Do you really want to go back to the bad old days of Mayor David N. Dinkins?
Rudolph W. Giuliani, as he had done before, indelicately broached this rhetorical question while campaigning a week ago for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
If you elect the Democratic mayoral candidate, Mr. Giuliani, the former Republican mayor, warned a mostly Orthodox Jewish audience in Brooklyn, New York could well return to a time when a feckless liberal Democrat let services decay and crime and homelessness run rampant.
This narrative, in which more than a few heard a racial undertone last week, has dominated the city’s politics for 16 years. But as a critique, it is ripe for a revisionist second look. Taking office in 1990, just as a Wall Street and real estate collapse pitched the city into deep recession, Mayor Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, stumbled more than once. But he also registered more successes than most New Yorkers realize, and so he laid part of the foundation for today’s New York.
“Dinkins faced a very sharp economic downturn, and he was in the very difficult position of coming in with high expectations from many constituencies,” said John H. Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University Graduate Center. “Yet he expanded the police force and rebuilt neighborhoods; he deserves more credit than he gets for managing that time.”
Mr. Dinkins’s most lasting achievement might have been in the very area where he now fares worst in popular memory. He obtained the State Legislature’s permission to dedicate a tax to hire thousands of police officers, and he fought to preserve a portion of that anticrime money to keep schools open into the evening, an award-winning initiative that kept tens of thousands of teenagers off the street. Later he hired Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, and in the mayor’s final years in office, homicide began its now record-breaking decline.
His officials played a key role in negotiating the cleanup and revitalization of Times Square, persuading the Walt Disney Corporation to rehabilitate an old 42nd Street theater.
And as the tax receipts fell and the city budget bled red, the mayor continued a Koch-era program and poured billions of dollars into rehabilitating dilapidated housing. Tens of thousands of units of housing in northern Harlem, the South Bronx and Brooklyn stood pockmarked and vacant in 1989; today that housing owes much of its handsomely restored face to work begun during the Dinkins era. Over all, Mr. Dinkins rebuilt more housing in a single term than Mr. Giuliani did in two terms.
Mr. Dinkins also negotiated a stadium deal that still draws applause. His administration gave the United States Tennis Association a 99-year lease on city parkland; in exchange, the tennis association built a stadium and tennis complex in Flushing Meadows, Queens, and shares the courts with the public.
The tennis deal, Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed several years ago, was “the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country.”
Such questions are not merely the stuff of historical debate, as historians and political scientists quibble over the grading and ranking of mayors. The social turmoil of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the perceived failures of the Dinkins administration, have cast a shadow over every Democratic mayoral candidate since 1993, in particular for a black candidate like Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr.
Mr. Dinkins took office only to face recession and the three horsemen of social decline: soaring AIDS infection rates, homelessness and a crack-fueled crime wave. Homicide annually claimed the lives of 2,000 New Yorkers, compared with about 500 today.
Mr. Dinkins’s response was sometimes faltering. He handed out union raises, and announced layoffs days later. He raised taxes and cut services. And he rarely insisted that his administration, glued together from various constituencies, speak with a single voice. (Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg insisted on managerial discipline, and reaped its benefits.)
Mr. Dinkins also hesitated to face down racial and ethnic antagonism. “A lot of different voices in his administration were often competing rather than rowing together,” Mr. Mollenkopf said.
But through it all, his administration made advances unmatched by succeeding administrations. He joined with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and poured money into assisted housing for the mentally ill homeless.
As a result, the city’s shelter population fell to its lowest point in the last 20 years. The shelter population in 1991 stood at less than 20,000; today it stands near 38,000.
And through the years of recession, as the city lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, the mayor spoke of his successes and failures, often with brutal candor. His successors have pruned the statistical reports of some negative indicators and tend to place a relentless emphasis on the positive.
The city, Mr. Giuliani argued the other day, “could very easily be taken back to the way it was.” Such a voyage might not be as grim as Mr. Giuliani suggests.