A Mayor's Life

Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic


By David N. Dinkins

With Peter Knobler

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How did a scrawny black kid — the son of a barber and a domestic who grew up in Harlem and Trenton — become the 106th mayor of New York City? It’s a remarkable journey. David Norman Dinkins was born in 1927, joined the Marine Corps in the waning days of World War II, went to Howard University on the G.I. Bill, graduated cum laude with a degree in mathematics in 1950, and married Joyce Burrows, whose father, Daniel Burrows, had been a state assemblyman well-versed in the workings of New York’s political machine. It was his father-in-law who suggested the young mathematician might make an even better politician once he also got his law degree.

The political career of David Dinkins is set against the backdrop of the rising influence of a broader demographic in New York politics, including far greater segments of the city’s “gorgeous mosaic.” After a brief stint as a New York assemblyman, Dinkins was nominated as a deputy mayor by Abe Beame in 1973, but ultimately declined because he had not filed his income tax returns on time. Down but not out, he pursued his dedication to public service, first by serving as city clerk. In 1986, Dinkins was elected Manhattan borough president, and in 1989, he defeated Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani to become mayor of New York City, the largest American city to elect an African American mayor.

As the newly-elected mayor of a city in which crime had risen precipitously in the years prior to his taking office, Dinkins vowed to attack the problems and not the victims. Despite facing a budget deficit, he hired thousands of police officers, more than any other mayoral administration in the twentieth century, and launched the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, which fundamentally changed how police fought crime. For the first time in decades, crime rates began to fall — a trend that continues to this day. Among his other major successes, Mayor Dinkins brokered a deal that kept the US Open Tennis Championships in New York — bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the city annually — and launched the revitalization of Times Square after decades of decay, all the while deflecting criticism and some outright racism with a seemingly unflappable demeanor. Criticized by some for his handling of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Dinkins describes in these pages a very different version of events.

A Mayor’s Life is a revealing look at a devoted public servant and a New Yorker in love with his city, who led that city during tumultuous times.




To my bride, Joyce.

Time passes but love endures.


To Daniel







1: Trenton Makes, the World Takes

2: The Education of a Ditch Digger

3: Home in Harlem

4: "Walk in My Shoes”

5: From Sugar to Shit  in a New York Minute

6: Borough President for Life

7: The Race for Mayor

8: Attacking the Problems,  Not the Victims

Photo Section

9: Safe Streets, Safe City

10: From “Dave, Do Something!”  to “Mayor Cool”

11: Net Gain

12: Mandela

13: Crown Heights

14: Race Against Rudy







Like many Americans, I have longed for the arrival of a heroic politician who could lead America to a better place—a true “servant leader” whose interest is only to serve those who put him in office and who cares little about the next election or the next rung on the ladder of his political career. A person who has the perfect blend of character and humility, who is plainspoken, who is incapable of telling a falsehood. A person like David Dinkins, the 106th mayor of New York City, about whom I am honored to write this foreword.

Since Mayor Dinkins has covered his life story and remarkable political career in the pages of this book, I would like to comment on the man I came to know and admire after he left office. So first, a little story.

It was 5:00 pm on Saturday, May 18, 2013, when David Dinkins presided at the wedding of my assistant, Jeannie Santos, soon to be Mrs. Frank Zammataro. At eighty-five, he was in full voice and soon had the entire audience spellbound by his masterful delivery. I watched in awe as the former mayor—gracious, respectful, and reverential—turned a civil ceremony into a spiritual event, reminding all in attendance that God’s wishes are that we humans get along.

Before and after the wedding ceremony, Mayor Dinkins conversed with nearly all of the 120 guests, with a look of joy and love in his eyes, charming everyone. These were not the actions of a politician who was used to working a room, but of a human being who was born to lead. Because I knew many of the people at the reception, and knew that most were Republicans, I could not help but marvel at how readily he won their hearts. Is it any wonder he became the first African American mayor of New York City—a city with a largely white population at that?

