Lindsay's Legacy. On The City. And Me

When John V. Lindsay was a charismatic young Republican Congressman from Manhattan's Upper East Side and ran for Mayor in the fall of 1965, I was a student at Richmond Hill High School in Queens. At that time, the nation was still traumatized by the assassination of John Kennedy only two years before; and many New Yorkers felt Lindsay could provide the same kind of progressive leadership for the city that Kennedy had given the nation.

To the extent I could as a high school student, I shared this enthusiasm. Lindsay was my entry into politics and government as something noble, as a calling for the public good, rather than for individual greed or selfishness. My admiration for the man was probably similar what of many young people feel for President Barack Obama today.

In any event, I volunteered for the Lindsay campaign that fall, making phone calls and handing out leaflets. I even met the candidate on several occasions during the campaign. I remember his handsome face, at the center of which was his mega-watt smile.

The highlight of the campaign for me was the debate between Lindsay and his two opponents — William F. Buckley and Abraham Beame — before a packed auditorium at my high school! Lindsay sparkled, even as Buckley, known for his verbal acuity, ran rhetorical circles around both of his opponents.

The handsome young Republican was elected, of course, and assembled a remarkable group of progressive young officials to staff his administration. New York faced an exceptional set of challenges during Lindsay's two terms, including white flight and racial strife, but even as Newark and other American cities faced catastrophic riots during that troubled era, Lindsay helped keep the lid on things here by walking the streets of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Lindsay's administration promoted a number of innovations that we take for granted today, including creation of the city's first urban design office and street closings for pedestrians and bicycles.

But Lindsay's legacy is not all positive. His administration arguably had a certain naïveté that led them to overlook or to not confront substantive problems that developed or worsened on their watch, including labor and fiscal troubles and the decline of the city's parks and transit system.

Whatever his legacy, it's time for a look back on it and an impressive series of events is doing just that. They include a major retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York, a PBS documentary on Channel 13 and several symposia. You can decide for yourself whether the Lindsay legacy is a glass half-empty or half-full. As for me, I've retained my deep reverence for John Lindsay and all that he did to sustain New York's greatness during troubled times.