Fifty years ago this month, John Vliet Lindsay, 103rd mayor of New York and national paragon of urban progressivism, faced ruin in Rego Park.
The worst winter storm in in almost two decades hit on Sunday, February 9, 1969, dumping 15 inches in Central Park and 20 inches out at Kennedy Airport in Queens and resulting in the deaths of 42 people. Seventy-two hours later, much of the city was dug out and businesses and schools were slowly getting back to normal.
Except in Queens.
United Nations Undersecretary General and Nobel Prize-winning diplomat Ralph Bunche sent the mayor an SOS telegram. “As a snowbound resident of Kew Gardens, Queens, where I have been a homeowner on Grosvenor Road for 17 years, I urgently appeal to you. In all those years, we have never experienced such neglect in snow removal as now.”
Three days after the storm, his grocer’s shelves were empty and he was unable to get to his UN office 12 miles away, writing, “As far as getting to the United Nations is concerned, I may as well be in the Alps.” Just 10 months earlier, Lindsay had walked 125th Street in Harlem in his shirtsleeves the night Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, helping calm a tense and distraught Harlem. Now, he clambered into his limousine and made his way into the blue-collar neighborhoods of Queens. In Rego Park, the limo became stuck, and he switched to a truck. He soon received a decidedly less appreciative reception than in Harlem.
As he reached Bunche’s neighborhood, bystanders booed, and, according to a contemporary New York Times report, one woman shouted, “You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s disgusting.” Other called him “a bum,” with one man scoring the sometime presidential hopeful, “He can’t even run a snowstorm, and he wants to run the country.”
Back in November 1965, the 6-foot-4 sandy-haired Yale law graduate with chiseled good looks had won his first term at age 43. The first Republican elected mayor since Fiorello La Guardia, the Navy veteran and four-term Congressman garnered 45% of the vote, defeating city Comptroller Abe Beame (41%) and conservative commentator William F. Buckley (13%). Lindsay did best in his home borough of Manhattan, with 56% of the vote, with Queens providing his second-best showing at 47%.
Lindsay inherited festering fiscal, labor and social problems, including a massive transit strike on his first day of office. Strikes, crime and economic decline marked that first term, but for the most part he remained popular and a national figure consulted by presidents on urban issues.
A cash-strapped city and disaffected sanitation union members may have contributed to the mess. Out walking among the frozen mounds of Queens, Lindsay took citizens’ criticism seriously; back at City Hall, the Daily News reported, he ordered “all available manpower and apparatus” sent to Queens. For the rest of that winter, even the threat of snow saw him putting hundreds of sanitation workers into position.
Four months later, still politically wounded, Lindsay lost the Republican primary to state Senator John Marchi, who received more than 60% of the vote in Queens. Lindsay forged on, running for re-election in November as a Liberal and Independent. With the Republican Marchi and Democrat Mario Procaccino splitting 57% of the vote, Lindsay again triumphed by a plurality, notching 42% of the vote – and only 36% in Queens (down from 47% four years earlier).
In 1971, Lindsay, out of step with an increasingly conservative Republican party, became a Democrat. The following year he campaigned for the presidency, showing early promise in Arizona but finishing fifth a few weeks later in Florida. Among his problems on the campaign trail: a gaggle of protesters angered by his support for a proposed low-income housing project in Forest Hills. Queens. By April he was out of the race.
Lindsay finished his second term at the end of 1973, handing City Hall over to Democrat Abe Beame, whose one term was overwhelmed by the city’s near-bankruptcy. Lindsay practiced law, but his electoral career was over. His legacy was one of compassion and promise but mixed effectiveness amid a changing city. He died in 2000.
“We did some great things,” Lindsay aide Sid Davidoff told the Times in 2005. “We could have been smarter politically on some of them, and we made some mistakes. But most of all, the thing Lindsay gave us was, if you have 10 decisions to make, make them all.”
Fifty years ago amid the snowdrifts of Queens, John V. Lindsay may have wished he had made a few decisions sooner.
Photos, from above: Daily News storm headline, and Lindsay in Queens.