In 1993, several weeks after he lost his reelection bid, I had lunch with Mayor Dinkins in midtown. Although he was still smarting from his narrow loss, he seemed more concerned about how I was doing than interested in answering my questions about his future. “The only thing I know for sure,” he said, was that, “on January 1, I’ll be out of work, so I’ll need a job to support my family.” How could this be, I wondered? Didn’t all ex-mayors and ex-politicians get “taken care of,” and didn’t many of them become fabulously rich after leaving office?

From then until now, I have spent a good deal of time with “Mr. Mayor,” prodding him to write this important book and assisting him in the process. During this time I have become convinced that his portrayal in the mainstream media has been largely at odds with the facts.

To begin with, New York City was not the crime-infested capital of the world under David Dinkins, as has been proposed by his successor, Rudy Giuliani. This widely accepted myth, which was used by Giuliani as fodder for his presidential campaign, did as much to malign the law-abiding citizens of our great city as it did to damage the reputation of Mayor Dinkins.

The truth be told, crime had reached historic highs during the last term of Ed Koch, which carried over to Dinkins’s first year in office. Racial tensions, too, had reached a boiling point well before Mayor Dinkins took the oath of office. Moreover, the entire nation experienced surging crime rates that ultimately resulted in what is popularly known as the federal “Crime Bill,” which was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton. Exacerbating the problem, weakening city finances and a national economic downturn conspired to cut social service expenditures at a time when they were needed most, and a tragedy such as the Crown Heights riot was an accident waiting to happen.

As I like to say, they didn’t exactly lay out a welcome mat for this proud veteran of the United States Marine Corps. And yes, they also didn’t know how tough he was.

As you will see as you read this book, two things David Dinkins does not tolerate are violence and lawlessness. While some in the media grudgingly regarded him as “courtly” and “civil,” from his first day in office to his last, critics insisted he be tougher on crime, yet never gave him credit for actually doing something about it.

In point of fact, crime began dropping at a faster rate during Mayor Dinkins’s tenure than during any other time in the history of New York City, and has continued to do so up to the present. In fact, it was Mayor Dinkins who hired five thousand new cops despite the budget deficit he inherited, and it was he who initiated the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, which took police out of their cars and put them on the streets—the one policing strategy that many experts credit as actually being effective in combating crime. In fact, those initiatives combined to bring about a rapid drop of crime and put the city well on a path to being among the nation’s safest.

Need I mention that it was David Dinkins who promoted Ray Kelly to the position of police commissioner?

In line with his abhorrence of crime and lawlessness, Mayor Dinkins also had zero tolerance for white-collar crime and political malfeasance of any sort. As a result, his administration did not have a single scandal or indictment handed down to any of its members, while those of his predecessor produced many. In fact, the team he put together to run the city government consisted of some of the most competent and public-spirited individuals ever assembled by any administration. And yes, they represented his “gorgeous mosaic,” a blend of men and women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Christians, Jews, and nonbelievers.

Perhaps the greatest disservice to Mayor Dinkins’s reputation was the furor over building a new stadium for the US Tennis Open, which was named for one of the greatest tennis players of all time. How dare he spend millions of taxpayers’ money? came the hue and cry. Why was it named after Arthur Ashe? Who other than Mayor Dinkins really cares about tennis?

Well, as it turns out, the investment has produced by some estimates more than $1 billion in revenue for New York City since the stadium was completed, and tennis is now widely recognized as a national sport. Arthur Ashe was the Jackie Robinson of tennis, his legacy lives on, and not solely because a black mayor chose to honor him. Yet we still haven’t heard a single accolade for Dinkins’s vision, and the stadium remains widely derided, most recently because we didn’t spend even more money to include a retractable dome!

Sometime in the near future we may well build a new domed stadium. In my view, it should be named after David Dinkins. However, knowing him as I do, I can say that he would never consider such a gesture.

