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A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic

A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic

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by David N. Dinkins

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How did a scrawny black kid—the son of a barber and a domestic who grew up in Harlem and Trenton—become the 106th mayor of New York City? It's a remarkable journey. David Norman Dinkins was born in 1927, joined the Marine Corps in the waning days of World War II, went to Howard University on the G.I. Bill, graduated cum laude with a degree in mathematics


How did a scrawny black kid—the son of a barber and a domestic who grew up in Harlem and Trenton—become the 106th mayor of New York City? It's a remarkable journey. David Norman Dinkins was born in 1927, joined the Marine Corps in the waning days of World War II, went to Howard University on the G.I. Bill, graduated cum laude with a degree in mathematics in 1950, and married Joyce Burrows, whose father, Daniel Burrows, had been a state assemblyman well-versed in the workings of New York's political machine. It was his father-in-law who suggested the young mathematician might make an even better politician once he also got his law degree.

The political career of David Dinkins is set against the backdrop of the rising influence of a broader demographic in New York politics, including far greater segments of the city's “gorgeous mosaic.” After a brief stint as a New York assemblyman, Dinkins was nominated as a deputy mayor by Abe Beame in 1973, but ultimately declined because he had not filed his income tax returns on time. Down but not out, he pursued his dedication to public service, first by serving as city clerk. In 1986, Dinkins was elected Manhattan borough president, and in 1989, he defeated Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani to become mayor of New York City, the largest American city to elect an African American mayor.

As the newly-elected mayor of a city in which crime had risen precipitously in the years prior to his taking office, Dinkins vowed to attack the problems and not the victims. Despite facing a budget deficit, he hired thousands of police officers, more than any other mayoral administration in the twentieth century, and launched the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, which fundamentally changed how police fought crime. For the first time in decades, crime rates began to fall—a trend that continues to this day. Among his other major successes, Mayor Dinkins brokered a deal that kept the US Open Tennis Championships in New York—bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the city annually—and launched the revitalization of Times Square after decades of decay, all the while deflecting criticism and some outright racism with a seemingly unflappable demeanor. Criticized by some for his handling of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Dinkins describes in these pages a very different version of events.

A Mayor's Life is a revealing look at a devoted public servant and a New Yorker in love with his city, who led that city during tumultuous times.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sam Roberts
…a moving memoir by the upwardly mobile son of a barber and a domestic…Dinkins's book…is by definition one-sided…It succeeds in settling some scores, but it is also an inspiring account of New York's first black mayor and the hopes he inherited, many of them dashed on the shoals of fiscal reality and a sometimes hapless search for consensus.
From the Publisher

Sam Roberts, New York Times Book Review
“An inspiring account of New York's first black mayor and the hopes he inherited, many of them dashed on the shoals of fiscal reality and a sometimes hapless search for consensus.”

“Dinkins trumpets his accomplishments as mayor and offers some insights into the boisterous New York political scene, the rise of Harlem's political influence, and the evolution of black political leaders during a turbulent period.”

Kirkus Reviews
"A former New York City mayor recounts his personal journey from humble roots to running America's most iconic metropolis…A frank, unique look at the many challenges in New York City politics."

Kirkus Reviews
A former New York City mayor recounts his personal journey from humble roots to running America's most iconic metropolis. With the assistance of Knobler (co-author: Fairy Tales Can Come True: How a Driven Woman Changed Her Destiny, 2003, etc.), Dinkins (School of International and Public Affairs/Columbia Univ.) reflects on his unexpected path from poverty to the mayor's office. At 18--after a childhood spent enamored with the entrepreneurial spirit--Dinkins traded in his business ventures to enlist as a Marine. After being honorably discharged when the war ended, he returned stateside to face the same racial discrimination he had known before. When he was refused service in a bar, Dinkins learned the power of the legal system, deciding to become a lawyer soon after. With memberships in the Harlem Lawyers Association, the Urban League and the NAACP, among others, it wasn't long, however, before Dinkins became "part of the fabric of New York politics" as well. In 1985, Dinkins was elected Manhattan borough president, a position that gave him good footing for the mayoral office, a post he won in 1989. After defeating Democratic incumbent Ed Koch in the primary and Rudy Giuliani in the general election, Dinkins became the first African-American to hold the office. Despite the historical first, his tenure as mayor was not without its difficulties. Though he attempted to tackle New York's crime problems, racial strife continued to plague the city. No example better illustrates this strife than the mob-induced murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish man killed at the hands of African-Americans. Though the story's complexities run deep, the result was a borough more racially divided than ever--feelings that soon reverberated throughout the city and cost Dinkins his re-election bid. "Of course I wish it never happened," Dinkins writes. "But I never did, nor will I start now, blame anyone else for what occurred on my watch." A frank, unique look at the many challenges in New York City politics.

