Mayor John Lindsay

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The Political Lessons Of The Blizzard Of 1969

February 11, 2019 - 1:13 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- City leaders know that their political future may be riding on how quickly they can clear the streets after a snowstorm. That lesson was learned the hard way 50 years ago this week.

The forecasters got it wrong, calling for the snow to quickly change to rain on the evening of Sunday, February 10, 1969.

"The city got hit with about 15 inches of snow.  The snow storm basically shut down the city for about three days," said Dr. Vincent Cannato, history professor at University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Streets in Queens were still impassable the following Wednesday. Forty-two people died due to the storm. Most of the fatalities occurred in Queens.

"It was slower to be plowed. It was a real mess out in Queens," Cannato said. "They did not predict that much snow so the city really wasn't prepared for it. They weren't ready with trucks, they weren't ready with plows, they weren't ready with anything."

The situation was exacerbated by city equipment that was in poor shape and a sanitation workers union that had just gone on strike the year before, Cannato said.

"Rumors were going around that some plow drivers were, let's just say, not doing a diligent job of plowing as a form of political payback," Cannato said.

Later that year, Mayor John Lindsay ended up losing the Republican primary in his re-election bid.  He ran in one re-election as an independent.

"Because his opponent split the vote among the anti-Lindsay people," Cannato said.

But his political star was never as bright.

"People look back on this New York City snow storm 1969 as kind of a lesson," Cannato said. "Every mayor in every large city in America learned that you have to clean the streets.

As Cannato outlines in his book “The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York," the lesson is that you need to clean the streets.

"It's very tangible evidence about how the average city resident sees the function of city government," Cannato said.