Today Mayor Dinkins is leading a wholesome and productive life. A professor of public policy at Columbia University and, as always, a man about town, he enjoys a popularity that speaks volumes about his place in New York City’s history. He remains both thankful and humbled to have had the privilege to serve as mayor of the greatest city in the world.

He is equally thankful, perhaps, for the years he served as city clerk, about which he writes, “The part of the job I most enjoyed was presiding over the city’s Marriage Bureau. The city clerk can preside over marriage ceremonies, and I took the opportunity as often as I could. I had a convocation ready to go at any moment, adaptable to whomever was celebrating their happy day:

We are here to participate in and witness the sacred ceremony of marriage which has been, since the time of the first born, a means of establishing and continuing a home. For it is by this act that the community endures.

Mayor Dinkins made estimable yet largely overlooked contributions to the New York City community. It is time they were appreciated.

Thank you, Mr. Mayor.




Trenton Makes, the World Takes

Trenton, New Jersey, where I grew up, was a major center of manufacturing in the Northeast. A working-class city, Trenton was home to a half-dozen rubber companies, Roebling Wire and Steel, and Lenox China; its factories made cigars, anvils, farm tools, steam turbines, aspirin, dolls, watches, bricks, linoleum, and felt-tip pens. Westinghouse, General Motors, Eastern Aircraft, American Standard—all called Trenton home. The world’s largest bathtub was made in our fair city and was sent to President William Howard Taft. A sign on the side of the Lower Free Bridge over the Delaware River announced proudly, Trenton Makes, the World Takes. Locals still call it the “Trenton Makes Bridge.”

I was born in Trenton on July 10, 1927, and my first memories are of the Great Depression. None of these factories was doing very well. I didn’t know it was the Depression, I thought this was just how life was.

My parents, William Harvey Dinkins Jr. and Sarah Lucy, met at Huntington High School in Newport News, Virginia. My mother, whom everyone called Sally, stood perhaps five-foot-two and was very proud to be co-captain of the girls’ basketball team. They married young and came north.

My father went to beautician school in Newark, and my earliest memories of him are in the one-chair barbershop he ran on the ground floor of the row house in which we lived at 81 Spring Street. The street was wide, and the houses that lined it were two and three stories high, some made of brick, some of wood. My father did all the renovations himself; he was very good with his hands. I shined the shoes of the men who came for a cut and a shave. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we got by.

When I was around six years old, my parents separated. I couldn’t understand why and they didn’t tell me, but I went with my mother and grandmother, Nora Bacon, to live in New York City. My younger sister, Joyce, came with us and later moved to Baltimore to stay with my father’s sister. We lived in Harlem. The only apartment I remember must have been on Seventh Avenue, overlooking the subway yards. We never stayed in one place very long; we moved when the rent was due.

My mother and grandmother both worked as domestics, cooking and cleaning for white folks for a dollar a day. I don’t remember ever being hungry, I never went to bed without dinner, and my clothes were clean. I had toys; when the children of the families for whom my mother and grandmother worked outgrew or got tired of theirs, they were given to me. We were poor as hell, but I didn’t know that we were poor.

There were rules in my mother’s house. If we were walking in the street and encountered an adult and I called that person by his or her first name, I would receive a stern rebuke. “This is Mr. Smith,” I was informed. Propriety was important. And respect. I was an obedient child, and they didn’t have to discipline me often. I do not mean to suggest that I was never bad, because I’m sure I got into as much trouble as the average kid, but I would not defy them. If I did something wrong, my mother or grandmother would simply talk to me. Whatever the infraction—perhaps my room was messy—they would say, “Today we worked so hard, why don’t you pick up your clothes?” In about thirty seconds I would be in tears. They were loving, caring, hardworking women, and they never had to lay a hand on me.

With just one exception.

