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New York: A Documentary Film | Article

Interviews: Politicians

Bella Abzug

Bella Abzug was an attorney, author, lecturer, news commentator, and former U.S. Representative from New York. She was a lifelong activist in support of civil rights, equal rights for women, and disarmament, and in 1970 she became the first woman elected to Congress on a women's rights platform. In 1990, she co-founded an international advocacy network called the Women's Environment and Development Organization which represented the culmination of her lifelong career as public activist and stateswoman.

On Why Her Family Came To New York:
"This was a place of opportunity and a place to be able to be free; there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Russia at that time and there were lots of edicts and promulgations when my grandfather came here that were directed against Jews in Russia. This was obviously early 1900s, pre-Stalin and pre-Communism, so there was a czar that reigned. And it was a new sense of freedom; they could practice their religion; they could say what they wanted to say without being afraid of being either attacked by the authority or by organized peasants who were often unleashed, and unleashed their dogs, on Jews, who were the victims of great persecution. So coming here with the openness, the democracy, with opportunity, and having rights to do all kinds of business if you wanted to was a very, very important thing . . . People feel that this is a place they'll be accepted and they'll be able to function and work and raise their kids and that it's a democracy. Many people come from countries where there is very little freedom, little democracy, lots of persecution, and very little opportunity. All of those are factors that cause people to come here."

On New York As A Progressive City:
"I think that New York is still considered to be a more forward-thinking city than other cities in the country -- including others on the east coast . . . There is a greater sense of fundamental freedom and justice and thoughts of liberty and equality in this city than probably any other place in the world . . . In the midst of confusion there's this strong beat of living -- people really living and people really struggling and people overcoming and people surviving. That's our great contribution: that we can do that in this city against overwhelming odds."

On Politics:
"I come from the reform movement -- if there is such a movement in the Democratic Party. It has reflected a lot about New York that is interesting, and that reflected the need to have people get some jobs done that were not being done. Very often strong political figures were able to get jobs done, even though we may not like the paths that they took. Boss Tweed was a Boss and he did just that. At the same time he corrupted the institution and we're left with that, plus Tammany Hall -- we've continued that tradition until we finally developed a reform movement in this city, which was theoretically against patronage and having politicians being paid off for being just politicians in addition to their salaries. That was for a while a very effective movement because it was a strong movement which had the voice of the people behind it. It was a movement that opposed the war in Vietnam, that fought for child care, fought for economic and social improvement conditions, fought for transportation and for schools, and for support for the elderly and so on."

David Dinkins

On What Makes New York Great:
"I have to confess that sometimes as we travel about the city and we have gridlock traffic because we are repairing roadways or something, I'm reminded of the expression someone said some time ago -- that New York would be a great city if they ever finished it. But it is a wonderful city, wonderful people. The people really are what make New York City great."

On New York As The Capital Of The World:
"Some of us claim that New York City is the capital of the country, indeed the capital of the world. Now, that may be a bit much for those who don't come from New York, but clearly we are an important city for reasons of our cultural advantages. The art and culture that is New York, communications, finance, all these things help make up New York. The rest of the country should be happy that we are what we are."

On The Fiscal Crisis Of The 1970s:
"I became City Clerk in 1975 and Herman Badillo, counseled bankruptcy. He advised that that was the way to go -- which many of us thought would be a terrible mistake because, who would do business with you again? Today, certain people file for bankruptcy, businesses and individuals, and it no longer has the stigma it once had. Now it's almost considered wise, a way to regroup and come back again. But certainly in 1975, 1976, 1977, that was not the image of one going bankrupt. Bankrupt meant you cannot pay your debts and that you owe more than you have. It would have been a terrible thing for the city to have done. We ultimately did get assistance from the Federal Government, but it was a loan guarantee. We borrowed money, it helped us with bonds and what not, and the Federal Government backed it, but it was a guarantee, it was not a grant. And we not only paid it off, but we paid it off ahead of time. We paid it off during Ed Koch's stewardship, and the Government made money on the City of New York. So it's a mistake for someone to think that they bailed New York out. They did assist us, for which we are grateful, but it's a mistake to say we bailed New York out by giving them a grant of money to help those poor people who throw it away on welfare. That was not the case."

