NEW YORK -- Faced with pervasive crime, a severe local recession, political feuds and a busted budget, Mayor David N. Dinkins yesterday turned to an unprecedented source for answers: constituents.
For the first time in memory, an invitation was extended to all of New York for a City Hall audience with the mayor (or, in small
print, one of his senior administrators). Hundreds of people with thousands of ideas on the city's innumerable problems heeded the call. They spoke Spanish, Chinese, Korean, French, Russian, Yiddish, and even Creole, and sign language interpreters were present in case they couldn't vocalize their complaints.
Their thoughts ranged from lucid (smaller denomination city bonds, waste baskets in front of stores) to ludicrous (more permits for pythons) to whimsical (rebuild the beautiful old Pennsylvania Station) to wildly (at least for New York) unrealistic.
"One person wanted a new education system," Mr. Dinkins said after a morning of meetings. "I'm not sure we can achieve that."
Most of the ideas concerned lowering taxes and raising services, the core concerns about any government. But an open invitation to New Yorkers invites an unusual response, and yesterday's event did not disappoint.
An urban cowboy from Cuba advocating city rodeos to fight the spread of AIDS and drug addiction sauntered into City Hall wearing a high hat, pointed boots and silver buckle. "They'll have to let me see the mayor, no one has thought of something like this," said Carlos Foster, 69. "We'll ride into poor neighborhoods, 10 cowboys and five cowgirls, spreading prevention."
Two former teachers came to urge city investigators to "indict them all" -- including Mr. Dinkins and other city officials -- and self-proclaimed anarchists came to advocate the end of all government.
Others had more modest ambitions. Nancy Miller, a 36-year-old lawyer, suggested a program stressing one-on-one interaction with the homeless. "In a city of 8 million there must be someone
willing to do it," she said. Following a discussion with the Department of Human Resources, she will begin next week.
Walter Deane, 28, wanted landlords to be required to plant trees outside their businesses, and in the same vein, Greta Scott, 25, waited for several hours with her 6-month-old daughter in her arms to ask the mayor if vacant lots could be turned into gardens. "I want to tell Mayor Dinkins how to give the city a face lift without costing money," she explained.
Others were concerned about whole new categories of problems. For instance, Arthur Johnson,47, was outraged that businesses and individuals were tapping into street lamps to steal public power. He urged surprise inspections.
The day for New Yorkers to voice such thoughts was announced last week to great fanfare and a predictable cynicism. "There are those who see this as a gimmick," acknowledged Mr. Dinkins. "That is not what it is. We believe there are some notions we can address."
"The main thing," he added, "is we have people who have not given up on this town."
The first petitioner, a woman, lined up at 4:30 a.m. to request the mayor's help getting a sewer line reattached. She was said to have burst into tears as her five-minute meeting began. Her problem, the mayor said, was "legitimate" and could be addressed.
Many, though, were disappointed. After a morning of brief meetings, the mayor had seen only 17 people. A screening process meant most people ended up with a commissioner at one of the city's 45 largest departments.
That left a number of disgruntled people standing petulantly in the midst of a vast room filled with city staffers. "I resent it," said Fred Cherry, 65, who had come to City Hall to tell Mr. Dinkins that prostitution must be legalized. "Representatives of the gay community can see the mayor whenever they want," he added.
Sandy Aboulafia, a 54-year-old woman running for City Council, said she was prepared to wait all day to present the mayor with her idea: free subway rides for children on weekends.
Everyone was provided with a form to write comments. An initial response was to be provided immediately, a more extensive one within two months. Several people figured there were quicker and more effective ways, though, to get their message through.
William Echevarria, for instance, said he had been stymied by the city's unwillingness to issue a permit for his pet python, Shorty. Furthermore, police refused to let Shorty have an audience with the mayor.
But as the snake slithered around Mr. Echevarria's neck, he noted the abundance of camera crews taking his picture.
"I won't see the mayor," Mr. Echevarria commented, "but he'll see me -- on TV."