New York’s first black mayor David Dinkins dies aged 93

Democrat took over troubled city in 1990 and was criticised for racial violence in Crown Heights

David Dinkins marching at the front of the 29th annual African-American Day Parade in Harlem, flanked by Al Sharpton and Ruth Messinger, in 1997. Photograph: Michael Schmelling/AP

David Dinkins marching at the front of the 29th annual African-American Day Parade in Harlem, flanked by Al Sharpton and Ruth Messinger, in 1997. Photograph: Michael Schmelling/AP

 

David Dinkins, a barber’s son who became New York City’s first black mayor on the wings of racial harmony but who was turned out by voters after one term in a storm of criticism over his handling of four days of racial violence in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, died on Monday night at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by mayor Bill de Blasio. It came less than two months after Dinkins’s wife, Joyce, died.

Cautious, deliberate, a Harlem Democrat who climbed to City Hall through relatively minor elective and appointive offices, Dinkins had none of the flamboyance of Edward Koch, who preceded him, or Rudolph Giuliani, who succeeded him – and who, along with Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s and ’40s, were arguably the city’s most popular and successful mayors of the 20th century.

Indeed, many historians and political experts say that as the 106th mayor of New York, from 1990-93, Dinkins suffered by comparison with the Gullivers bestriding him.

He was a compromise selection for voters exhausted with racial strife, corruption, crime and fiscal turmoil, historians say, and proved to be an able caretaker rather than an innovator of grand achievements.

He inherited huge budget deficits that grew larger. He faced some of the worst crime problems in the city’s history and dealt with them by expanding the police to record levels. He kept city libraries open, revitalised Times Square and rehabilitated housing in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. But the racial amity that was his fondest hope remained a distant dream, and his lapses in responding to the Crown Heights crisis became an insurmountable legacy.

Elder statesman

Secure in history as the city’s first black mayor, Dinkins became a quiet elder statesman in later years, teaching at Columbia University, hosting a radio talk show on WLIB and attending receptions, dinners and ceremonies. He was consulted occasionally by mayor Michael Bloomberg and others occupying or seeking office, but was more low key than Koch or Giuliani, who were among his severest critics.

In a 2013 memoir, Dinkins acknowledged missteps during his term, including a failure to contain race riots in Crown Heights in 1991, for which he largely blamed his police commissioner, and his refusal to break a prolonged black boycott of a Korean-owned grocery store in Brooklyn in 1990. But he ascribed the narrowness of his victory in the 1989 mayoral election, and his defeat four years later, not to missteps but to the fact that he was black.

“I think it was just racism, pure and simple,” Dinkins said in A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic, written with Peter Knobler. He liked to call New Yorkers a “gorgeous mosaic,” and in a city where the ideals of the melting pot had often been at odds with the realities of racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, he saw himself as a conciliator who, with patience and dignity, might subdue the passions of multicultural neighbourhoods.

It sounded plausible in the violent election year of 1989. A white woman jogging in Central Park had been raped and savagely beaten and a band of black and Hispanic youths arrested. A black teenager had been accosted by whites and shot dead in Brooklyn. The city, plagued by drugs and homelessness, lurched from crisis to crisis. The mayoral campaign itself seemed on the brink of racial schism.

Koch, the incumbent Democrat regarded by many black residents as insensitive to their interests, was seeking an unprecedented fourth term after years of divisive politics and corruption scandals that had ballooned around him. Giuliani, a former US attorney in Manhattan and the fusion Republican-Liberal candidate, conveyed the pugnaciousness of a law-and-order prosecutor.

Wooden

Dinkins was viewed as an uninspiring alternative. His style was ponderous and scripted; even supporters called him wooden. He was 62 and the Manhattan borough president, a post won on his third try. For 10 years he had been the city clerk, a patronage appointee who kept marriage licences and municipal records. Long ago he had been a one-term state assemblyman.

There were questions about his personal finances. He had failed to file tax returns for four years. His political base did not reach far beyond Harlem, where he had been a clubhouse fixture for 25 years. And he had close ties to the Rev Jesse Jackson, who had rankled Jews by calling New York “Hymietown”.

But to a city fed up with racial strife and chronic crime, Dinkins offered himself as a peacemaker, and one who would aid the poor and balance budgets by spreading the pain. He delivered his message in a gentleman’s voice laced with quaint phrases like “bless your heart”, “pray tell” and “one ought to think so”.

