Daniel L. Feldman

City Hall

In NYC Politics on February 18, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Columbia’s Spring 1968 increased my focus on the campus. A year later, I was president of the Dormitory Council, the only representative government body of Columbia College students at the time. I tried to negotiate with the new president, Andrew Cordier, for physical improvements in the living quarters. Cordier is thought to have facilitated the first coup against Patrice Lumumba of the Congo when Cordier was a U.N. official. He had no trouble misleading and frustrating the 19-year-old me, although some years later, the University did accept the need to significantly upgrade the dormitories. Chairmanship of the Van Amringe Distinguished Book Award Committee, all of whose other members were faculty, gave me practice in being heckled. My chief heckler was the good-hearted, hilarious and brilliant philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser – who half the time heckled me in Yiddish.

I had some connection with City Hall, though. I worked part-time throughout college to help pay my way. In 1968-69, my junior year, the Mayor’s Office of University Relations employed me at 250 Broadway, at the corner of Park Place, to help write the New York City Urban Research Inventory. That was a compilation of research projects undertaken by academic scholars in universities within the City of New York, and also by employees of the government of the City of New York. In theory, the Directory would alert each researcher to the potentially helpful research of others. Perhaps it did, although only a few editions were published.

We worked out of the office of Deputy Mayor Timothy Costello, a gentle and scholarly former Liberal Party official. Lindsay hired Costello in partial reward to that party for its crucial support in his 1965 election. Costello had actually been Lindsay’s running mate for City Council President (a position that was akin to today’s Public Advocate) on the Republican-Liberal (fusion) ticket [Howard Graubard reminded me that it was a Fusion ticket, so Costello had the Republican nomination too. The earlier version of this post only noted Costello’s Liberal Party backing.] Lindsay won, Costello lost, and Lindsay appointed him as one of his deputy mayors.

My new proximity to City Hall heightened my awareness of the city government. The City announced a new program to begin the following academic year, the New York City Urban Fellowship. The Fellowship would enable twenty students from all over the United States to work full-time at challenging positions in NYC government. Students were supposed to get academic credit for the year, and a $3000 stipend from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. That would pay my entire room, board, and tuition costs for the year. Actually, my mother took notice of the program before I did, but she did not have to work very hard to persuade me to apply.

This changed my life.

Part of it was just fun. At weekly seminars, John Lindsay, Herman Kahn, McGeorge Bundy, Jimmy Breslin, David Durk, Alger Hiss, and other extraordinary speakers joined us in fairly intimate and frank dinner discussions. We counted among our own number Leon Botstein, to become the youngest college president in American history as well as the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra; Sherry Suttles, who became the first Black woman city manager in the United States, and Larry May, Dave O’Connor, John Berenyi, and Mary O’Brien, who quickly became some of my closest friends – and of course achieved prominence in their own subsequent careers as well (medicine, law, investment banking, law). Generous provision of alcoholic beverages accompanied the dinner discussions, no doubt contributing to one of my fondest memories of Karl Sittler, one of us, responding to each of McGeorge Bundy’s proffered rationales for the Vietnam War, “Bullshit! Bullshit!” (This resulted in a change of policy regarding the availability of alcohol, possibly to this day: the Urban Fellowship Program, with some minor changes, is still going strong.)

As to its more professional aspect, the Program assigned me to Lance Liebman, the Mayor’s Assistant for Transportation (many years later, Dean of Columbia Law School; now, president of American Law Institute).  Lance asked me to review a proposal he had received to address the dramatic failure of the Criminal Court to control illegal parking. The problem had reached the point at which you might have been in big trouble if you had a heart attack near City Hall. Double parked cars could have slowed your ambulance ride to nearby Beekman Hospital sufficiently to cause your death en route. Double parkers could reasonably tear up their parking tickets, because by 1969 other matters were so crowding the Criminal Court’s calendar that it really did not have time to worry about parking tickets.

I thought the proposal made sense, but that its author, another City employee and an engineer, would need help in drawing up the plans to organize the new agency he had proposed. That’s how New York City got its Parking Violations Bureau.  A little more than a decade later I was punished for this sin, but my Act of Contrition ultimately became an Act of the New York State Legislature, by which I had some success in curbing its excesses, after a long battle.

But some weeks after I started working with Lance, he asked me whether I would be interested in taking a short (unpaid) leave of absence from the Fellowship to work in the Mayor’s reelection campaign, since Election Day was only a few weeks away. I would be assigned to help the Assistant to the Mayor for Parks, who had taken a leave of absence from that paid job as well. I quickly assented, and went to work on the campaign under the direction of of the Assistant to the Mayor for Parks, Elizabeth Holtzman.

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