David N. Dinkins, who died on November 23, 2020 at the age of 93, was an authentic superstar who did not receive the acclaim he richly deserved.
The accomplishments of New York’s first black Mayor (January 1, 1990 – December 31, 1993) were many and varied, but they were largely over-looked for two reasons. First of all, he lacked the flair for dramatic self-promotion typical of today’s megalo-maniacal political figures. Secondly, prominent negative events beyond anyone’s control (ethnic-based riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; a black boycott of a Korean-owned grocery in Flatbush) made him look ineffectual, as he tried fruitlessly to calm militant extremists across the ethnic and political spectrum.
At a time when accurate knowledge of the past is scant and polemical hysteria has widely displaced reasoned discourse, it is worthwhile to re-consider the career of this memorable individual.
David Dinkins opened his mayoral administration pleading for racial healing, and he famously referred to New York as a ‘gorgeous mosaic’. A prescient Washington Post headline asked,”Is Dinkins Too Nice For New York ?”
Unfortunately, his administration inherited huge budget deficits and the worst crime statistics in the city’s history. He addressed them by increasing taxes and municipal income and by expanding the police to record levels. Crime rates declined and social services improved significantly during the Dinkins tenure. He revitalized a declining Times Square, rehabilitated deteriorating housing throughout the city, and improved healthcare. In social matters – addressing the concerns of women, the disabled, the elderly, the sexually-varied, minorities — he was the most liberal Mayor since John Lindsay decades earlier. Two women became Deputy Mayors, several others became Commissioners. His Fire Commissioner was a Puerto Rican and his black Police Commissioner was an experienced veteran of Atlanta and Houston.
Major economic achievements in the Dinkins years are all but forgotten today. The Dinkins-negotiated USTA National Tennis Center was later called by Michael Bloomberg “the only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York but in the country.” Bringing to New York the U.S. Open tennis competition (which gave the city a percentage of the event’s gross income) brings more direct economic benefit to the city than the NY Yankees, NY Mets, NY Knicks and NY Rangers combined. Revenue-producing events such as Fashion Week and Restaurant Week were also his creation.
The Dinkins personal story is one that should serve as an inspiration to all young people, regardless of background. He was born into a home in which his mother was employed as a domestic worker and his father was a barber. David attended Trenton N.J. Central High School (starring as a Latin scholar) and he graduated in 1945 in the top ten percent of his class. After his WWII service in the Marine Corps, the G.I. Bill enabled him to attend Howard University, from which he graduated in 1950 Cum Laude with a B.S. degree in mathematics. Working nights to cover his tuition, he then attended Brooklyn Law School, receiving his LLB in 1956. In private law practice from 1956 to 1975, he became active politically in the “Gang of Four” with his colleagues Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson and Charles Rangel, and he was elected to the NY State Assembly in 1966.
Dinkins was elected Manhattan Borough President in 1985, and on November 7, 1989 he was elected Mayor of New York, defeating three-term incumbent Mayor Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and the Republican nominee, Rudy Giuliani, in the general election.
After leaving office in 1994, Dinkins was invited to join Columbia University’s faculty as a full-time professor of public affairs, which position he filled until his death. He was also active in a variety of non-profit groups, such as the Jazz Foundation of America and the Association to Benefit Children. A long-time friend and supporter of HEAF (the Harlem Educational Activities Fund), at his death he had been looking forward eagerly to playing an active role in the W.E.B Du Bois Museum Foundation’s program in Ghana to restore and revitalize the monument to one of his great heroes.
David Dinkins was a wise and good man of whom New York should be proud.
May his memory be blessed.