He looked cool, even in the yellow heat of August. He was tall, slender and impeccably neat, with short gray hair and a trim moustache. He played tennis and habitually showered and changed clothes two or three times a day. He sometimes wore windbreakers, but usually turned out in elegant double-breasted suits made to order in Chinatown. He had four tuxedos, and used them often.

Historic election

Cobbling together a fragile coalition of labour unions, liberals and minorities, Dinkins soundly beat Koch in the primary and, in a city dominated by Democrats, defeated Giuliani in November by one of the narrowest mayoral margins of the century.

Former New York City mayor David Dinkins died on Monday, aged 93. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP
Former New York City mayor David Dinkins died on Monday, aged 93. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

The election signified a historic change in a city where non-Hispanic whites, though still dominant economically, were no longer a majority. And New York became the last of the nation’s 10 largest cities to elect a black mayor. On January 1st, 1990, Dinkins was sworn in before a jubilant crowd of 12,000 in City Hall Park.

“I stand before you today as the elected leader of the greatest city of a great nation, to which my ancestors were brought, chained and whipped in the hold of a slave ship,” he said. “We have not finished the journey toward liberty and justice, but surely we have come a long way.”

But the city was in trouble. Real estate and financial booms that had fuelled its growth in the 1980s were over. The deepest local recession since the Great Depression had cut jobs and tax revenues and left a municipal budget hole of $1.8 billion. Homeless people occupied the streets. Aids, heroin and crack cocaine were epidemic. Murders surpassed 1,900 a year. To the rest of the nation, the city of skyscrapers and soaring hopes seemed a cesspool of urban decay.

With federal aid to cities off significantly, Dinkins first wavered over a $28 billion budget, then cut spending for health, education, housing, social services and programmes for children, and older and poor people. He also raised taxes by $800 million, the largest increase in city history. (He helped bring the 1992 Democratic National Convention to New York, trying to replenish city coffers, but it was no panacea.)

Dinkins picked the most diverse range of agency leaders in history. Two women became deputy mayors, and others were named commissioners of investigations, finance, parks, human resources and housing. He appointed the city’s first Puerto Rican fire commissioner and a black, openly gay psychiatrist as mental health commissioner. As police commissioner he chose Lee Brown, a black veteran of the Atlanta and Houston forces.

It was a strong-willed cabinet of goads, gadflies and bureaucrats, and there were interagency squabbles and rivalries that the mayor seemed unable to control. Deputy mayors feuded openly, and Dinkins allowed it. Norman Steisel, the first deputy mayor, was nominally in charge, but major decisions had to be cleared by deputy mayor Bill Lynch jnr, the top political adviser. Intrigue and gridlock resulted.

Polished gentility

By summer 1990, Dinkins was on the defensive, reacting to a series of chilling crimes, including children killed in random shootings related to gangs and drugs. The mayor found himself under pressure to respond, but said he was waiting for Brown’s report on overhauling his department.

Then a young tourist from Utah was stabbed to death as he tried to protect his mother from a subway mugger. Outrage ensued. Editorials called the mayor ineffectual and suggested that the city was suffering a morale crisis. Finally, in October, a shaken Dinkins offered a barrage of anti-crime proposals, including a record expansion of the police and a plan to return officers to neighbourhood beats. “We will not wage war by degree,” he said, calling for thousands of new officers to bring department strength to 42,400.

Controversy also swirled around his failure to resolve a black boycott of a Korean grocery in Brooklyn. It began when a Haitian American woman said a store worker had insulted and assaulted her. The owner said the woman had not paid for groceries.

A black crowd defended her, and the confrontation widened into a boycott that went on for months, with protests, rallies and threats. Diplomacy went nowhere. The contretemps finally faded and the grocery was sold. But the mayor, who had gone on television to appeal for racial tolerance, fared badly, so reluctant to offend either side that he had alienated both.

“It may well be that I waited an overly long time to take this step,” Dinkins wrote in his memoir, referring to his televised appeal for tolerance, “but I had faith in the court system and in the rationality of people to come to satisfactory conclusions among themselves. I may have been wrong on both counts.”

Racial problems surfaced again in Brooklyn in summer 1991. A dozen bias-related episodes erupted in Canarsie, a predominantly white neighbourhood, including attacks on black people and the firebombing of a white-owned real estate office. As civil liberties groups marched in protest, the mayor met with community leaders. He tried to walk a fine line, denouncing bigotry but avoiding phrases that might taint the community as racist. It sounded tepid.

