When John Lindsay Gave New York to the World

For most of its history, the American city has been in a state of ceaseless, mounting flux. Building lifespans grew shorter, not longer, with technical advances, economic pressure, and changing tastes. “Let the cities perish,” the housing reformer Carol Aronovici wrote in 1932, “so that we may have great and beautiful cities.”

For a number of reasons, including population decline, historic preservation, government policy, and the declining rate of progress in engineering, that churning process has long since stopped in New York. The stocks of both multi-family housing and office buildings are now older, on average, than at any point in the twentieth century.

The emphasis on preservation and continuity was formalized here in the 1961 Zoning Resolution and the 1965 Landmarks Law. John Lindsay, the mayor who took office in 1966, oversaw the application of those changes and brought to City Hall a personal appreciation for the city’s historic fabric. His Urban Design Group spearheaded the protection of Little Italy, TriBeCa, and the South Street Seaport.

But perhaps Lindsay’s most lasting contribution to New York’s built environment was his Executive Order Number 10, issued fifty years ago this spring. With it, Lindsay created the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, which would show New York to the world. “For the first time,” the mayor later observed, “our parks and museums, our streets and courthouses, our libraries and monuments, all these things that make New York unique, have been made available to film people.” And film people would make them available to the millions who watched movies and television shows set in the city, forever changing the way the world saw New York, and engendering millions of long-distance attachments that would, before long, be manifest in record numbers of tourists.

The link between the preservation of the city and its representation was not an accident, McLain Clutter argues in his book Imaginary Apparatus: New York City and its Mediated Representation, published by Park Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. On the contrary, the administration’s policies on media and urban planning were “richly interrelated.”

“Like the films often produced in the very same neighborhoods,” Clutter writes, preservation policies “preserved areas in the city as celluloid-thin impressions that powerfully seduced an urban public yearning for authenticity.” The camera recorded New York, and it demanded things of New York. Today, film crews have become so ubiquitous that residents can apply to a “hiatus list” for respite.

What follows is an excerpt from Imaginary Apparatus that outlines Lindsay’s consequential achievement. Eleven films were shot in New York in 1965, the year Lindsay was elected. During his eight-year tenure, the city averaged 46 movies a year. Last year, 336 films were shot in New York. –H.G. 



John Lindsay at a rally, 1965 | Walter Albertin, New York World-Telegram and Sun, via Wikimedia Commons

“If you want to know why I am so happy doing this picture in New York,” offered Norman Lear, producer of the 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky’s, “ask the Mayor.” The primary location for Lear’s film was in Manhattan at East 26th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. After beginning production, Lear and his company learned that their film location was slated for demolition while the movie was still being shot, part of a continuing wave of urban renewal that had indelibly altered New York throughout the preceding two decades.[1] The policy’s transformation of the city seemed unstoppable, much to the dismay of the Minsky’s production team. But this particular instance of urban renewal was delayed by an unusual development. New York’s mayor, John Lindsay, came to the rescue of The Night They Raided Minsky’s — halting the urban renewal project and allowing Lear’s company to finish shooting their film. Thus, as bulldozers leveled the south side of the street, the north side was turned over to Lear’s art directors to create what one journalist called “Minskyland” — a recreation of what the neighborhood might have looked like in 1925. Evincing a nostalgic sentiment for a bygone Gotham of tenements and continental immigrants, the block soon became a popular tourist destination. John Lindsay soon earned a reputation as a mayor who was not afraid to engage two areas of policy more vigorously than any previous New York mayor: the physical design of the city and the policy governing film and television productions set in New York.


The Lindsay administration governed New York City from 1966 to 1973. Famously, this period coincided with the national “urban crisis,” an era of physical, economic and social decline in cities nation-wide. Thus, Lindsay’s tenure is often remembered for the breadth of crises that it witnessed — from the transit strike of 1966 to the Hard Hat Riots of 1970, all set against a backdrop of mounting racial tension, fiscal insolvency, and urban blight. But Lindsay’s tenure was also one of marked optimism. His liberal Republican administration drew young and talented individuals to public service like that of no previous mayor. With this influx of talent came new and innovative thoughts on urban policy.


