The Dreamer (and Doer)

The Dreamer (and Doer)
Fiorello La Guardia: The Dreamer (and Doer)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bill de Blasio Fights to Build Public School Annex in Borough Park

Council Member Bill de Blasio with students at an
elementary school in Brooklyn, April 8, 2002.
Council member Bill de Blasio and P.S. 39 principal 
Anita de Paz applaud with first and second grade artists, 
at children's art exhibition, May 12, 2008

From 2002 to 2009, Bill de Blasio represented the 39th Council District in the Council of the City of New York. The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives houses his Council member papers, which consist of Constituent Correspondence, Departmental Correspondence, Photographs, Committee Files, and Legislative Files on education, housing, and land use. Most significantly, we have identified the papers in his collection that document his dedication to improving the quality of public education in New York City, epitomized by his role in building the P.S. 160 Annex in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (Click here to view documents related to the P.S. 160 Annex.)
In 2008, de Blasio, an education activist who earlier had been elected to his local school board, responded to his constituents’ growing concerns about the overcrowding of P.S. 160 in Borough Park. He rallied the Department of Education, fellow politicians, and local residents to build an annex to P.S. 160.  The school was originally built in 1904 for only 500 students, but by 2008 housed 821 students, or 137% of its intended capacity. Built to be handicap accessible, the five story annex houses labs, classrooms for the upper grades, an auditorium, a library, a gymnasium and serves as a community center for the neighborhood. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mayor Lindsay Walks the Streets of Harlem

Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs

On April 4, 1968, a nation wounded both by the Vietnam War and the divisions it had created, and by outbreaks of civil unrest in its cities, faced the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  Pent-up anger and frustration in the African-American community led to rioting, looting and arson that destroyed vast swaths of neighborhoods in Washington, DC, Chicago, Kansas City, Newark and Baltimore.  In New York City, it was a different story.  Because Mayor John Lindsay and his staff had built relationships with the African-American community, Lindsay was able to travel to Harlem after the assassination and help calm an angry crowd, greatly limiting the damage done.  To learn more about the night of April 4 in Harlem, see the video interview with Lindsay aide, Sid Davidoff.
            Unfortunately, little has been learned from 1968 as can be seen from the horrifying events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed, young black man in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. This and the events that followed have brought systemic American racism to the forefront.  While there are many causes for the racism that led up to Michael Brown’s death, one of them was a lack of communication between the predominantly white local government police force and the African-American community.  Lindsay intuitively understood the importance of building these relationships, something that has been forgotten as American police departments have become increasingly militarized.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Mayor Robert Wagner, President Johnson and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention

                           Mayor Wagner & President Johnson     Fannie Lou Hamer

Steven A. Levine, Ph.D.
Coordinator for Educational Programs

Fifty years ago the Democratic Party Convention met in Atlantic City, NJ to nominate Lyndon Baines Johnson for a full term.  Johnson’s nomination was not in doubt, but who would represent Mississippi was up in the air: the all white segregationist regular Democrats or the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).  The MFDP were activists from Mississippi Freedom Summer (To learn more about Freedom Summer see the Archives’ Curriculum.) who came to Atlantic City determined to oust the regular Democrats.  Sharecropper and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer gave a powerful speech  to the Credentials Committee about the terrorist tactics used to prevent Hamer and other African-Americans from registering to vote.  After her speech it appeared that the MFDP had a chance to be seated by the Credentials Committee.

President Johnson used his political skills and power to seat the Mississippi regular Democrats.  He did this not out of support for them, but out of fear that other southern delegations would walk out of the convention if they were not seated and many southern states would then support his opponent Senator Barry Goldwater.  New York State had two seats, John English and Joyce Austin, on the Credentials Committee.  Johnson called his ally NYC Mayor Robert Wagner on the telephone to find out how they would vote and if he could sway them.  (Johnson recorded this and other telephone conversations in the Oval Office.)  Wagner thought that English could be swayed, but Joyce Austin, an African-American woman who worked for him, would support the MFDP. The MFDP lost their bid to be seated as Mississippi delegates and rejected a proposed compromise where they would have been given two at-large delegates to the convention.  The Regular Mississippi delegation walked out of the Convention and the MFDP would unofficially take their seats.  Goldwater would win Mississippi, but Johnson carried most of the southern states in a landslide victory.

