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  • “I Don’t Believe in a Fun City; I Believe in a Safe City”:Fear of Crime and the Crisis of Expertise in New York City
  • Joe Merton (bio)

In September 1970, New York City Mayor John Lindsay received an angry letter from Peter Szanton, president of the New York City Rand Institute. Both Szanton and his fledgling institute, the “first organization … devoted to the application of scientific methods of analysis to major problems of urban life,” typified a contemporary faith in the ability of professional expertise to solve urban problems.1 But against the backdrop of critical investigative press reports into institute practices and the decision of city Comptroller Abe Beame to veto payment of consultants’ fees, Szanton expressed his frustration at a lack of support for the institute’s efforts from Lindsay, and an “inadequate,” “defensive and unconvincing” mayoral response to public criticism of its work.2 In a little over eighteen months of operation, the institute had carried out more than one hundred studies of eight City agencies, delivering recommendations on increasing efficiency and improving service delivery and saving the city $20 million, according to Szanton’s estimate.3 Yet where, he asked, was the credit?

Szanton sought to answer this himself. “[Our] efforts … are intended to provide continuous analytic assistance, not single-shot studies. … [Our] goals are not the production of impressive public reports, but the actual introduction of [End Page 112] useful change. Perhaps two hundred people in the City understand why this should be. The rest do not,” he declared, hinting at the fact that expertise was an elite construct, suitable perhaps for those “major problems” and abstractions but ineffective in the arena of public opinion or political campaigns. To resolve the institute’s growing legitimacy crisis, Szanton demanded “a clear reaffirmation of Mayoral approval and support” that would restate to the public “the special role [the institute] will continue to play in City government.” Such a statement, he concluded, “must be carried forward if the application of analysis to public problems is to be understood and supported.”4 Yet while Lindsay had quickly established a relationship between Rand and the city in 1967—proclaiming their partnership “the most important development in the search for effectiveness in city government for many, many years”—and committed considerable resources to the institute’s creation two years later, in this instance he remained silent.5 Hit hard by Lindsay’s rejection, Szanton was forced to look to federal and nongovernmental sources for funding before the institute was wound up by Lindsay’s successor—Abe Beame, ironically—in 1975.6

This vignette is illustrative of a broader transformation in American public policy norms during the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era in which long-standing intellectual assumptions and centers of authority were called into question and, in many cases, rejected. Urban “experts” such as Szanton had enjoyed considerable power and autonomy in the two and a half decades following 1945, legitimized by a political and intellectual milieu that downplayed ideological conflict and anticipated the resolution of social problems through the “rational” application of knowledge and technocratic expertise. But having for most of the 1960s identified his administration and his city with expertise, why was Lindsay unwilling to do so by 1970? Why did the optimistic proclamations of urban experts such as Szanton and their political sponsors run aground so quickly? And what can this process tell us about the changing fortunes of this brand of liberalism, its policy preferences and adherents, and the new regime that emerged as its alternative?

While scholars have explored equivalent crises of expertise in overseas nation-building, poverty, or urban planning, few policy areas illustrate these changes more effectively than that of crime control.7 First, and contrary to the historiographical orthodoxy, Lindsay, like many other urban liberals during the 1960s, did not want for ideas in his attempts to fight crime. Experts provided liberals with a variety of weapons, from civil rights and social welfare programs to administrative techniques and new technologies, with which not [End Page 113] only to wage war on crime, but also, they predicted, to defeat it. In return, liberals such as Lindsay initially granted experts great...


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pp. 112-139
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