It was within this context that the city created policies intended to alleviate the bureaucracy and corruption that had made location-shot film and television production in New York financially prohibitive throughout the previous twenty years. Lindsay and his staff made unprecedented concessions to the media industry to provide a comfortable and profitable business environment. Also during Lindsay’s tenure, the city drafted a wealth of innovative planning and urban design documents. The administration’s heightened interest in urban design attracted some of the city’s most renowned architects to public service and won the admiration of architecture critics. While the collection of planning documents produced under Lindsay is vast and diverse, one aspect common to many is a tendency to understand the public’s engagement with the city in various ways that reflect aesthetic and intellectual influences of visual media. Perhaps unconsciously, the architects, urbanists, and bureaucrats Lindsay drew to service from various backgrounds drafted urban design and planning policies that conceptualized the city, and its public, through various mediatic registers. Hence, Lindsay’s planning policy has a complexly intertwined relationship to the administration’s policy regarding media production in New York. Amplifying the significance of this blend of media production and planning policy was a developing financial and interpersonnel symbiosis between the city and the film and television industry. During the Lindsay administration New York was inviting media production to its streets, while conceiving of the public’s engagement of those streets through various mediatic registers, and yoking the financial interests of the city to those of the film and television industry.

The conjuncture of policies and financial alliances under Lindsay provides a telling lens through which to reexamine the relationship between the material New York and its mediated representation. The years since Lindsay’s tenure have proven his media production and urban planning policies effective on several registers: economic, juridical, and aesthetic. The contention here is that these effects must be understood as they engage one another discursively — as a fluid and iterative exchange between the financial stability of New York and the media industry, the methods of conceptualizing urbanism evident in the policies of Lindsay’s Planning Commission, and the subjective affect of the media spectator and the urban subject. The engagement between these disparate interests and effects constitutes the apparatus of interest here. Through the explication of such an apparatus, a complex relationship between New York, its mediated representation, and the urban public can be described. Rooted in interrelated historic developments, this relationship between New York and its mediated self was profoundly formative of the city as it stands today.

Executive Order Number 10

Upon his inauguration, Mayor Lindsay inherited a declining city. New York was plagued with corruption, poor race relations, poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and impending environmental crisis. Confounding any attempt by the mayor’s administration to deal with the city’s growing list of woes was a mounting budgetary dilemma. More than a decade of middle-class white flight to the suburbs and a dwindling manufacturing sector had taken its toll on the city’s tax base. And at the state level a policy of funds dispersion that favored rural and suburban areas ensured that New York City consistently sent more money to Albany than it received.

Nowhere was the bleak outlook more pronounced than in the urban environment. The City Planning Commission’s 1969 Plan for New York City begins:

“It is obvious enough that there is a great deal wrong. The air is polluted. The streets are dirty and choked with traffic. The subways are jammed. The waters of the rivers and bays are fouled. There is a severe shortage of housing. The municipal plant is long past its prime.”

The problems with the built environment were abundantly clear to the commission. Less clear was how to acquire the funds needed to rectify those problems. A November 1, 1968, memo from John Lindsay explained that the planning commission would be provided a record allowance of $400 million for capital improvements in 1969. This sum amounted to only one-quarter of the $1.6 billion the commission required. By 1969 the planning commission estimated that in order to meet the capital improvement, housing, and infrastructural needs of New York over the next decade, they would need $52 billion in funding above what could be provided by the city. Without further recourse, the commission looked toward the federal urban renewal and Model Cities programs for relief.[2]


The six-volume Plan for New York City, released in 1969 | Courtesy Park Books

Meanwhile, the office of the mayor was left to find ways of promoting new economic activity in the city that could be taxed to fund the city’s struggling offices. In 1966, within this economic climate, Mayor Lindsay signed Executive Order Number 10, a measure intent on drawing the film and television industry to New York through the creation of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting. While the years since Lindsay signed Executive Order Number 10 have witnessed several campaigns and tax incentive programs to draw the film and television industry to American cities, Lindsay’s actions were both innovative and unique at the time.

The American film industry was born in New York in the late nineteenth century. But by 1932 the rise of the Hollywood studios largely spelled the end of location film production in New York.[3] The reasons were both technical and political: the sound, depth-of-field, and film-speed technologies that were required to make city shooting advantageous had yet to be developed; and New York was a notoriously corrupt location for film production.[4] Throughout the decades after 1932, solutions were developed to alleviate the technical detriments to shooting in the city. Mayor Lindsay sought to alleviate the political detriments with Executive Order 10.

Prior to Lindsay’s executive order, filming in New York required as many as fifty different permits, and productions could face daily fines and police shakedowns of as much as $400 a day. Meanwhile, union corruption made labor in the cinema arts in New York cost prohibitive as compared to Los Angeles. Lindsay’s policy condensed film-production permitting to one standard document that would apply to all filming locations. The mayor revoked media censorship powers from municipal agencies, negotiated with the local industry labor unions to offer competitive rates, and even created a division in the police department composed of officers specially trained in the “cinema arts.” This special task force was trained to “reroute traffic, keep back onlookers, or persuade pedestrians to behave like believable New Yorkers in a street scene.” Meanwhile, the mayor began a letter-writing campaign to media industry executives, personally inviting them to film their productions in New York. The extent to which Lindsay’s administration streamlined the economic and bureaucratic conditions for media production in New York was unprecedented.


