Contrasting views of N.Y.C. from two mayors, present and past

It was billed as a chance to hear one former mayor of New York City chat with the current mayor about how governing the city has changed over the years. It ended up with personal reflections and some horn tooting from both Robert F. Wagner -- mayor from 1954 to '65 -- and current Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has served for nearly 71/2 years. The two men, who represent very different types of New York City government, spoke last week at a symposium at New York University that was sponsored by the Graduate School of Public Administration. An audience of students, faculty, and former and current city aides listened intently to the dialogue.

As is often the case in New York, the session became most lively when it came to the topic of crime. And Robert Wagner Jr., a former deputy mayor, helped query both his father and his former boss on how civility could be returned to New York. Mr. Wagner Sr. talked about the need for more and better-trained police, but also talked about the issue of poverty and education.

``We have to work through the schools, the settlement houses, we have to find more jobs,'' Wagner said.

Mayor Koch responded by saying, ``I believe we are where we are today because society has allowed people to do things that are outrageous and there are no social sanctions.''

Koch then mentioned an art teacher who praised graffiti and a minister who asked Koch what he was going to do about illegitimate births.

Koch said his response was: `` `Me?' I asked him, `What about you?' '' Koch also said that welfare laws may actually encourage adolescents to ``go out and have a child'' because then they will have their own apartment and own welfare check.

``You can excuse any vile thing somebody does . . . to understand is to forgive . . . but what good does it do?'' Koch said. When he finished, the audience applauded vigorously.

Wagner got his political footing during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era. Koch is a Democrat with a hard-line stance on issues such a crime, fiscal responsibility, and the role of litigation in environmental issues.

Recounting the changes he has seen in the city, Wagner said it is smaller and poorer, and race and class dominate politics more than in the past. The political organizations of the past have changed and housing is a major problem, he said.

Koch said New Yorkers are more sophisticated about government and expect less from municipal services because they are more conscious of costs. Because of the fiscal crisis the city went through in the '70s, there is more understanding and acceptance of the city's solution to problems, Koch said.

``It's as if everyone in New York City had green eyeshades,'' Koch said, referring to the visors that often appear in caricatures of accountants.

When Mr. Wagner Jr. asked about the development of ``two New Yorks,'' Koch answered archly that the line taken from the title of a Charles Dickins novel, is used erroneously by too many.

While acknowledging that there are more jobs in Manhattan than in any of the other boroughs, Koch suggested that Manhattan is like the Main Street or the central business district of other towns. And he rattled off promising statistics about employment and income among minorities.

``I haven't the figures Ed has,'' responded Wagner, ``but I do see poverty.''

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