In the mid-1930s on the streets of New York, the latest in personal transportation was what we called skate scooters: wooden soapboxes nailed onto two-by-fours with metal roller-skate wheels affixed in the front and back. They made a racket in the street, and we would race them incessantly. Of course, if you wanted a really good-looking scooter, you’d nail on reflectors, the kind found mostly on license plates. We wouldn’t buy reflectors; we didn’t have the money or the inclination. We would liberate them. On one occasion, as a group of us were huddled over the back bumper of a particularly vulnerable automobile, a police officer—a black police officer in plainclothes—saw us and knew immediately that we were up to no good. We all took off and he chased us, and because I was the smallest he caught me. He could have taken me to the station house, but he did something he knew would be far worse: he took me home to my mother and grandmother. They took off all my clothes, stood me in the bathtub, and beat me with straps. I haven’t stolen a reflector since.

When I was around seven years old, I used to sell shopping bags. At the corner of 125th Street and Eighth Avenue, men sold fruit and vegetables from pushcarts. This open-air marketing was the very personal way shopping got done in Harlem. And because nobody had any money, you didn’t get a shopping bag in which to place your groceries, you had to buy one. Little entrepreneur that I was, I would buy bags from a wholesaler three for a nickel and sell them to shoppers at two cents apiece. It took quite a while, but when I finally made ten cents, I went to the five-and-dime and bought a present for my mother. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

I was still in grammar school when I was sent back from Harlem to Trenton to live with my father. His name was Bill, but I called him Pop, and everybody else did too. If Pop had gone to college, he would have done quite well; he was a very smart, self-made man. By the time I got back, his barbershop was thriving. He had started with one chair and then expanded, renting space to other people. Ed Veldeen had a chair, and a man named Cox, and another fellow from nearby Philadelphia used to come over and cut hair. In the years I was away, Pop was certified as a real estate broker and insurance agent, and he managed his businesses from an office in back of the barbershop. He was making a better living than my mother, and apparently together they decided I would be better served living with him in Trenton.

I had responsibilities. In those days people didn’t pay their bills by mailing in a check at the beginning of the month, they went to each office personally and paid in cash. Pop had a box with many compartments into which he would put aside some money each week—“This is the rent, this is the electric, this is the telephone”—and as each was due I would be dispatched to pay the bill. He didn’t use these exact words, but he was teaching me the difference between “gross” and “net,” he was teaching me that not all the money in the cash register was his. We had debts, and he was teaching me how to save. And he was demonstrating his faith in me.

There was a smattering of black families on Spring Street. We didn’t live in a ghetto. From my father’s barbershop all the way down a couple of blocks to the shoemaker was mostly white. There were two black families on the 200 block. Mrs. Hence, an African American, ran a little tearoom, but most of the families in the immediate vicinity were working- or lower-middle-class white folks. No one locked his door, not during the day, not at night. We all knew each other. It was mostly black in the stand-alone wooden homes on West End Avenue, a little mixed on nice, quiet Montgomery Place. There was not much crime to speak of. Once, a man opened the door of the neighborhood doctor’s car, parked unlocked as it was in front of the doctor’s home/office on Spring Street, and stole his medical bag. An hour later the same man drove by and tossed the bag on the sidewalk; he didn’t want to deprive the doctor of his equipment, he just wanted the morphine the doctor was carrying. That is the sum total of crime I can recall.

Once back, I quickly rejoined a tight group of friends. There was Frederick Schenck (pronounced Skank); Hilmar Ludwig Jensen Jr., also known as Junky Joe; and Aloysius Leon Higginbotham Jr. The Hayling brothers, Leslie and Hartley (known as Bill), lived across the street. Fred Schenck grew up to become the deputy undersecretary of commerce for the Jimmy Carter administration. Junky Joe became a teacher and school principal in Delaware. Leon Higginbotham became chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Les Hayling was one of the Tuskegee Airmen—in 2007 they were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal—and became a successful dentist, and Dr. Bill Hayling delivered everyone’s babies.

