"We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us." -- P.T. Anderson
The return of Bill Bratton and the death of Nelson Mandela yesterday bookended some powerful memories for New Yorkers who in the early 1990s were busy grappling with a city that was filled with hope and fear.
While the Koch-era New York showed that the city was too tough to die, its Wall Street-fueled comeback was like a sick man on steroids; the city looked better on the outside but it was still racially polarized and wracked by crime and the rise of crack cocaine. With his election in 1989, David Dinkins promised to unite the city's "gorgeous mosaic" and nothing was more symbolic of the hope of his administration than the dramatic welcome that the city gave Nelson Mandela in 1990.
But while ticker-tape parades inspire, governing is a lot trickier. Dinkins was dealt a lousy hand but he certainly didn't play his cards well in City Hall. Although crime dropped each year Dinkins was in office, the 1991 Crown Heights riots were a symbol that the city had slipped out of control. Ironically, Dinkins' second police commissioner, Ray Kelly, was praised by many as the kind of leader that the NYPD needed.
Enter Rudy Giuliani, who promised to retake the city and make it safer and governable again. And no one better epitomized Giuliani's boast than Bill Bratton. Complete with his tough-talking Boston accent and his foppish deputy, Jack Maple, Bratton brought a new sense of purpose to the NYPD, harnessing the sabermetric data-driven logic to run the department that Michael Bloomberg now uses for the entire city. While Bratton and Giuliani's egos were simply too big for each other, the police commissioner served the city well in his two years at the NYPD's helm.
There is a lesson here in all of this for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, a former Dinkins staffer who has created his own personal gorgeous mosaic with his family and promulgated that message through his ads. New York needs the message of a Mandela but it also requires a Bill Bratton as well. It will be his job to balance those competing visions over the next four years.