Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Municipal Tragedy

Acupuncture or bail?
My acupuncturist is located on Baxter Street in Chinatown, his office wedged between storefronts that are occupied mostly by bail bondsmen.  They serve the municipal courts, just a few blocks away.  

I take the subway to Canal Street and walk east past the street vendors.  Glancing downtown, I can see the Municipal Building – a wedding cake designed by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1914.

Even before it was built, the Municipal Building drew controversy.  The landmarks preservation movement would not emerge for another 60 years. But plenty of antiquarians objected to further disrupting a sedate civic center that dated to 1800.  City Hall Park had already been assaulted by a garish Beaux Arts post office, not to mention the Tweed Courthouse, an enduring symbol of nineteenth-century political corruption.

Municipal Building postcard, 1920s

The antiquarians didn’t stand a chance.  Besides, the 60-story Woolworth Building had just risen nearby, and without a doubt the city was going UP.

By 1984, when I started to work there, the Municipal Building had become shabby with a bit of a roach problem.  Yet fun still could be had since the marriage bureau was located on one of the lower floors and you never knew who would get in the elevator.   

The city’s radio station, WNYC, had called the building home since 1922.  It broadcast from crumbling quarters in the tower at the top.  I came on as an assistant to the director, Mary Perot Nichols, who began her career as a reporter for the Village Voice. 

Mary and her family had moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s.  As she became involved in the neighborhood, she kept asking Dan Wolf, then editor of the Voice, why no one was covering Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through Washington Square Park.*  Finally, Wolf gave her the assignment.

Within a few years, Mary became one of the city’s foremost investigative journalists.  She had dirt on every New York politician and surely that included Mayor Ed Koch, to whom she owed her WNYC appointments in 1978 and 1983.  Mary had resigned in 1979 after Koch ordered the creation of a show nicknamed the “John Hour,” wherein the names of men arrested for patronizing prostitutes would be read on the air. 

The idea, absurdly, was that the men’s embarrassment would lead to a decline in prostitution.

The “John Hour” aired once.  An enraged Mary stormed off.   

Mary Perot Nichols, 1970s
Photo was taken on a balcony of the Municipal Building.

But now it was 1984 and Mary had saved the station by creating the WNYC Foundation and populating its board with movers and shakers.  Formidable and rollicking, she loved her job and thrived on people dropping in and out of her office all day long.  For snacks, she kept a large jar of cherry-flavored chewable Vitamin C tablets on her desk in the same way that my grandmother kept a crystal dish of hard candy on her coffee table.

There was always a crisis, or perhaps Mary’s idiosyncrasies made it seem so.  

One incident was unforgettable.  It involved the city’s Board of Estimate, on which sat the borough presidents, a motley crew representing Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.**

This board mattered a great deal because the city still funded a significant portion of WNYC’s operating expenses, and Mary needed to nail down every vote.  So each year the station prepared a detailed report to convince the borough presidents of the station’s worthiness.

The Queens borough president was an affable, beefy Democratic pol named Donald Manes.  He insisted that Mary pay a visit to his house to discuss the vote.  Mary asked me to come along – my one and only ride in a city car. 

We were ushered into the house through the back door.  The air was filled with cigarette smoke.  At the kitchen table, surrounded by men in dark suits, sat Mr. Manes. 

Mary squeezed in next to him.

“Donny,” she said, cutting to the chase. “Have you had a chance to read the report?  We sent it to your office a few weeks ago.”   

“Yes,” he wheezed.  “I got the report.”   

He looked at his palms, then turned them over.  

“I read it,” he said mournfully, and paused.  “But these days when I read, I don’t retain.”   

We were shocked to see the powerful Donald Manes, diminished, sad and distracted.

Sure enough, within two years the FBI would implicate Manes in all kinds of payoffs, kickbacks, and patronage.  The web of corruption engulfed several city agencies and many officials.  In 1986, facing charges of extortion and bribery, Manes stabbed himself to death with a kitchen knife.

That line always stuck with me:  I read, but I don't retain.   

Donald R. Manes, 1970s.

*Robert Moses, an enormously influential developer known as “the master builder,” over-zealously constructed bridges, parks, beaches, tunnels, and roads during his reign, mid-1920s to early 1960s.  He met his match in Washington Square Park, where urban activist Jane Jacobs led the opposition to his proposed highway.
**The Board of Estimate was disbanded in 1989 after the U. S. Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.   

1 comment:

  1. Oh, my, that was quite a twist at the end. I had totally forgotten that, but been quite fascinated at the time but the logistics of such a suicide.
    Oddly, that is how the real-life Roberto Monleon, the inspiration for the hero of my screenplay, ended his life flying over Manhattan in 1947. (Excised from my version). It would seem to be less uncommon than one might imagine.

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