Schaefer and the 'Ranting Bozo'

January 01, 1995|By JEFFREY M. LANDAW

In a life of machine politics, he remained untainted by corruption. He had a hot temper and a taste for grudges, and he built things with perhaps more zeal than judgment.

No, it's not William Donald Schaefer, who steps down as governor of Maryland Jan. 18 after two noisy terms and a tempestuous career as mayor of Baltimore. It's John Francis Hylan, mayor of New York from 1918 to 1926; he left a mark on his city that may be at least as important as those Mr. Schaefer left on his city and state. Yet one historian estimates that "well under one in 10,000" New Yorkers could tell you who Hylan was.

That's Hylan's misfortune, not his fault: His successors as mayor, the boulevardier Jimmy Walker and the human Roman candle Fiorello LaGuardia, would have put almost anybody in the shade. (Walker and LaGuardia both appear in Webster's New Biographical Dictionary; Hylan does not.) But he laid the groundwork for much of what the city did later, especially during LaGuardia's years, from 1934 through 1945. His resemblances to Schaefer are instructive, but the differences between them may be even more so.

Like Mr. Schaefer, Hylan treated politics as bread and butter, not ideology. His brief autobiography, published in 1921 just after his election to a second term, soft-pedals big issues like Prohibition: "I have never been a drinker nor a smoker," he wrote, "but that does not mean I am for prohibition. "I believe in personal freedom," he wrote, "but do not feel impelled to discuss Mr. Volstead [who wrote the act that enforced the 18th Amendment]. I will leave that to others." He mentions getting city jobs for old friends and benefactors as a matter of course. But he took care to paint himself as a fighter against the "interests" and reshaped the city in a way that suggests he meant it.

Hylan was the father of municipal ownership of the city's sprawling transit system. He campaigned for years, in office and out, against the two private companies that operated the city's subways: the Interborough Rapid Transit (known to generations of New Yorkers as the IRT) and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT; later Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, or BMT). He didn't write abusive letters to critics, as Mr. Schaefer has done, but his style - and his ancestry, Irish on his father's side - got him known behind his back as "Red Mike," and led Robert Moses, campaigning for LaGuardia in 1933, to call Hylan "the ranting Bozo of Bushwick."

(Both Hylan and Mr. Schaefer seem to have used temper as a weapon. "A lot of [Hylan's] bluster was stage bluster," says Brian J. Cudahy, who has written several books on transit history and is acting director of public affairs for the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Administration; while journalistic observers of Mr. Schaefer have chronicled his use of anger to make entrenched politicians and bureaucrats move. The tactic worked better for Mr. Schaefer in Baltimore, with its mayor-dominated government, than it did among the checks and balances of Annapolis.)

Hylan pushed for a city-run subway line that would force the private companies out of business, and in 1924 the New York state legislature authorized one. He broke ground for the Independent subway (IND) in 1925, when he was a lame duck, beaten by Walker in the Democratic primary; the first IND trains ran in 1932; and by 1940 the city had taken over the IRT and BMT. It was a victory for Hylan, by then a 72-year-old judge, in his long feud.

It's easy to see Hylan as the obsessed Ahab to the transit companies' Moby Dick. Born in 1868 in Ulster County in the Hudson Valley, then considered rural upstate New York, he came to the city in 1887 to seek his fortune and, he wrote in his autobiography, to help his parents pay the mortgage on their farm. Starting as a track-layer on the Brooklyn Union Elevated Railway, a predecessor of the BRT, he rose to locomotive engineer and took up studying law in his spare time.

The BRT fired Hylan in 1897 on charges of operating his train recklessly, charges he denied in his autobiography. Later that year, he began the law practice that got him started in Brooklyn politics. And he seems to have hated the transit companies, especially the BRT, ever afterward. That was clearest in American surface transit's worst accident, the Malbone Street wreck of Nov. 1, 1918.

According to Mr. Cudahy's history "Under the Sidewalks of New York," the BRT's workers had struck that day in a dispute over the firing of 29 motormen who had joined a labor union. In that evening's rush hour, a tired, undertrained strikebreaker motorman named Edward Luciano took a downhill curve too fast approaching the Prospect Park station, derailing his train and smashing two of his train's wooden cars into a concrete wall. By the next morning, 102 people had died.

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