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Read an Excerpt

I sold “industrial insurance,” poor people’s insurance, which fit the budgets of the people I knew and called on door-to-door. I started wearing a hat so I could take it off. I would knock at a single-family home and wait until the lady of the house answered. As soon as she opened the door I would remove my hat with one hand and introduce myself. “Mrs. Smith,” I would say, “how are you today? My name is David Dinkins, I’m from the Progressive Life Insurance Company…” and launch into my presentation. It was important that she see me take off my hat. I was showing respect to people who received very little of it. People pay respect to those who give respect, and besides, whether or not it was reciprocated, I felt that was the way one ought to behave. I had always been taught to be polite, and I found it to be good business.

I was also aware that the white agents from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, my competition, treated these same women quite differently. They would breeze in to collect their premiums, step through the door and say, “Hi, Suzie, how’re you doing?” With their big smiles and air of assumed familiarity, these men were entirely unaware of the resentment they were creating. This was the plantation mentality brought north, and in their smug certainty the agents didn’t even know it. This woman is your client, she is paying your salary, she is entitled to better than being called by her first name. “Suzie” is a girl, “Mrs. Smith” is a woman; there is a profound difference. I found their behavior disrespectful, I resented it, and my presence was in clear contrast. Of course it was racial.

Meet the Author

David N. Dinkins is a professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the host of “Dialogue with Dinkins” on WLIB radio in New York City. Peter Knobler has collaborated on several bestsellers, including Sumner Redstone's A Passion to Win and James Carville and Mary Matalin's All's Fair. The former editor of Crawdaddy magazine, Knobler has also written for many national publications.

