode on hot steamy days, city resources would be diverted to try to head off trouble. Buses would arrive and local youth leaders would organise groups to go to the beach for the day – anything to get idle people off the streets. If things looked particularly serious, the Mayor and his top aides would go into the neighbourhood, walking through the streets, talking to the community leaders with whom the Mayor had built up contact. What started out as a largely instinctive ad hoc response to specific pressure gradually became institutionalised. The occasional bus to the beach organised by a mayoral aide became part of a summer-long recreational and community action programme operated by an Urban Task Force, a new and highly un-traditional City department.

Useful as this approach was in heading off potential riots, it might well have been of no avail had the New York Police Department not adopted an equally sensitive approach. The New York Police had much in common with their counterparts in other major American cities. The bulk of the Force was white and middle-class, with a long-standing reputation for thinly-veiled antipathy towards the black and Hispanic residents of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods. The opportunity was clearly present for sustained neighbourhood warfare against the Police. On the surface, the Police appeared to be ready for warfare. The standard tactic when a riot threatened was to bring in the Tactical Patrol Force: a military-type solution to what was obviously seen as a military situation. Much is often made of the fact that American policemen carry firearms and certainly the Tactical Patrol Force was armed; in fact, however, its tactics in riot control were fairly similar to those of the Special Patrol Group.

Large numbers of police facing large crowds of angry people could only lead to trouble. The police leaders were lucky or smart enough to realise fairly quickly that the neighbourhood militants were looking for confrontation. Discomfort or distress over particular or general issues might not on their own lead to a riot, but the addition of a large number of police, and particularly the unfamiliar police of the Tactical Patrol Force, could easily turn a protest into a riot. Their solution was to try to avoid confrontation and, paradoxically, to use substantially more police. The basic strategy was to send small numbers of local police, known to the community, through the streets, generally with the Mayor’s aides and other representatives of the City Government. At a distance, but in view, large numbers of police, as many as five or six hundred, would be kept in reserve, a reminder that although the small number of police actually on the street could not provoke a confrontation, they were also untouchable. During hot evenings, when problems flared up all over the city, the logistics of this strategy were complicated. Police were ferried in large numbers from one part of the city to another all night long. As they moved, they were briefed on what was happening in the neighbourhood they were approaching. They were cautioned to keep cool, avoid confrontation and remember that they were professionals. The ratio of command to staff was, in tense situations, very high: a sergeant or lieutenant would be allotted to every five patrolmen. The response of the New York Police was not the predominant American response, however. Many people, particularly those who were not urban slum-dwellers, preferred the tougher tactics employed by Chicago’s Mayor Daley and, more recently, by the police in Miami. These were the tactics which produced the war-zone death tolls that were seen in Los Angeles, Newark and Detroit.

Maintaining a semblance of peace in the urban ghettos was a notable achievement, but hardly a sufficient end. Lindsay’s Government was committed to a wide range of anti-poverty programmes intended to integrate the urban poor, both socially and economically, with the rest of the city. The traditional City approach to programmes aimed at the poor (and the city had had many poor for many years) was that the city’s civil servants framed, implemented and ran them. Late in the administration of Lindsay’s predecessor Robert Wagner, there had been some notably unsuccessful efforts at incorporating community participation in anti-poverty programmes. Lindsay, and his young mayoral aides, all newcomers to the day-to-day management of City affairs, were committed to active community participation in matters affecting local neighbourhoods and employment programmes for the poor.

In the face of the very high, perhaps unrealistic, expectations accompanying Lindsay’s programmes, the very visible failure of many of the initial efforts to let minority and neighbourhood groups control those programmes designed for their benefit was disappointing. The largely white professional staff at the centre was soon at sea trying to cope with the increasingly militant representatives of the neighbourhoods. Part of the problem was certainly that the new agency was not limited in its activity to registering community protests and soliciting community involvement in planning, but was principally involved in distributing money, and furthermore in distributing money to community groups who had not previously been receiving money. There was little or no precedent to determine which groups should receive funding or how much they should receive. It was not clear who spoke for whom or for how many.

Lindsay was manifestly less excited about the possibilities of community participation after the first experiments floundered, but community participation did not go away. Throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies community participation gradually permeated the City Government, particularly in the area of planning capital projects. The focus on community involvement shifted somewhat from its almost exclusive concentration on the minority groups and anti-poverty programmes to encompass middle-class neighbourhoods as well.

The push for community participation was successful only to a limited extent in promoting leaders within the neighbourhoods, It was extremely difficult to distinguish demagoguery from leadership. City officials learned that too much reliance on self-proclaimed leaders could backfire. The infrastructure which would normally be expected to support a community leader – whether it be a church, or an existing community, political or economic organisation – was too often not to be found. Gradually some leaders did get to a position where they could draw support from their communities thanks to their ability to channel City or Federal benefits back into the community, but they were almost certainly not a majority of those who set themselves up as leaders. On the other hand, both a direct and indirect result of the mid-Sixties push towards community involvement was that large numbers of minority groups became City, State and Federal employees.

The positive effects of Lindsay’s efforts to involve the neighbourhoods in the government of the City have been obscured by the popular assumption in New York City that these were expensive ‘giveaway’ projects which ultimately led to the City’s financial collapse. Morris’s extremely valuable analysis of the way the City spent its money during Lindsay’s years dispels this notion. The City did make greater financial commitments in some areas, particularly its municipal hospital system and its City university system, than it could afford, but the money spent on community programmes was, for all the publicity it attracted, limited and affordable. In the early years, substantial Federal funding backed the City’s contributions; and throughout the Lindsay period spending on anti-poverty programmes never exceeded the sums spent during his predecessor’s administration.

Lindsay himself is now reviled in New York, where conditions for many blacks and Puerto Ricans are arguably as bad today as they were at any time in the past. Yet the liberal experiment changed the City’s attitude towards its problems, perhaps irrevocably; certainly the policy of confrontation has largely disappeared. The City has had to learn that improvements in political and social integration do not automatically lead to an improvement in economic and environmental conditions – a lesson that may have to be learned here as well. In New York in the meantime community participation in a City government of lowered expectations seems to have quietly become a permanent fixture.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences