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One On 1: David Dinkins Serves Up Legacy In Retrospect

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The events in the New York of the early '90s may feel like a lifetime ago. But it was a heated, passionate era that's understandably memorable to the mayor at the time, the first black mayor in the city's history, the honorable David Dinkins. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Go anywhere in New York, and you can get a cross section of opinions about the city’s mayors. The 106th mayor, David Dinkins, is no exception. But there are parts of New York where you’re likely to hear only good things about Dinkins, not surprisingly outside a Harlem residence for young people who have aged out of foster care, called the David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens, and in the David Dinkins circle at the National Tennis Center, surrounded by his fellow tennis fans, who appreciate the mayor's work in keeping the U.S. Open in New York.


Since he lost his reelection bid to Rudy Giuliani in 1993, David Dinkins has taught in Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

One of his most significant acts as mayor was signing a 99-year lease with the U.S. Tennis Association. Mayor Giuliani was opposed to the deal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been quoted as saying that it's the "only good athletic sports stadium deal, not just in New York, but in the country."

There are other issues from the Dinkins administration that are still debated. The conventional wisdom has long been that crime started to do down during Mayor Giuliani's first term. Mayor Dinkins and his supporters has long maintained that crime actually started to decrease during his administration, and according to the Justice Department, violent crime statistics did go down in 1991 and 1992.

"You would get the impression, that on December 31, 1989, there was no crime. The next day, January 1, 1990, when I took office, homicide rate about 2,000 a year, as though it occurred when I took office. And that's just not true," says Dinkins.

At the time, the front page pressure to combat what was seen as an out of control crime problem was intense. So what's it like waking up to the famed New York Post headline, "Dave, Do Something!"


"Sometimes you will feel criticism is inaccurate and unfair. And sometimes you might feel, you know, you've got a point," says Dinkins.

The Crown Heights riots were arguably the most controversial part of the mayor's legacy. It all began when a car from an orthodox Jewish motorcade hit and killed a seven year old boy, Gavin Cato. Rumors that ambulances tended to injured whites and not Cato and his cousin sparked anger and a group of young blacks went through the neighborhood shouting "kill the Jews." A visiting Rabbinical student from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed and killed.

"Word went out that I had given directions to police to not hold back the blacks but permit them to attack the Jews," recalls Dinkins. "It was inaccurate, it was unfair to suggest that I had given any such direction."

The neighborhood was racked by rioting for three days.

"After a couple of days of this I said to the police commanders, 'Whatever you're doing, it's not working.' And in direct response to your question, I wish I had said that sooner," says Dinkins.

But it's another event that perhaps symbolizes just how different the times were. On September 16, 1992 thousands of off duty police officers, protesting a number of issues with the Dinkins administration, stormed police barricades and blocked traffic around City Hall.

Dinkins says he is now treated warmly by officers around the city. In the early '90s it was a different story.

"What they did do was to overturn a vehicle, they called a black member of the City Council a nigger, they behaved in a disgraceful fashion," recalls Dinkins.

David and Joyce Dinkins were married in an Episcopalian church in Harlem. Growing up, he lived with his mom in Harlem, and his father in Trenton, New Jersey.

Dinkins served in the U.S. Marine Corps for a year at the end of World War II, then attended Howard University on the GI bill and the Brooklyn College law school.


He joined a political club in Harlem, not so much for politics but with the intention of making contacts as a young lawyer. His political activity increased and he eventually become associated with the so called "Gang of Four," all of whom would become prominent New York politicians: Charlie Rangel, Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton and Dinkins, who ran for Manhattan borough president three times before winning.

"People used to say to me, 'What do you do?' And I'd say, 'I run for borough president," says Dinkins.

In 1989, Dinkins beat Mayor Ed Koch and two other formidable candidates in the Democratic primary, but in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, he defeated Republican Rudy Giuliani by only 47,000 votes in the general election.

"I maintained it was racism, pure and simple," says Dinkins. "I go up against Rudy, who maybe is a great American but nobody knew then. And I hadn't had time to screw up anything. I hadn't been mayor. So Crown Heights had not occurred. I hadn't done anything bad. So how come? Go figure."

Dinkins lost reelection to Giuliani four years later.

Their relationship, policy and personality differences have been dissected time and time again. Dinkins says when the former mayors see each other at a restaurant or event today, it's courteous and cordial.

Budd Mishkin: If you two [Giuliani] were to sit down and have a cup of coffee together, what would you discuss?

David Dinkins: I have no idea, really. I mean, we might...there are things we have in common. Each of us has had the occasion to stand at the bedside of a wounded police officer or firefighter.

A review of the Dinkins administration understandably starts with the most contentious issues of crime and Crown Heights. But there are happy memories too. The mayor was credited with keeping New York calm during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. And when a free Nelson Mandela first came to the United States, he came to New York.

As for his place in New York history, Dinkins says he's looking better with each passing day. Despite the loss of privacy and critiques that he may have felt unfair, the mayor's feelings about the job have not changed.

"It's the greatest job in the world if you like people and public service," says Dinkins.

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