Forty years ago this week, a snowstorm struck New York City, eventually killing 42 people — half of them in Queens — and injuring 288 others. The blizzard prompted a political crisis that became legendary in the annals of municipal politics, nearly brought down the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay and offered an instructive lesson to elected officials in the politics of snow removal.
The snowstorm is recounted in Vincent J. Cannato’s “The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York” (Basic Books, 2001). Fifteen inches of snow fell on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1969, defying the predictions of the United States Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service), which had forecast a change to rain by that afternoon. The city’s environmental protection administrator was upstate and unreachable, and nearly 40 percent of the city’s snow removal equipment was defective because of poor maintenance, both factors that hampered the city’s response.
“For three days, the city was in a state of near paralysis,” wrote Dr. Cannato, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Not until Wednesday did schools, streets, subways, airports and other infrastructure begin to return to normal operation.
Even worse, Queens was relegated to the status of a neglected stepchild. For days, the streets were impassable, and residents were all but barricaded inside their homes.
At one point, Ralph J. Bunche, the diplomat and undersecretary-general for the United Nations, sent Mayor Lindsay a telegram saying that never in his 17 years living in Kew Gardens had he “experienced such neglect in snow removal as now.”
There were no buses, taxicabs or delivery vehicles, and no trash or garbage collection for days. “As far as getting to the United Nations is concerned, I may as well be in the Alps,” Dr. Bunche wrote. “This is a shameful performance by the great city of New York, which should certainly condone no second-class borough.”
Mr. Lindsay traveled to Queens, but his visit was not well-received. His limousine could not make its way through Rego Park, and even in a four-wheel-drive truck, he had trouble getting around. In Kew Gardens Hills, the mayor was booed; one woman screamed, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” In Fresh Meadows, a woman told the mayor, “Get away, you bum.”
Mr. Lindsay’s predecessor, Robert F. Wagner, had spent an enormous amount during the last major blizzard, in 1961, but the Lindsay administration was wary of going over budget. And there were rumors that sanitation workers — still angry about the Lindsay administration’s heavy-handed actions during their strike in 1968 — were deliberately ignoring Queens to sabotage the mayor.
Dr. Cannato reveals a fascinating episode. During the mayor’s walk through Fresh Meadows, a woman called him “a wonderful man,” prompting the mayor to respond, “And you’re a wonderful woman, not like those fat Jewish broads up there,” pointing to women in a nearby building who had criticized him.
The comment was recorded on tape, but The New York Times, The Associated Press and WNEW radio declined to run with the story.
(via NYT CityRoom blog)