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A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
DHender499 More than 1 year ago
Review of David Dinkins’ Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic. By Douglas Henderson Jr. Arthur Ashe was a close friend and mentor. Through innumerable conversations with him over 18 years, I got to know him intimately: his thoughts, his proclivities, his likes and dislikes. I sought his advice when deciding which college to attend. A few days later, I received a college recommendation from him.  Upon graduating, I questioned him about career direction. Within the week, I received a glowing job recommendation. Arthur was an introverted public figure—ever conscious of his public image—who shielded his private life. As our friendship grew, those barriers fell to reveal a very human being. One even greater than his public persona. Few knew this Arthur. David Dinkins is a close friend and mentor. We’ve had immeasurable conversations and contacts since our initial introduction, at the 1978 US Open. During the summers of my college years, I worked on jobs he got for me. After college, he took a hands-on approach to my professional career. When applying for law school, I sought his counsel and received a glowing recommendation. Despite all this, I knew so very little about him: his childhood, what molded his genteel personality, what drove him, his philosophy on raising his children, etc. Mayor Dinkins is an extroverted public figure whose extrinsic personality erects a façade that hides a remarkable life that I knew very little about—that is, until I read his just-published autobiography, A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic.  As, seemingly, opposite as Ashe and Dinkins may first appear, they are very much alike. Both were impacted by Jim Crow at early ages. Ashe was born in Virginia; Dinkins joined the Marines and went through boot camp in the Deep South. Each had very powerful parental influences, and shares many common denominators. They placed a premium on propriety and education. But perhaps the characteristic that places each in rarefied air is their willingness to unselfishly give—a characteristic, seemingly, embedded in their DNA.  I enjoy reading autobiographies and biographies, for in them, if properly written, one can see the influences on the subject at different phases of their life. One can see what goes into greatness, what warped the individual, their driving forces, etc. These seeds are generally sown early in life. But not all books in this genre are created equal. As examples, let us look at two other autobiographies. Andre Agassi’s Open, a powerful bestseller that is frank and honest. It would have been one of the best tennis autobiographies ever written, had the writer written it in Agassi’s language, his word, his tone. Simply put, the author does not capture Agassi’s “voice.” While reading it, one never gets the sense that Agassi is telling his story. And you wonder where his story ends and the author’s begins. When the tennis legend, who only finished the 9th grade, talked about crossing the Rubicon, you knew something was awry.  Likewise, in Jimmy Connors’ bestselling book, The Outsider, the superficial manner in which Connors’ career is covered, coupled with several factual errors, leave one with the sense that the research was conducted on Wikipedia. Had the book even remotely captured the essence of the tennis superstar’s career, it would have been an invaluable piece of tennis literature. The driving forces behind the sales of The Outsider are the strength of the Connors personality, not the quality of the book, itself, and the salacious pre-released excerpts, so much of the media focused on. These thoughts were in my mind as I began reading Mayor Dinkins’ autobiography. From my relationship with him, I knew Dinkins’ language, his manner of speaking, and his vocabulary. Could the writer, Peter Knobler, remain true to the Dinkins voice? Also, I was very much familiar with New York City politics. Would the book offer a superficial, perfunctory  discussion on it, or would its analysis cut to the marrow? In his riveting autobiography (which doubles as a primer on New York politics), Dinkins takes us back to his childhood and recalls in great detail the qualities his parents instilled in him, qualities that are very much evident in the man today. His fascinating recollection, peppered with humorous anecdotes, of the varying stages of his upbringing promotes an image of a sculptor meticulously molding clay towards the final completed piece. The readers already know the result, but are tuning in to become voyeurs to the shaping process.  And that process is quite the adventure, as we learn how he ultimately became involved in politics.   Dinkins has always exuded class. His fine clothing and eloquent diction showcase a refined man. In some regards, he seemed above the fray of racism. Nothing could be further from the truth. His book tells of several instances where racism tore into his soul. We learn of the racist vitriol directed at him by the police and of the filled beer cans hurled at him during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Dinkins recounts the racist police riot at City Hall, where 10,000 police officers exhibited Klan-like behavior and were egged on by Rudy Giuliani. Many of the rioters carried extremely racist placards as they disgraced the seat of New York City government and recalled the darkest days of southern racism. This day remains indelibly imprinted on my mind because of an incident that happened after the riot.  I was heading home from work on the subway, opposite 3 drunken, white police officers. One of them had some literature from the riot in his hand. They were staring me down. On several occasions, one would whisper something in the other’s ear, then they would laugh. I sensed these were racist comments. I was dressed in a suit and tie, and certainly did not look like what they referred to as a “perp.” Looking down at the ankle of one of these men, I saw the outline of a gun. Instead of being scared, I became increasingly mad. I thought if they attacked me, they would win, but that I was going to inflict some seriously hurt on one of them. My eyes never wavered from them, nor theirs from me. Luckily, they got off the train at 34th Street, a few stops from where I had boarded the train. Apparently, the disgraceful racist behavior they exhibited earlier had carried over. And I was not alone. I read of another incident in which police officers from the riot confronted another Black male on the subway. Things got heated and the Black male pulled out a razor cut one of the officers. I have never been a fan of Giuliani. Many in the Black community feel he is a racist. His behavior during the riot certainly supports that belief. Before he became America’s Mayor, he was a failed politician. His poll numbers were low and he was forced to drop out of the senatorial race against Hillary Clinton. His personal life was fodder for the tabloids on a daily basis. And his venomous attacks on Dinkins were personal. Just once, I wanted Dinkins to abandon his decorum, roll up his sleeves and throw some haymakers at him. Remember, the rope-a-dope involved fighting back, not just taking punches.  At last, Dinkins has answered my pleadings. He details Giuliani’s racism and finally admits that racism cost him his chance at re-election. I vividly remember that Staten Island wanted to secede and the issue was placed on the same ballot as the mayor’s race.  The borough was overwhelmingly pro-Giuliani and anti-Dinkins. At the time, I felt it was a ploy to lure the anti-Dinkins vote to the voting booth. I still feel that way. Finally, Dinkins has admitted he feels this way, also.  And his book painstakingly documents evidence in support of this claim. (Interestingly enough, Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee for mayor of New York City, has denied the claim that racism cost Dinkins the election. But this position is not surprising, considering that his personal attacks on his Democratic opponent, Bill de Blasio, resurrect  Giuliani’s ad hominem attacks on Dinkins.) It’s funny how such an important issue vanished in thin air right after the election.  I particularly enjoyed Dinkins’ discussion on what I call “playbook politics,” which occurs when an acolyte espouses all of the tenets of a particular party without straying one iota from them. Also, the book is chock-full of information about New York politics, especially from the late 1960’s through the late 1990’s. Also, it is indispensible in terms of knowing how city and state government works.  A friend’s favorite expression is, “It’s all in the details.” Dinkins’ love for his wife and children is readily on display throughout the book. His love for people, in general, is unquestioned. But the most revealing part relates to his mayoralty. Specifically, the statistics of his term as mayor. At his direction the city finally stemmed the tide of crime. He expanded the NYPD by more than 6000 cops. He enacted the toughest gun control laws in the nation. He dramatically reduced the homeless population. His implementation of Safe Streets Safe City was the seminal point in the astronomical reduction of crime in all major categories. Quite frankly, his accomplishments are too many to list here. Yet, he doesn’t get credit for these policies. When I think of the Dinkins administration, many thoughts come to mind. In one such thought, I am reminded of an album David Ruffin (the former lead singer of The Temptations) recorded in 1969. It was a superb album, recorded at the height of the legendary singer’s considerable skills. One problem: it didn’t get released. No one knew about it. It received no publicity and was buried deep in a warehouse. When finally released over 30 years later, the album was greeted with universal acclaim. Likewise, Dinkins has not publicized the considerable accomplishments of his mayoralty. They have remained unavailable for public consumption. He has allowed others to distort and take credit for the good he did for his beloved city. At last, I am aware of that part of his life and career that were unknown to me. With A Mayor’s Life, Dinkins has finally set the record straight. Douglas Henderson Jr. is the author of "Endeavor to Persevere: A Memoir on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Tennis and Life.".