Brian Tochterman: Mailer for Mayor of the 51st State

cover photo for tochtermanToday we welcome a guest post by Brian Tochterman, author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear. In this eye-opening cultural history, Tochterman examines competing narratives that shaped post–World War II New York City. As a sense of crisis rose in American cities during the 1960s and 1970s, a period defined by suburban growth and deindustrialization, no city was viewed as in its death throes more than New York. Feeding this narrative of the dying city was a wide range of representations in film, literature, and the popular press—representations that ironically would not have been produced if not for a city full of productive possibilities as well as challenges. Tochterman reveals how elite culture producers, planners and theorists, and elected officials drew on and perpetuated the fear of death to press for a new urban vision.

In today’s post, Tochterman considers the outsider mayoral and city council candidacies of Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin in 1969 New York City.


Mailer for Mayor of the 51st State

“We recognize . . . that the city is ill, that our own New York, the Empire City, is not too far from death.”—Norman Mailer, “Why Are We in New York?” New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1969

Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin are part of a sometimes roving band of supporting characters that populate The Dying City. Mailer plays the role of the contrarian provocateur who challenges the dying city narrative, whether it’s holding up the risky brotherhood of New York City’s various youth gangs as an antidote to the “national disease” of boredom within the pages of Dissent or publishing a large-format book on the cultural significance of the 1970s’ most otherwise reviled contemporary art form, spray-paint writing. Breslin, the longtime voice of New York within the pages of various dailies, is perhaps most famously known outside of the city as the epistolary confidant of David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam, who addressed a cryptic letter to Breslin, then at the Daily News, during his 1977 killing spree. Breslin also co-authored “The Lonely Crimes” series, “or the crimes you don’t hear about,” from October 1965 that is examined in my book.

The Candidates

“The Lonely Crimes” and Mailer’s The Faith of Graffiti (1974) were both attacks on John Lindsay, a former U.S. congressman who served as New York City’s mayor from 1966 to 1973. In 1969, Mailer and Breslin united against Lindsay for the Democratic primary. Mailer submitted himself as the mayoral candidate with Breslin as a down-slate candidate for City Council president. They failed to secure the nomination, just as the incumbent Lindsay lost the Republican party primary that year. Lindsay, however, was able to secure New York’s Liberal Party ballot position and ultimately won reelection. Indicative of the national party realignments occurring at the time, Lindsay joined the Democratic Party in 1971 and sought the party’s nomination for U.S. President the following year. (Loose party loyalty and securing multiple fringe party endorsements is not uncommon for the New York mayor’s office, as the recent fluid reign of Michael Bloomberg attests.)

Writing within the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Mailer outlined their platform in an article titled “Why Are We in New York?”, a play on his recent war allegory Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). In contrast with his more contrarian tracts, Mailer utilizes the prevailing narrative of New York as Necropolis to set the context of his provocative key proposals: statehood for New York City and neighborhood power and autonomy. In 1969 the city is ill, “the victim ‘etherized on table.’” At night “a familiar sense of dread returns, the streets are not quite safe, the sense of waiting for some apocalyptic fire, some night of long knives hangs over the city.” The polluted air is toxic, “tempers shorten. . . . The sick get sicker, the violent more violent.” Mailer deployed images from the growing culture of poverty narrative, noting that one million welfare recipients were bankrupting the city’s finances, the post-industrial economy left few with living-wage employment opportunities, and housing in new and old slums hindered mobility.

Behind the Proposals

“Can New York be saved?” Mailer asked.
“Can New York be saved?” Mailer asked. His bivariate solution, as he noted, derived from Left and Right ideological currents. On the one hand, statehood would allow the city to maintain or expand its then overburdened public sector. According to Mailer’s math, New York City sent state and federal governments about $14 billion a year in income and corporate taxes and received approximately $3 billion in return for its $7.5 billion budget. Removing from the equation New York State, whose “good farmers and small-town workers” despised the city (“they hear of the evils of our city with quiet thin-lipped glee”), would conceivably allow the city to sort out its financial issues.

In hindsight, it’s enticing to ponder counterfactually the possibilities of Mailer’s proposal heading off the city’s embarrassing fiscal crisis and its very public shaming by federal politicos like Gerald Ford. At the same time, Mailer did not see an expanded welfare state as the panacea for New York City. To check and balance the city-state, he implored “Power to the neighborhoods!”

The New City-State

In the new city-state, every opportunity would be offered to neighborhoods to vote to become townships, villages, hamlets, sub-boroughs, tracts or small cities, at which legal point they would be funded directly by the fifty-first state. Many of these of these neighborhoods would manage their own municipal services, police, sanitation, fire protection, education, parks, or, like very small towns, if they wished, they could combine services with other neighborhoods. Each neighborhood would thus begin to outline the style of its local government by the choice of its services.

Perhaps reading the political tea leaves of the time, Mailer couched this municipal reorganization in conservative terms, “for it recognizes that a man must have the opportunity to work out his own destiny . . . [or] that a man has a right to live his life in such a way that he may know if he is dying in a state of grace.” Indeed, there is a bit of the conservative side of Jane Jacobs and her acolytes running through Mailer’s thread, but this appeal to community self-determination borrows much from Paul and Percival Goodman’s utopian vision in Communitas (1947) and the anarchist origins of urban planning itself (e.g. Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform).

Mailer through the Lens of Trump

It is remarkable to read Mailer’s piece through the lens of a context that sees little to no problem with non-legal minds assuming political office, which appears to have reached its logical conclusion in the election of Donald Trump. Mailer had enough self-awareness to know that his candidacy was DOA. He asks, “How then can Mailer and Breslin, two writers with reputations notorious enough for four, ever hope to convince the voting hand of the electorate? What would they do if, miracle of political explosions, they were to win?” At the very least, he suggests, “they would learn on the job, they would conduct their education in public. They would be obliged to.”

Reading such a frank acknowledgment of the need for transparency and a willingness to adapt is an adrenaline-like antidote for an administration that is anything but. At the same time, the Mailer/Breslin ticket—and the hyper-masculine, pugnacious, white, outerborough working-class symbolism implicit in their candidacy—was clearly an appeal to an undercurrent of backlash populism in the late 1960s, the yin to John Lindsay’s silk-stocking yang. In that respect, the counterfactualist in me wonders how the Mailer/Breslin ticket would play today.

Brian Tochterman, author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, is assistant professor of sustainable community development at Northland College.