New York mayor’s success in reducing crime was overshadowed by racial strife
David Dinkins, who has died aged 93, was New York’s first and so far only black mayor, whose struggles with civil unrest and racial strife in the early 1990s overshadowed his success in beginning the city’s two-decade trend of reduced crime.
Dinkins coined the phrase ‘‘gorgeous mosaic’’ to describe New Yorkers’ tolerance and respect for ethnic diversity. His contributions included his role in creating the privately financed National Tennis Centre in Queens, where the US Open is played. He suffered irrevocable political damage during three days of riots in August 1991, after a black child was accidentally killed by a
Jewish motorist in Crown
Dinkins won election as the city’s 106th mayor in 1989, beating Republican Rudy Giuliani by 47,000 votes, the narrowest margin in New York history. He lost a rematch to Giuliani by 53,000 votes four years later, after Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, vowed to reorganise the police department in awar against crime. Dinkins spent his post-mayoral years rebutting critics whom he said unfairly blamed him for conditions he inherited.
‘‘One would have gotten the impression that on December 31, 1989, there was no crime, and on the next day, when I took office, the homicide rate was over 2000 a year, as though it had occurred overnight,’’ Dinkins wrote in his 2013 autobiography, AMayor’s Life.
Dinkins said his biggest achievements included ‘‘keeping each branch library open at a time when we had little or no money’’, at a cost of US$47 million, and persuading the state legislature to enact an income-tax surcharge to pay for the hiring of thousands of police.
His favourite moment as mayor was the
1990 visit of Nelson Mandela. ‘‘He’s one of my all-time heroes, as you might imagine,’’ Dinkins said at a 2011 appearance before the Association for a Better New York, a civic organisation of real estate developers and corporate executives that he helped create.
Dinkins began his political career as a New York state assemblyman in 1966, then became president of the New York City Board of Elections before the city council appointed him city clerk in 1975. He was elected Manhattan borough president in 1985.
Dinkins helped organise and enhance African-American political influence in New York City and state as one of four Harlembased leaders who began theirwork in the
1960s. Dinkins joined with Charles Rangel, former Manhattan borough president and broadcasting executive Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson, a labour lawyer and father of former governor David Paterson. They were known as the Gang of Four.
David Norman Dinkinswas born in Trenton, New Jersey. After serving two years in the US. Marine Corps, he entered Howard University in Washington, where he studied mathematics. He received a law degree in 1956 from Brooklyn Law School.
As mayor, Dinkins, who had characterised himself as a racial conciliator, found himself embroiled in ethnic strife throughout his term. In August 1991, three days of riots in Crown Heights ensued after a 7-year-old black child, Gavin Cato, died when hit by a car in a motorcade carrying Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement based in the neighbourhood. Hours later, about 20 black youths surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, an Australian exchange student, who was stabbed to death.
In 1992, a state investigation of the episode concluded that Dinkins ‘‘did not act in a timely and decisivemanner’’ in ordering adequate police deployments to quell the violence. He spent much of his remaining years defending himself against criticism stemming from the incident.
‘‘If I had it to do over again Imight have said to police 24 hours earlier, ‘What you’re doing isn’t working,’ which I finally said,’’ Dinkins said in 2011.
Elected in 1989, at the height of a crime wave fuelled by crack cocaine use in poor neighbourhoods, Dinkins added about 5000 officers to the police department, increasing staffing to about 40,000, which helped start what has become more than two decades of decreasing violent crime.
Murders fell to 1927 in 1993, Dinkins’ last year in office, from a high of 2262 in 1990, under the leadership of Raymond Kelly, whom Dinkins appointed police commissioner. Citing Kelly’s performance as Dinkins’ appointee, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg chose him for a second stint in 2002.
‘‘It was Mayor Dinkins’ misfortune that most of the police recruits arrived during the administration of Mayor Giuliani, who took credit for an expansion enabled and paid for entirely through the Mayor Dinkins’ leadership,’’ said Victor Kovner, who headed the city’s law department under Dinkins.
Dinkins’ wife, Joyce Burrows Dinkins, died last month. They had two children. –