By Barry Benepe
When John Lindsay was elected I looked forward to New York City turning a corner and recovering from its image as a crime ridden city from which aspiring white people were leaving for the hinterlands as fast as their autos and mortgages could carry them. Mayor Lindsay not only responded to white flight, but also realized the intrinsic values that this gracious metropolis embodied in its rich urban fabric, its extraordinary parks, museums, theaters and waterfront and above all, its people. He had faith in the dedication, good will and optimism of its citizens.
He rolled up his sleeves and walked the streets of Harlem and spoke with people on the sidewalks, listening to their grievances and suggestions. He worked hard to obtain federal and state money to build needed housing, not only new buildings, but retrofitting the existing housing stock, reinforcing the best of what local communities had to offer, rows of handsome humanly scaled brownstones on tree-lined sidewalks. Similarly, he addressed the economic needs of central area businesses.
One of the exciting things to happen was the temporary closings of Madison Avenue, displacing the roar of traffic with thousands of quiet foot falls of walkers who, for the first time, could appreciate the beauty of the city under the cloud studded blue skies overhead rather than the grey plumes of auto exhausts in their faces. I looked north from Murray Hill over the brown fuzzy sea of bared heads. President John Kennedy had changed America’s dress code from the rigidly “Stetson”ed Harry Truman to the informality of the new age.
John Lindsay appointed Tom Hoving as his Parks Commissioner to realize the great potential of parks to bring enjoyment. “Hoving Happenings” became the norm for Central Park where residents could walk in and enjoy each other’s company without the fear of crime. Parks became places to have fun and enjoy natural surroundings. In 1966, Manhattan and Brooklyn residents formed Transportation Alternatives which led the way to ridding the Central Park and Prospect Drives of noisy, polluting and unsafe auto traffic so that walker and bicyclist could once more enjoy these great 19th Century parks designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. The Mayor and Commissioner Hoving supported and extended these closings. Later on Commissioner Hoving asked me to prepare alternative plans for a Staten Island expressway which Robert Moses had designed for the pleasure and speed of driver but which erected a barrier to access for park users to the waterfront. By moving the road inland, the park presented a natural storm resistant face on the sea.
John Lindsay embodied an “espirit de ville” which recognized the essential values of urban living, the true historic beauty of our architecture and streets. He brought out the best in the citizens of New York, reinforcing their best instincts and realizing their talents. He remained dedicated to the welfare of the city, not only during his tenure as Mayor, but after as a congressman. He was a true proponent of healthy urbanism.