NEW YORK — David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African American mayor but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a riot in Brooklyn, has died. He was 93.
Dinkins’ death Monday was confirmed by his assistant at Columbia University, where he taught after leaving office, and by Mayor Bill de Blasio, his onetime staffer. The former mayor’s death came just weeks after the death of his wife, Joyce, who died in October at the age of 89.
Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure with a penchant for tennis and formal wear, was a dramatic shift from both his predecessor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudy Giuliani — two combative and often abrasive politicians in a city with a world-class reputation for impatience and rudeness.
In his inaugural address, he spoke lovingly of New York as a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation, of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport or on buses bound for the Port Authority.”
But the city he inherited had an ugly side, too.
AIDS, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year. Unemployment soared. Homelessness was rampant. The city faced a $1.5 billion budget deficit.
Dinkins’ low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said he was too soft and too slow.
“Dave, Do Something!” screamed one New York Post headline in 1990, Dinkins’ first year in office.
Dinkins did a lot at City Hall. He raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers. He spent billions of dollars revitalizing neglected housing. His administration got the Walt Disney Corp. to invest in the cleanup of then-seedy Times Square.
In recent years, he’s gotten more credit for those accomplishments, credit that de Blasio said Dinkins should have always had. De Blasio, who worked in Dinkins’ administration, named Manhattan’s Municipal Building after his mentor in October 2015.
“David Dinkins believed that we could be better, believed we could overcome our divisions,” de Blasio said at a news briefing Tuesday. “He showed us what it was like to be a gentleman, to be a kind person no matter what was thrown at him. And a lot was thrown at him.”
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10, 1927, Dinkins moved with his mother to Harlem when his parents divorced, but returned to his hometown to attend high school. There, he learned an early lesson in discrimination: Black people were not allowed to use the school swimming pool.
During a stint in the Marine Corps as a young man, a Southern bus driver barred him from boarding a segregated bus because the section for Black people was filled.
“And I was in my country’s uniform!” Dinkins recounted years later.
While attending Howard University, the historically Black university in Washington, D.C., Dinkins said he gained admission to segregated movie theaters by wearing a turban and faking a foreign accent.
Back in New York with a degree in mathematics, Dinkins married his college sweetheart, Joyce Burrows, in 1953. His father-in-law, a power in local Democratic politics, channeled Dinkins into a Harlem political club. Dinkins paid his dues as a Democratic functionary while earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and then went into private practice.
After leaving office, Dinkins was a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
He had a pacemaker inserted in August 2008, and underwent an emergency appendectomy in October 2007. He also was hospitalized in March 1992 for a bacterial infection that stemmed from an abscess on the wall of his large intestine. He was treated with antibiotics and recovered in a week.
Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr., daughter, Donna, and two grandchildren.