Two great books in a row. I’m very pleased with my choices of late. “The Fires” by Joe Flood jumped two other books in the queue (“The Climate War” and “Food Politics,” which has now been jumped twice, not a good sign.) I’m glad it moved up—it was a great short read and a thoughtful look at city politics, governing philosophies and a difficult time in a city’s history.
Flood’s premise is explained in the subtitle: “How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities.” In short, Flood believes that elite government types who thought they could use data and technology to run a city ended up being responsible for one of the worst periods of urban decay in our time. He does a pretty damn good job of trying his case. And his book is a stark warning to some of the technocrat, big government, “root-approach,” government types.
Flood knows that characters matter (just like Okrent) and he focuses on John O’Hagan, the fire commissioner and chief, as well as John Lindsay, the Mayor with high hopes for himself, and thirdly a computer. The computer was the brainchild of RAND Institute, a defense contractor turned urban social problem fixer. Having worked in a city, some of these characters were familiar to me.
O’Hagan though stood out. Clearly this was a guy trying to do the right thing. He had the right stuff and he wasn’t some corrupt official trying to get wealthy off of the public tit. He seemed to care about his city. He made ultimately poor decisions, lost sight of the reality on the ground, and he wound up as a somewhat disgraced public servant.
There is a superb theme that contrasts a root approach to government (technocrats and elites choosing a course of action and then charging forward) and a branch approach (which is more community oriented, and often marked by machine style politics). You could write a thesis on it alone.
I don’t want to give away too much—it’s worth the read. But this book did cause me to reflect more on my time in public service (if you can call it that) and I’ll talk about that here.
I worked in Cincinnati government during a very difficult time. We had riots, it was a down economy, and negativity seemed to be the only thing moving upwards. It was also a crossroads for the City, and at the end of the day, I’m proud of the accomplishments that happened while I was there and shortly thereafter. When the riots happened, I was 24 years old, had no experience in government, and had never talked to a member of the media. When it was over, I felt like I was 42 years old (in some ways). No one can teach the kind of political experience that is taught in a foxhole. I’ll forever go back and think about the lessons learned.
Sometimes I wish I had it to do over again. Since then, I’ve tried to become an armchair academic and have tried to read as much as I could about urban history, about riots, and about race relations in urban America. Some of what I read gave me chills. Mostly because the stories, the reactions, and the results were so damn familiar. It often seemed that what happened in Cincinnati was no different than what happened in countless urban cities (including Cincinnati), decades before. I wonder, had I read all this before I went to the City, would I have been any smarter? Would I have encouraged different courses of action? Or would it have been more difficult to draw on that academic sort of experience? I feel like reading all of this has enriched my memories of what actually happened in 2001. And I see much of what happened differently now.
Which brings me back to NYC and the Bronx. Joe Flood’s book must be painful to read for the well-intentioned public servants who chose government in the sixties and seventies. He filets an elitist mindset that encourages academics and theorists to foist their will and plans on the common man. Like I said earlier, he makes a strong case as to their “fuckedupedness.” I like to think that when I was in City Hall, we understood what was really going on around us better than the folks working for Lindsay. But who knows what history will say about us and about that period in Cincinnati.
Two notes: 1) The title of this post is what one budget director in the Lindsay administration said was all you need sometimes to succeed in the world. I like that. 2) Recommended as a companion to “The Fires” is “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning,” a great book about 1977 in NYC. And I hear that “The Power Broker” is a good one too. I need a few months on that. I’ll get back with you.