On Robert Moses:
"Robert Moses left a legacy. To be sure, we would not have had the kinds of development that we had, had he not behaved as he did. Which incidentally doesn't mean that it was necessarily a good thing to so behave. There was a lot of pain in the wake of some of the things that got accomplished and he fought with mayors and governors along the way, but he did achieve a lot of development that would not have occurred otherwise, and that no way could occur today."

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

An American sociologist and political leader, Moynihan was raised in a poor neighborhood in New York City. He became active in Democratic party politics in the 1950s and worked in the Department of Labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. After teaching for several years at Harvard University, he returned to government as a special adviser to President Nixon, later serving as Ambassador to India then as Ambassador to the United Nations. He was elected to the United States Senate from New York in 1976 until 2001.

On Governing New York:
"The first subway went from City Hall to what is now Grand Central Station in about 18 months. We're sitting here in the Chrysler Building, a magnificent building put up in 23 months. The rival, the Empire State Building, was built in 13 months. You had a city government that could make decisions and let them go forward. The endless review that has taken over modern government, the sort of entropy that settles in, is in direct aftermath of the end of the political machines, as they were called. The machines are not the worst image because they did work. Lincoln Steffens once asked Croker, "Why do you have to have a boss when you've got a parks commissioner, and a roads commissioner, and a mayor, and an alderman, and a council . . . ?" And he said, "That's why. You've got a parks commissioner, and a roads commissioner, and a mayor, and a council, and an alderman . . . Somebody has to say do it," -- and they could. They were reviled for it. They were not cultured people, not outwardly. They were not cultured people and at times they were not necessarily very empathetic, but they knew how to govern. And when they disappeared under the cloud of corruption and bossism, whatever exactly that was, nothing took their place."

On Getting Things Done:
"I sit in the most important city in the world, which is also the only world-class city that does not have a rail connection to its airport. We have been planning it for 30 years. Jimmy Walker would have built it in 30 months, but there would have been side arrangements that in the end became unacceptable. I'm not trying to romanticize, I'm saying what is palpably the case. The city ceased to grow about the time the party politics faded, with discipline, among the actors and across different realms of authority. When that ceased, when that disappeared, when that faded, the city began to fade."

On Immigration:
"Immigration made us huge. You could never breed yourself into eight million people in 50 years, immigration did it. It also made for an industrial city. People who were arriving were from the farms in Maine, arriving here in curious reversals. It was when the wheat from Kansas began arriving in the Baltic that peasant populations became surplus and town populations became sort of surplus; the turn around came, and they arrived here. The great Jewish migrations were in part the effect of those economic changes. Well, you have people who could produce a mass production system. And we had factories all over the city when I was a boy. My first job was at the American Can Company in Long Island City. Big place that made metal containers. The garment industry became very important as a source of entrepreneurship. You got a lot of variation. Jewish males did not think it unmanly to sew. Nobody ever told them that making suits was something that only women did. So the garment industry became ethnically defined and wonderfully productive. We could never get an Irishman to sew; he wouldn't dream of it -- we gave them the construction trades and so it would go. Variegated but peaceable. Very little crime, very little violence. The first half of the 20th century in New York everything settled down. The disruption of the 1930 depression was also an occasion for enormous public works. Fiorello La Guardia could get La Guardia airport built in 21 months and think nothing of it. The city was remarkably well-governed and self-governed. There was a civic ethos. There was no crime . . . very little vice, good schools, steady jobs with the depression aside, a lot of civic pride. And only one perceived problem which was: How do you deal with growth? In the 1920s, city planning became a real enterprise and the state helped out, and men like Robert Moses began laying out the arterial road systems and the tunnels and bridges. It was quite an astonishing success. New York City in 1945 was the most successful place on earth, and in terms of its size and population the most successful place in history. "

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