Chaos in Crown Heights

The events that came to symbolise the failures and ultimate downfall of the Dinkins administration unfolded in August 1991 in Crown Heights, a neighbourhood of Black Caribbean Americans and Hasidic Jews who had long been at loggerheads.

The trouble began when a car driven by a Hasidic Jew, part of the entourage of the Lubavitcher grand rebbe (rabbi), Menachem M Schneerson, struck and killed Gavin Cato, a black 7-year-old. Hours later, in apparent retaliation, a mob of black teenagers surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar from Australia, who was fatally stabbed.

Rioting and fights flared over four days. Stores were looted and dozens of residents and police officers were injured. The outbreak ended only after Dinkins acknowledged police failures and ordered more effective tactics to quell the violence.

There was no evidence that Dinkins had restrained the police from protecting Hasidic Jews from marauding black residents, as some Jews charged. Indeed, he had visited Rosenbaum on his deathbed and confronted angry members of a black crowd who had hurled bottles at him. But he was widely criticised for not moving quickly enough. Even Dinkins conceded that the police had failed to suppress the violence for three days. Jews denounced the mayor for months, and that was hardly the end of the matter.

In 1992, a black teenager charged with killing Rosenbaum was acquitted in a jury trial, touching off more protests. Dinkins was vilified for not repudiating the verdict. Meanwhile, black residents of Crown Heights accused the mayor of pandering to the Hasidim. The mayor went on television to answer his critics and defend his handling of the crisis. He also went to Crown Heights to appeal for harmony.

But as Dinkins sought re-election in 1993, a state report concluded that he had been slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation, failed to question police commanders assertively and did not act decisively until the fourth day to switch tactics and end the violence.

Mayor David Dinkins and mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani outside City Hall a day after election day in 1993. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images
Mayor David Dinkins and mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani outside City Hall a day after election day in 1993. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

Giuliani, riding a groundswell of voter disaffection, narrowly defeated Dinkins in November, winning white neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, in Queens and on Staten Island; the Republican vote; and Democrats alienated by Crown Heights and other race-related events. Some Dinkins supporters said he had always been held to a different standard because of his race. But if he believed that, he never said so publicly.

Haunted

Long after his defeat, Dinkins remained haunted by Crown Heights. Hasidic leaders accused him and the city in a lawsuit of failing to protect them during the riots. It was settled by the Giuliani administration in 1998 for $1.1 million, and Giuliani, in a clear slap at Dinkins, apologised for the city’s “clearly inadequate response” to the crisis. Dinkins, who was not held personally liable for damages, called the settlement blatantly political.

But in a gesture of conciliation, Dinkins invited Giuliani to dine with him. “As much as we disagree,” he said, “I extend to him my hand in brotherhood.”

Giuliani refused. Dinkins, in his memoir, denounced Giuliani as “a cold, unkind person” who practised “the politics of boundless ambition without the guidance of a set of core beliefs or the humility and restraint of experience”.

He recalled that comedian Jackie Mason, who supported Giuliani in the 1993 election, called Dinkins a “fancy schvartze”, using a derogatory Yiddish term for black people. He was “essentially calling me a nigger”, Dinkins wrote. He said that Giuliani’s underlying campaign message was: “The city is in terrible financial straits. Do you really want a black man presiding over it in this time of trouble?”

Trenton to Harlem

David Norman Dinkins was born in Trenton, New York, on July 10th, 1927, the son of Sally and William Harvey Dinkins jnr, who had moved from Virginia the previous year. His parents separated when he was in the first grade (they later divorced), and he and his younger sister, Joyce, moved to Harlem with their mother, who worked as a dollar-a-day domestic servant.

The children soon returned to Trenton to live with their father and his new wife, Lottie Hartgell. David was a good student, particularly in Latin, at Trenton Central High School. After graduating in 1945, he served briefly in the army, but transferred to the marine corps and spent most of his 13-month hitch at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. Discharged in August 1946, he enrolled at the historically black Howard University in Washington on the GI Bill of Rights, majored in mathematics and graduated with honours in 1950.

At Howard, he met Joyce Burrows, a sociology major whom he married in 1953 after her graduation. They had two children, David jnr and Donna. Joyce Dinkins died in October at 89. Dinkins is survived by his children, two grandchildren and his sister, Joyce Belton. – New York Times

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