Not-So-Fun City

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By Dan Rivoli

The most striking image of the John Lindsay exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is a blown-up New York Times Magazine cover from 1973. The cover is a photo of Lindsay’s face that shows how events during his seven years as mayor of New York City ravaged his youthful looks: a white line connects welfare to his grayed temples; the 1969 Queens snowstorm put a crease around his mouth; the long, hot summer of 1966 deepened the frown lines on his forehead.

This picture, shown in the exhibit, was taken in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the day after John Lindsay won his mayoral race. Lindsay was an ardent civil rights supporter in Congress.

America’s Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York is, ostensibly, a look at a mayor who was chosen to lead the city out of urban decay, only to see it split apart. But the exhibit, accompanied by a book edited by New York Times reporter Sam Roberts and an hour-long PBS documentary, paints a portrait of a changing city that rarely gets explored in this much detail.

The late 1970s is arguably the most romanticized time of modern New York City—especially 1977, the year of the Koch v. Cuomo mayor’s race, punk rock, disco, Son of Sam, the blackout, arson, the riots and the fiscal mess. Still, the Lindsay era, spanning 1966-1973, has some responsibility for the Koch era—for better or for worse.

“He comes in the midst of a wave in the process of transforming New York,” Sarah Henry, the exhibit’s curator, said of Lindsay. “There was a sense that a change was going to come.”

Lindsay’s two terms in office coincide neatly with what we think of as “The Sixties,” the 10 years from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s that recalls student protests, Berkley and hippies.

But in New York City, Lindsay, a liberal Upper East Side Republican who served in Congress before City Hall, had to address the problems that old Democratic politics didn’t solve. The exhibit shows how his policies seemed to inflame and alienate segments of the city, especially white middle-class New Yorkers. Campaign paraphernalia, tabloid headlines, television reports and photographs illustrate the fever pitch over civil rights policies, labor relations and Lindsay’s social programs that earned him the derisive title “limousine liberal.”

Henry also acknowledges how the Lindsay administration physically changed New York City with zoning rules to create European-influenced street cafes and pedestrian-friendly blocks. Maps, scale models and pictures of Lindsay studying development plans show his thumbprint on the city, including the Theater District and South Street Seaport.

Before the exhibit opened, historians were skeptical, anticipating a whitewash of Lindsay’s career, which sputtered to an end after lackluster campaigns for president and U.S. Senate.

But Henry doesn’t quite let Lindsay get the last word. His claim that New York was still a “fun city” or his supporters’ insistence that he kept the city’s racial tensions “cool” never overshadow her portrayal of New York in the middle of a tumultuous transformation.

“We wanted to use the lens of his mayoralty as a window,” Henry said, “into society, culture and politics.”


Through Oct. 3, Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave. near 103rd Street, 212-534-1672; $6 to $10.

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