It was the summer of 1967. American boys were dying in Vietnam, hippies were wearing flowers in their hair, and NYC was having air inversions every other week. On the other hand, it only cost a quarter to ride the subway.

The Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 – better known as the Model Cities Act – had been passed seven months earlier and every inhabited place in America was scrambling to get a piece of the most ambitious antipoverty program since the Great Depression. I’d managed, thanks to some serious resume padding, to get myself hired on as Special Assistant for Model Cities Affairs in the office of the Hon. John V. Lindsay, then Mayor of New York.

The Model Cities program in New York was being rolled out by the recently formed Human Resources Administration, headed by Mitchell “Mike” Sviridoff. I was officing at HRA on Church Street in lower Manhattan, and almost every day I’d travel from down there out to the three “Model Cities Neighborhoods” in New York: East Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and South Bronx. Pretty heady stuff for a working class kid from Mechanicsburg, Ohio.

On those trips I couldn’t help but be struck by the obvious differences between the stable, middle class neighborhoods in most of the New York boroughs and the chaos of the poor neighborhoods we were working in. The middle class neighborhoods had all the things you’d expect such neighborhoods to have: police and fire protection, regular garbage pickup, decent housing, orderly schools, well-lighted streets. The poor neighborhoods had none of this, or at least very little.

Of course, everyone knows all this. But having to pass through the good neighborhoods into the bad ones every day made a huge impression on a small town boy, and I began to keep a list of what the middle class neighborhoods had that the poor ones didn’t.

Naturally, my list had to go well beyond the obvious characteristics I could see through my bus window. Middle class folks got good health care, pregnant ladies got prenatal care, kids went to daycare and preschool programs, schools were decent, kids who needed it got tutoring, there were enriched programs for talented kids, almost everybody went on to college.

Anyway, one day I strolled across the hall to the office of Dr. Herbert Hyman and showed him my list. Herb was a really sweet guy, and instead of laughing in my face he gently informed me that, actually, I hadn’t been the first human being to think of this stuff. What I should do is read up on the subject.

Herb gave me a long list of books to read, and so after spending long hours traveling around NYC during the day I spent more long hours in the library in the evening reading everything from Karl Marx to Jane Jacobs. My list of the things people who lived in normal neighborhoods took for granted got more sophisticated, but it was still a list of things people in poor neighborhoods didn’t have much of.

One day Herb came into my office and shyly handed me a memo he’d written. It was a brief description of a project to identify a small neighborhood in one of the Model Cities communities – say, the catchment area for one of the NYC public schools – and (guess what!) install middle class amenities, those you could see and those you couldn’t. Then we would sit back and watch what happened. Would the amenities simply be trashed and  the neighborhood regress to its former state? Or would the availability of these amenities unlock a huge amount of stunted human potential?

“Wow, Herb!” I cried, “This is sensational! Let’s run it by Mike [Sviridoff] right now!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” said Herb. “This is just a thought piece. We’d need $20,000 or so just to put a final proposal together. And, anyway, Mike’d be the last person on earth to take it to. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool community organizer, a bottom-up guy. This is top-down stuff. Also,” he continued, “I work for Mike and I’d like to keep my job.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t work for Mike, I work for the Mayor. Let’s take this idea to Lindsay.”

I managed to nab fifteen minutes on John Lindsay’s schedule and Herb and I took what came to be known around HRA, not without a slight smirk, as the “Hyman-Curtis Project,” straight to the top.

Next up: How Social Policy Gets Made: I Learn the Facts of Life

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