If you want to learn more about the 1964 Democratic Convention and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, please feel free to contact me at the Archives at 

Mayor Robert F. Wagner and President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Discuss the 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Increasing the Minimum Wage: Past and Present

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, NY City Central Labor Council President 
Harry Van Ardsdale, Jr., and Mayor Robert F. Wagner
at a Breakfast Meeting of Labor Leaders, January 14, 1965

Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs

Demands to raise state and local minimum wages above the federal level are not new.  In the 1960s, Mayor Robert F. Wagner prioritized increasing the minimum wage from $1.25 to $1.50.  Stymied at the state level by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Republican dominated Legislature, Wagner signed a law to increase the City’s minimum wage He declared in a 1964 signing speech that “[T]his nation as well as this city is presently engaged in a war to eradicate poverty.  I am of the firm conviction that this law will in a large measure contribute to the diminution of poverty in this city . . . I feel it to be my duty as mayor of all of the people of the City of New York to sign this local law, and I do so willingly.”   Unfortunately, the NY Court of Appeals found that New York City did not have the power to set its own minimum wage, granting that power only to New York State.
           Mayor Bill de Blasio, like Wagner 50 years earlier, cannot raise the city’s minimum wage without the approval of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo.  This is now a possibility since Governor Cuomo agreed to increase the minimum wage in return for the endorsement of the Working Families Party.  If Cuomo follows through on this agreement, New York State will increase its minimum wage from $8 an hour (75 cents over the federal minimum) to $10.10 an hour indexed to inflation, and New York City and other localities will be able to raise their minimum wages 30% over the state minimum. The issue of leadership has also not changed in the 50 years since Wagner chastised leaders in Albany. “New York used to set the pace for the rest of the nation and the federal government as well.  Today our state, at best, is a reluctant follower.”  Let us hope in 2014 that New York will stop following and take the lead on increasing the minimum wage.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs
Sixty years ago today in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), declaring in a 9-0 decision that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.  After the decision, Mayor Robert F. Wagner saw the need to act in New York City stating in a 1955 speech to the United Parents Association that
"We cannot oppose only segregation in the South . . . The studies and analyses of schools in the areas where our Negro and Puerto Rican children live reveal the inequality of physical properties and teaching personnel.  That is not true democracy in education and it is not the American way.  It is certainly not the New York City way."

Wagner spoke these words in earnest and in great contrast to the racist venom of leaders in the South, but segregation was real and difficult to confront in New York City. Racism had deep roots in New York and Mississippi and  desegregation faced resistance in both places.
Sadly, progress that occurred in past decades is being reversed.  A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that "New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools.
 Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation."

History books describe Brown v. Board of Education as a turning point in history. Joel Motley, the son of NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Judge Constance Baker Motley also stressed this in an Archives video. They are correct, but the battles for school desegregation have not only been lost, but forgotten.  Moreover, recent Supreme Court decisions have weakened municipalities' abilities to even address the issue.  And when was the last time any of our political leaders mentioned the issue of school segregation?  In Washington and Albany, policies have favored charter schools, despite the UCLA study showing that charter schools are among the most segregated schools in New York City and in the nation.

Monday, May 12, 2014

NYC Transit Strike, 1966

On January 1, 1966, New York City, dependent upon mass transit as no other city in America, awoke to a daunting problem -- a complete subway and bus shutdown. For Michael Quill, 60-year-old president of the 32,600 members of the Transport Workers Union and native of County Kerry, Ireland, it was contempt at first sight when he set eyes upon newly-sworn Mayor John V. Lindsay, 44-years-old and Yale educated. The strike had heavy consequences, costing Quill his life and halting the city's transit lifeline for 12 days. This video, from a Universal newsreel, shows the city as never before.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Tribute to Lou Gehrig

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees captain, retired from baseball, due to the effects of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ALS, that came to be known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." The Yankees honored Gehrig at Yankee Stadium that day, and in front of a packed stadium, Gehrig referred to himself as the "luckiest man on the face of the Earth." He told the crowd that "I might have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for." As a player, he played through many injuries, but he could not defeat ALS, a degenerative neurological disorder, that would take his life two years later.

The Yankees loss of their captain was especially striking given his endurance as a player. Gehrig had played 13 consecutive seasons without missing a game and his nickname was the Iron Horse. After his career ended, x--rays on his hands show 17 fractures during this streak. Gehrig could not overcome the neurological effects of ALS that forced him into retirement, but he was a man who showed great courage and dignity when given a "bad break."