Policy 1965, Policy 2016

I came across this letter to NYC mayor John Lindsay from (the Gestalt therapist and social critic ) Paul Goodman, from 1965; its proposals are amusingly similar to those of today– Chetty’s removal of the urban poor to the countryside, Bloomberg’s excise of cars from the center city, BLM’s entreaties for community control of police and an end to harsh drug laws, welfare reformers’ criticism of means-tested, in-kind programs versus cash assistance, educationists’ criticism of increased credentialing and administration costs and desire for less rigid standards, and so on, along with an in-passing shout-out to electric cars and ride sharing. It could be that Goodman was ahead of his time; it could be that these things always seem like good ideas and then are almost impossible to implement successfully.

1.My first suggestion may seem odd to a mayor-elect of New York City. It is to pay farm families and use the rural countryside to help with urban problems, e.g., to take care of the old in existing villages and the harmless insane on farms; to encourage new immigration toward more congenial rural environments; to provide vacations on farms. Especially, education would be improved during the junior high school years if kids who had never been more than a few blocks from home could experience the culture shock of a year in a country school. At present, city and country confront each other like hostile camps, as in the controversy over reapportionment; but, for ecological reasons, this won’t do. Like other cities New York has pathological symptoms of population explosion, while beautiful areas upstate and in neighboring states are losing population. Beyond a certain point, crowding and forced conformity make decent life impossible unless we use other environments, as, of course, rich people do for their vacations and the schooling of their children. Meantime, for petty economies in cash-farming we have destroyed many farms and incurred heavy extra urban costs in housing and services for the displaced. Thus, it would be wise to channel much of our urban social service money back into rural life and try to support rural economic and community reconstruction. We ought to aim at 20 per cent rural population rather than the present 6.7 per cent, and this is an urban problem. Instead, we have been underwriting the worst possible plan: blighted center and suburban sprawl.

2.Anomie—normlessness—is now a chief factor making cities unworkable, whether it appears as the hopelessness and delinquency of poor people or as the privatism and negativism of the middle class fleeing to suburbs. Your disposition to provide “neighborhood City Halls” for complaint and consultation is good. Finally, however, the only way to remedy powerlessness is to give power: in their neighborhood City Halls, the local citizens must exercise initiative and make decisions, including making trouble and/or mistakes. Change the present districting of municipal functions—schools, police, etc.—which was designed for the convenience of various central departments. Make cohere the districts for community planning, welfare, schools, police and elections, and give to each of the neighborhood City Halls a share of money to hire its own professionals and budget on its own. Then citizens may get to look at their neighborhood City Hall as a genuine means of contact with public life. The town meeting is not an impossible idea. (Working with the local planning board, the School of Architecture at Columbia is now working on plans for a neighborhood City Hall for Washington Heights. It is a difficult aesthetic problem: how to express the importance of a public thing without the pomposity of a Public Thing.)

3.A major function that needs more local control is policing. Your merely technological proposals for safety have been disappointing (even alarming). You say little about the causes of trouble, e.g., the narcotics laws, and almost nothing about the method and spirit of policing. The current popular remedy, the Civilian Review Board, which you endorse, can achieve little, except in outrageous cases and after long delay. Let me suggest, therefore, that we draw on the philosophical distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, and try to police the misdemeanors—rackets, petty theft, moral offenses, disorderly conduct, delinquency—by neighborhood police, with a local Chief, according to local mores. The purpose of misdeameanor-policing is to keep the peace; it is absurd to try to police Harlem, as we do, by the mores of a Long Island suburb plus corruption and uncomprehending brutality. Live and let live. Maybe this suggestion entails impossible administrative and legal difficulties, but it is worth exploring because it is natural.
4.In Welfare, we need more economic sense and less petty bourgeois means-testing, less social worker theorizing about cultural deprivation. The comprehensive welfare costs for a poor family now amount to a handsome middle-class income. The costs for training camps and “head start programs” designed to get people into some other stream of behavior are startling. Would it not be better to use this kind of money to provide business capital for people to employ according to their own lights? (Here the Black Muslims have been bang right.) I am impressed by an experiment in Columbus, Ohio, where poor people have formed their own corporations for useful services. Negro cooperatives have come to exist in the South. With capital, and their own labor exempt from union scales, such corporations might remarkably improve their own housing and neighborhoods, at very cheap cost. The way to calm activist pressure groups is not, as the Great Society now seems to have decided in panic, to withdraw funds and disown them, but rather to encourage actions that result in direct and tangible satisfactions, freedom schools, playgrounds, renovation, useful jobs. (We certainly need several years of simple labor to improve the rivers and the subways.) As Robert Theobald says, a chief characteristic of the poor is that they have no money. And no options, nor access to their own professionalsnn.

5.The educational system has gotten to be so wrong in principle that one cannot accept its premises, as you do, and make sense. Consider, simply, that it is impossible for any single sociological institution like the conventional School—a building, textbooks, teachers, assigned lessons—to be the appropriate means of educating 100 per cent of New York’s million children. Unless we open a dozen different paths of growing up, most of our money is thrown away and the waste of young life and talent is cruel. You have spoken with some favor of central Educational Parks where large numbers of children would be assembled for integrated schooling. But this would be the ultimate in monolithic mismanagement. Instead, look at the very tiny First Street School on the Lower East Side (Negro, Puerto Rican, and “white”). This school has a pupil teacher ratio of 8 to 1 and employs a good progressive approach, freely using the city itself as a means of teaching; but it costs the same per pupil as the public schools, where the ratio is 30 to 1. Thus the inflation of administrative costs in the Public School establishment is 300 per cent and the children and teachers are reduced to ciphers in the operation.

On the secondary level, study the actual requirements for the common run of jobs and you will find that most of the high-schooling is irrelevant. It would be better, and as cheap, to educate the majority, including very many of the bright and gifted, by paying them to try out as apprentices in various real environments, in order to learn manual, trade, skilled, cultural, sub-professional, and even professional vocations. Provision should be made for re-entry into college when and if required. And the same reasoning holds for the unrealistic requirement of college diplomas for many licenses. We have trapped the young in an obstacle race that very often has no functional use whatever. Naturally they make trouble, and they are going to make more.

1.Both you and Mr. Buckley have spoken of controlling the inflow of cars, wisely, for it is inevitable. But you treat the matter gingerly, by “attrition,” and in isolation from an integrated street plan and transit plan. Instead, ban the cars from the center of the city, building river piers for parking, and beautiful advantages follow: play streets for children, better air, a fund of prime land for housing renewal without relocation, and express avenues. A few years ago, my brother estimated that we could close one-half to three-quarters of the side streets in Manhattan; and by doubling the number of taxis, which should be small and electric, and providing express buses we could all have better transportation.*

Furthermore, logically prior to any transit plan should be the effort to diminish commutation altogether, for example by a bureau of apartment exchanges to bring people nearer to their jobs. A policy of urban renewal and rental should be developed to bring a higher proportion of residences and jobs into adjacent locations (as was achieved by the garment workers co-operative in Chelsea). Here the benefit is not only in relieving congestion but in saving hours of commutation.


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