Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 25, 2020

Reflections on the passing of David Dinkins

Filed under: New York — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

David Dinkins, 1927-2020

There’s a bromide-filled tribute to David Dinkins in Jacobin that might have been expected given his long-time membership in the DSA. At the time, nobody had any illusions that the DSA would lead a revolution in the USA, least of all people like David Dinkins, Major Owens and Ruth Messinger, who all occupied high-level political positions in New York. They would refer to themselves as “progressives” and—truth to tell—there’s not much difference between them and the “squad” politically. If you look at Major Owens’s voting record as a Brooklyn Congressman, there’s not much to distinguish it from Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Like Bill DeBlasio, Dinkins came into office with relatively high expectations but failed to live up to them. As a cautious clubhouse politician, there was little reason to think that he would take on the real estate industry or the cops, the two most retrograde players in the city. Michael Tomasky, a long-time DP liberal, was not expecting much from Dinkins when he was the Mayor in 1993. When a gay contingent was banned from the St. Patrick’s Day parade that year, Dinkins refused to march in it. But when the Salute to Israel parade organizers pulled the same homophobic stunt, Dinkins still marched. Tomasky wrote in the June 21, 1993 Nation Magazine:

The papers never came right out and said it, but the obvious reason for the double standard is as follows: Dinkins figures the Irish vote is lost, but the Jews are another matter. So politically, it’s smart to offend the Irish and stand up for gays and lesbians (even though, in inimitable Dinkins style, he ended up offending them too, after police arrested 218 demonstrators who held a countermarch). But to a Democrat who’ll need every vote he can get this November, Jews are several positions ahead of gays on the vote charts.

Dinkins was elected in 1986, to a large extent the beneficiary of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that had sunk roots both in Chicago and NY. Back then, people had high expectations of its possibilities just as they have had over Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns.

Dinkins was a protégé of Raymond Jones, a powerful Tammany Hall godfather of the black political class. Along with Dinkins, he trained Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson, and Charlie Rangel who all became powerful machine politicians. It was only Dinkins who adopted the veneer of progressivism.

Just before the election in 1989, a Black youth named Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of racist whites in Bensonhurst. Just like the outrage over the murder of George Floyd, this incident stirred passions in the Black community and helped Dinkins triumph over his DP rival Ed Koch in the primary, who was becoming despised for his racism.

He also triumphed over Rudy Giuliani who was his Republican rival in the general election. Voters didn’t go for Giuliani’s abrasive style and preferred Dinkins’s calm demeanor that was expected to unite the city, in the same manner as Biden is expected to unite the country. To succeed as mayor, Dinkins had to strike a balance between the city’s progressive-minded voters and Black community on one side and on the other the city’s real estate industry, the cops and the ethnic whites in the outer boroughs where white supremacy ran deep.

Tomasky warned Nation Magazine readers that Dinkins was backed by “the army of real estate barons, lawyers, lobbyists, and fixers who really run this city.” In 1990, NYC was in the midst of one of its periodic fiscal crises. After taking office, it was not surprising that he would choose fiscal austerity just as we expect from a Biden presidency. To keep FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) businesses from relocating to New Jersey, Dinkins offered substantial tax abatements as an incentive to remain. Like Koch, Dinkins gave Morgan Stanley a tax package worth more than $30 million to keep its 4000 jobs in the city.

Like de Blasio, Dinkins faced immense problems trying to redress the city’s homeless problem. He created shelters that while benefiting indigent families often antagonized the residents who harbored NIMBY resentment toward the very poor.

Ultimately, Dinkins was the victim of a racist backlash triggered by the accusation that he took the side of Black rioters in Brooklyn against the Hasidim in 1991. A caravan of Lubavitchers was returning from a visit to the gravesite of the head Rabbi’s wife when a car ran over Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old Black boy. In retaliation, a Black youth stabbed rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum to death in a melee. When the youth was acquitted, Dinkins lost much of his Jewish support and lost to Giuliani in the next election.

What would a genuinely socialist mayor do to set New York in new, radical directions. Like Dinkins, there were high expectations that Nicaragua activist Bill de Blasio would make a difference. There’s not much in the realm of possibilities given the transformation of the city over the past fifty years as its manufacturing base has dwindled away. Even if they were willing to take on the FIRE ruling class, they lacked the social base that could have made the city much more like the egalitarian example it once was. Keep in mind that the city was once a place where public housing was generous. I live in a Mitchell-Lama building, one of the few relics of a bygone era.

Robert Fitch described this descent in a book titled “The Assassination of New York”. In 1994, he wrote an article for NLR titled “Explaining New York City’s Aberrant Economy” that contained the seeds of the ideas found in the book. Let me quote it liberally so that you can get an idea of the sorry state of a once-great metropolis:

A generation ago, New York’s poverty and unemployment rates ranked substantially below those of the rest of the country. The labour-force participation of its Harlem residents was roughly comparable to the national average. Now the Harlem and central Brooklyn rates are twenty points below the national average, while youth labour-force participation for all races has fallen by more than half.

Altogether from the 1890s to the mid 1950s, the city boasted the most stable and diversified economy in urban America. It could plausibly claim to be the richest city in the world. Now it is arguably the poorest in North America, as well as the least diversified. Since the late fifties, New York has been transformed essentially into a one-crop economy—office and luxury construction based chiefly on tenants in ‘FIRE’—finance, insurance and real estate.

New York’s FIRE Storm

The aberrant performance of New York’s economy ought not to be disassociated from this headlong structural transformation. No us city has changed its industrial structure as dramatically as New York. In the 1950s, New York had two workers in manufacturing for every job in finance, insurance and real estate. Now, New York has nearly reversed the ratio: with one and a half jobs in FIRE for every job in manufacturing.

Chiefly because fire jobs failed to keep pace with force-fed, state-planned and highly subsidized office construction, New York has experienced a real-estate collapse of 1930s proportions. Going into 1994, seven years after the great October crash, giant developers continue to file for bankruptcy. The fall in commercial real-estate prices persists as old leases at high rents continue to expire. Nearly 65 million square feet of space still remain empty.

What is chiefly significant about this total is not just that it is space equivalent to thirty Empire State Buildings. It’s rather that during the entire decade of the eighties, developers built only 53 million square feet. Not only did the city build too much space, it didn’t need the space it had. Nor do prospects for filling up the space seem bright. In the early 1990s, brokers said, ‘Stay alive till ’95’. Now they say, ‘Find something to do until 2002’.

(The article is behind a paywall. Contact me privately for a copy.)

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for this, Louis, helps me better understand my old hometown.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — November 25, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

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