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New York City’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, has died

In this file photo, David Dinkins delivers his first speech as mayor of New York   | Photo Credit: AP

David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African-American mayor, but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a race riot in Brooklyn, has died. He was 93.

Mr. Dinkins died on Monday, the New York City Police Department confirmed. The department said officers were called to the former mayor’s home this evening. Initial indications were that he died of natural causes.

Mr. Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure with a penchant for tennis and formal wear, was a dramatic shift from both his predecessor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani.

In his inaugural address, he spoke lovingly of New York as a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation, of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport or on buses bound for the Port Authority.”

But the city he inherited had an ugly side, too.

AIDS, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year, unemployment soared and homelessness was rampant. The city faced a $1.5 billion budget deficit.

Mr. Dinkins’ low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said he was too soft and too slow.

Mr. Dinkins did a lot at City Hall. He raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers. He spent billions of dollars revitalizing neglected housing. His administration got the Walt Disney Corp. to invest in the cleanup of then-seedy Times Square.

In recent years, he’s gotten more credit for those accomplishments — credit that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he should have always had. De Blasio, who worked in Dinkins’ administration, named Manhattan’s Municipal Building after the former mayor in October 2015.

Results from those accomplishments, however, didn’t come fast enough to earn Mr. Dinkins a second term.

After beating Giuliani by only by 47,000 votes out of 1.75 million cast in 1989, Mr. Dinkins lost a rematch by roughly the same margin in 1993.

Political historians often trace the defeat to Mr. Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn in 1991.

The violence began after a black 7-year-old boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of an Orthodox Jewish religious leader. During the three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young black men that followed, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were hurt.

A state report issued in 1993, an election year, cleared Mr. Dinkins of the persistently repeated charge that he intentionally held back police in the first days of the violence, but criticized him for not stepping up as a leader.

In a 2013 memoir, Mr. Dinkins accused the police department of letting the disturbance get out of hand, and also took a share of the blame, on the grounds that “the buck stopped with me.” But he bitterly blamed his election defeat on prejudice — “I think it was just racism, pure and simple.”

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10, 1927, Mr. Dinkins moved with his mother to Harlem when his parents divorced, but returned to his hometown to attend high school.

During a hitch in the Marine Corps as a young man, a Southern bus driver barred him from boarding a segregated bus because the section for blacks was filled.

"And I was in my country’s uniform!” Mr. Dinkins recounted years later.

While attending Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., Mr. Dinkins said he gained admission to segregated movie theaters by wearing a turban and faking a foreign accent.

Back in New York with a degree in mathematics, Mr. Dinkins married his Joyce Burrows, in 1953. His father-in-law, a power in local Democratic politics, channeled Mr. Dinkins into a Harlem political club. He paid his dues as a Democratic functionary while earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and then went into private practice.

Mr. Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989 came after two racially charged cases that took place under Koch — the rape of a white jogger in Central Park and the bias murder of a black teenager in Bensonhurst.

He defeated Koch, 50% to 42%, in the Democratic primary. But in a city where party registration was 5-to-1 Democratic, Mr. Dinkins barely scraped by the Republican Giuliani in the general election, capturing only 30% of the white vote.

In that same year, though, he was criticized for his handling of a black-led boycott of Korean-operated grocery stores in Brooklyn. Critics contended Mr. Dinkins waited too long to intervene. He ultimately ended up crossing the boycott line to shop at the stores - but only after Koch did.

During Mr. Dinkins’ tenure, the city’s finances were in rough shape because of a recession that cost New York 357,000 private-sector jobs in his first three years in office.

Meanwhile, the city’s murder toll soared to an all-time high, with a record 2,245 homicides during his first year as mayor. There were 8,340 New Yorkers killed during the Dinkins administration - the bloodiest four-year stretch since the New York Police Department began keeping statistics in 1963.

In the last years of his administration, record-high homicides began a decline that continued for decades. In the first year of the Giuliani administration, murders fell from 1,946 to 1,561.

One of Mr. Dinkins’ last acts in 1993 was to sign an agreement with the United States Tennis Association that gave the organization a 99-year lease on city land in Queens in return for building a tennis complex. That deal guaranteed that the U.S. Open would remain in New York City for decades.

After leaving office, he was a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Mr. Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr. and daughter, Donna and two grandchildren. His wife, Joyce, died in October at the age of 89.

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