John Lindsay loved the Hyman-Curtis Project. He asked a million questions about how it would work and even had a couple of ideas about which neighborhoods we might pick to try it out on. As our fifteen-minute time slot stretched out to forty minutes, the Mayor picked up the phone and summoned one of his many Deputy Mayors. (In those days Lindsay had what seemed like an unlimited supply of DMs, each with a fuzzy portfolio. This particular DM shan’t be named, as he is one of the quasi-villains of the piece.)
The DM, having been quickly briefed by Lindsay, allowed as how the Hyman-Curtis Project sounded like a “swell idea” to him. However, he cautioned the Mayor that the funding guidelines for Federal Model Cities money were very strict and it might be tough to get the project funded.
Lindsay waved this objection away. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes,” said the Mayor. “For now, we just need the $20,000. Let’s get this done!” Lindsay slammed his palm down on his desk, meaning, “Let’s get this done now!” and also, “This meeting’s over, gents.”
Outside the Mayor’s office, Herb and I paused to dance a little jig and give each other eight or ten high fives and then he went off to another appointment. I followed the DM back to his office, presumably to do whatever you needed to do to wrest $20,000 out of the city budget. But we only paused in the DM’s office long enough for him to fetch his hat – lots of guys still wore hats in those days.
After that we walked around the corner to a tavern where, over three J&B and sodas – it wasn’t yet eleven o’clock in the morning – I learned the Facts of Life, Social Policy Version.
The DM began by telling me something I didn’t know, and which I suspect very few people know even to this day: when NYC had originally submitted its $1 billion Model Cities proposal to HUD, the proposal was rejected. (Meanwhile, proposals from such major megalopolises as Pikeville, Kentucky had sailed right through HUD’s rigorous review process.) The reason for the rejection of New York’s proposal was that the city wasn’t involving enough “indigenous” citizenry in its program.
This came as a considerable shock to the good folks back in the Big Apple (sorry, it was still the Little Apple then). After all, they had worked closely with hundreds, maybe thousands, of churches, civic organizations and women’s groups in the three Model Cities neighborhoods. Ah, said the folks at HUD, but those groups are just aping middle class organizations. (They didn’t precisely call them Uncle Toms, but that’s what they meant.)
No, said HUD, the real “indigenous” people in the communities, the real leaders, were somewhere else entirely, and it was those people who had their fingers on the pulse of the neighborhoods and who needed to be prominently involved. The poor folks back in NYC had formerly thought of these people as Maoist thugs, gang leaders, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, but clearly they were wrong. In fact, said HUD, $1 billion said they were wrong.
NYC reworked its Model Cities proposal, incorporating every indigenous citizen it could scrounge up, and HUD sent the check.
You see, said the DM, in thinking that middle class neighborhoods had anything to teach poor neighborhoods I was seriously remiss. In fact, there was a real sense in which middle class neighborhoods were rich because poor neighborhoods were poor. To think otherwise, he continued, was at best naïve, at second best culturally insensitive, and at worst flat-out racist. In other words, the Hyman-Curtis Project was DOA.
A few months later I resigned from the Lindsay Administration and got on with my life, having fortunately decided not to build a career in community development work.
Next up: How Social Policy Gets Made: Après Moi, le Déluge
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