When we were little boys, we would play down by the canals that ran through Trenton, fed in part by the Delaware River and remnants of the horse-drawn barge system that served as a shipping lane from New Brunswick in north Jersey all the way down to Lambertville. My father had found an old piece of wood that was wide enough and long enough to stand on, and he had anchored it with rocks and dirt in the well-worn towpath out behind West End Avenue for us to use as a diving board. Trenton summers were hot, and it was a great treat to be able to jump into the water, even if some of us, myself among them, could not swim. One afternoon I trotted out to the end and started jumping up and down, singing, “This is my daddy’s diving board! This is my daddy’s diving board!” I slipped and fell. The first time my head got above water, I saw Junky Joe’s heels rounding the corner of the alley, running. I was going down for the second time when Les Hayling walked into the water and pulled me out. Later that afternoon I saw Joe.

“You left me to drown!”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I went to seek aid!” Nine years old and he went to “seek aid”!

Not long after I returned to Trenton my father told me he was going to remarry. I thought I would die. All this time my parents had been very civil to one another—we were together at holiday times—and I was convinced that they would someday be a family again. I had built my vision of the world on that reunion, and when that future fell apart I was very distressed. I cried for a week.

The woman my father married, my stepmother, was named Lottie Lee Hargett, but everybody called her Sis. In my day there were no African American teachers at Trenton Central High School, but she started in the middle school and taught for forty years, and by the time she retired Sis was teaching English and drama at Central. She was a presence. The year she retired they dedicated the Trenton Central yearbook to her. On occasion we would encounter two generations of her students—say, mother and daughter—walking down the street. She was very helpful to me and my friends when we needed educational assistance. Whenever there was a school play or poetry recital, the participants always asked her to help. It didn’t take long for me to learn to love her, and I ended up having two mothers who loved me. They were very much alike, and each of them thought there was nothing I couldn’t do.

Sis was a trusting soul. My father would fill the gas tank in our car without telling her, and she never caught on. According to Les Hayling, she once said, as Pop winked at us around the dinner table, “This car gets good mileage. I’ve been riding all summer and haven’t had to fill up once!”

I attended the Bellevue Avenue Colored School, later named the New Lincoln School, obviously an all–African American institution. Black students, black teachers, and a black principal, P. J. Hill, a no-nonsense educator whom kids used to call Pickle Juice. I was a decent student. Each of the adults in my life instructed me to pay attention, and I did.

In junior high school we studied Latin, and my very strict teacher, Ms. Bernice Munce, never gave me better than a B. However, I got to Trenton Central High School and proceeded to lead the class. On the other hand, my arithmetic teacher, who had earned his doctorate, never gave me less than an A−. The first day in high school the math teacher, Mr. Murphy, put a square root sign on the blackboard and referred to it as a “radical.” I had never heard the term, didn’t know what he was talking about. In the six math marking periods that year, I started with a D and by the end the best I could do was a B. Ever since that time I have felt that it is not the subject matter that is primary in the creation of a student, it is the quality of the teacher. I have had a handful of good teachers in my life, men and women who made an impression on me and who I think taught me well, and I am very thankful for them.

As we grew older Fred Schenck, Junky Joe, and I grew even closer. If you saw one of us, you saw us all. We were known in the neighborhood as the Three Musketeers. I wasn’t an athlete. Although I was too little to play basketball, I loved to play baseball—second base or shortstop—but wasn’t particularly good. We played football in the street as though we were competing for professional contracts. Our football, however, was old and beaten, and the bladder was dried out completely. We didn’t have money to replace it, so we stuffed the leather shell full of leaves and continued our pursuit of athletic greatness. In fact, at age ten or twelve, we played a game against a team of white kids down the shore in Asbury Park. We arrived, and they couldn’t have been nicer. They fed us sandwiches and cookies and ice cream, and we stuffed ourselves, and then they went out and ran all over us. We didn’t know whether that was their plan, but it worked!

On Saturday mornings, Fred, Junky Joe, and I would investigate the alleys of the affluent neighborhood west of Spring Street, looking for soda bottles in rich folks’ garbage. There was a nickel deposit on those bottles, which was big money. We would trade in what we found and head over to the local bakery, Pryor’s Doughnuts on Edgewood Avenue. On any given day fresh pastries were too expensive for us, but a nickel would get you a baker’s dozen of day-old doughnuts, and those we shared happily. Pryor’s was right across the street from the Strand Theater, where we spent many Saturday afternoons. Starting at one o’clock, the price of admission got you four hours of a movie matinee, serials, cartoons, and an on-screen contest. If your ticket number came in, you’d win a candy bar. Fred Schenck swears he actually won one.

Of course we sat in the balcony. When we stepped up to the ticket window, that’s where they automatically put us. I don’t have any recollection of white and colored water fountains in Trenton, but I do know that I was never permitted a seat in the orchestra of the Strand Theater. Now and then we would ask for a downstairs seat, but these requests were never granted. (Maybe because that is where I sat during my formative moviegoing years, I have always felt that a seat in the mezzanine is superior to one in the orchestra. One, it is cheaper, and two, it has a better view.)

None of us was allowed to smoke, but that didn’t stop us from buying cigarettes. Usually we would buy them loose for a penny apiece, but one day we gathered enough money to purchase an entire pack—we must have made off with a great haul of soda bottles. It was Joe’s responsibility to take the pack home, and he got caught. In our neighborhood it wasn’t hard to figure out who the other culprits were. There was no inquisition, no call to ask any of us, “Did you do this?” The assumption was that we were all co-conspirators, and that assumption was almost always correct. As we shared our successes, we shared our failures: whatever punishment was meted out to one of us the other two got as well, as a matter of course. And they did not spare the rod; this punishment was corporal.

We spent a lot of time at the colored YMCA. The white Y was downtown on Clinton Avenue, where we would occasionally get invited to shoot pool, but most of our time was spent at the colored Y, a townhouse at 105 Spring Street run by Junky Joe’s father. Mr. Jensen had an assistant, Calvin Brown, who was a nice fellow with an excellent singing voice, and he was there to help make sure we kids didn’t get unruly.

The colored Y was free. There would be fifteen or twenty boys and girls there almost every day—before dinner, after dinner, it was like a second home. We would play Ping-Pong, and if you backed up too far trying to hit a shot, you would bang your paddle against the wall and knock out some plaster. Years later, my father bought that house, and I found myself patching some of the holes I had helped create.

There was a gym in Les Hayling’s basement built by an Indian man who worked for Les’s father. He had taken a card table, turned it upside down, fastened it to the ceiling, and hung a punching bag from it. He had erected a platform to serve as a ring. We went down there and fought like cats and dogs. I would fight in the schoolyard; if you pushed me, I would push you back. My friend Alphonse Wheeler—“Fonz”—was not much bigger than I, but he was a tough cat who liked me because I refused to get pushed around; he kind of became my protector. He, too, later joined the Marine Corps. Still, since I was smaller than most of the other boys, I knew enough not to put on gloves and step into a ring.


  • Sam Roberts, New York Times Book Review
    “An inspiring account of New York's first black mayor and the hopes he inherited, many of them dashed on the shoals of fiscal reality and a sometimes hapless search for consensus.”

    “Dinkins trumpets his accomplishments as mayor and offers some insights into the boisterous New York political scene, the rise of Harlem's political influence, and the evolution of black political leaders during a turbulent period.”

    Kirkus Reviews
    "A former New York City mayor recounts his personal journey from humble roots to running America's most iconic metropolis…A frank, unique look at the many challenges in New York City politics."

On Sale
Sep 17, 2013
Page Count
408 pages

David N. Dinkins

About the Author

David N. Dinkins is a professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the host of Dialogue with Dinkins on WLIB radio in New York City.

Peter Knobler has collaborated on several bestsellers, including Sumner Redstone’s A Passion to Win and James Carville and Mary Matalin’s All’s Fair. The former editor of Crawdaddy magazine, Knobler has also written for many national publications.

Learn more about this author