Filming on Wall Street, 2006 | Photo by Sean Eng, via Flickr

Filming on Wall Street, 2006 | Photo by Sean Eng, via Flickr

To the keen observer, Lindsay’s actions may have been anticipated. During his campaign, Lindsay endorsed an effort to build new post-production facilities for film and television in New York City. By 1967 plans were underway for these facilities. An enormous complex called Cinema Center was slated for construction on the site of the old Madison Square Garden. The design by architect Charles Luckman was to occupy a full west-Midtown block, with two thirty-nine-story office towers bracketing the complex on the east and west sides and a seven-story structure that would span the middle of the block and house film studios, two live-action theatres, and four motion picture theatres.[5] Although Cinema Center was never built, its presence among Lindsay’s campaign promises helps to clarify the depth of the mayor’s ambitions to draw film and television productions to the city. And recurrent news of plans for the complex garnered a substantial amount of public attention, adding visibility to the mayor’s larger efforts to attract media production.

Indeed, visibility was a primary tactic in the mayor’s efforts. Lindsay was notoriously charismatic, with an obvious flair for the camera. One Newsweek article described Lindsay as “movie-star handsome.” Another reported that he attended industry events such as the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he wooed production company executives. At a 1969 Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of commercial films, the mayor was even awarded an achievement medal by MPAA president Jack Valenti. Lindsay’s movie-star fraternizing aligns with other events, such as his headline-garnering action on the Minsky’s site and reports that he shared his office with director George Seaton as the latter filmed Up the Down Staircase (1967 ). Such lust for the limelight contributed to the popular conclusion that this was a mayor more suave than smart — one that, perhaps, just wanted to be in pictures.[6]

However, Lindsay’s showmanship should not obscure the tact of his actions. The financial benefits of Lindsay’s efforts were quickly realized. In the final months of 1966, film production levels in New York rose to an all-time high, adding $20 million to the city economy. In 1965 only eleven films were shot in New York, with only two of these reaching postproduction in local studios. In 1967, 223 permits were issued for feature films and 633 for television and commercial productions. Although the long-term economic effects of these policies are difficult to calculate, when one considers that the motion picture and television economy in New York had reached a level of $500 million a year by 1980, the contribution of Lindsay’s policies seems significant.[7] By one account, film productions led by director Sidney Lumet alone had given back to the city an estimated $200 million in direct tax revenue by 1984.[8]

This economic success was not merely serendipitous. Lindsay’s policy complemented larger shifts within the business apparatus of Hollywood. This was particularly true of trends in Hollywood film production. Throughout the 1960s, with the growing ubiquity of television in the American home, the film industry experienced a marked decrease in ticket sales. Hollywood’s financial troubles piqued in 1962, when movie attendance hit a nationwide low.[9] Increasingly, the viewing public met the historical epics that were the hallmark product of the Hollywood studios with less and less enthusiasm. Thus, the film industry sought to explore new genres. The Hollywood studios began acting primarily as distribution centers for independent movies that were produced around the nation. By 1967, these independently produced films accounted for 51.1 percent of all feature releases by the major studios. This shift by the industry was coupled in 1967 with the Motion Picture Association of America’s repeal of the Production Code (also called the Hays Code) — a set of standards that had been implemented in the 1930s to ensure “decency” in motion pictures. The production code censored violence, drug use, and nudity in films and actively discouraged moral ambiguity in filmic narratives.

Mayor Lindsay’s executive order worked in accord with these larger shifts in the film industry. Studio decentralization encouraged filmmaking in New York, and the films enabled by the mayor’s policies later helped to turn the fortunes of the struggling film industry. At a time when spectators were becoming less receptive to the standard Hollywood production, Mayor Lindsay’s policies enabled filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen to produce tremendously successful location-shot films in New York City. Largely associated with the New Hollywood movement in cinema, these directors created New York movies that earned the studios millions and aided in Hollywood’s economic recovery.


The Hays Code

Meanwhile, the end of the Production Code made the content of many films shot in the city after Executive Order 10 possible. Dystopic urban films such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) were soon prevalent at the movie theater. These films portrayed issues contextual to New York at the time — such as crime, prostitution, and urban decadence — that simply could not have been depicted under the Hays Code. New Hollywood directors brought to their treatment of these issues various filmic techniques from American underground film, the French New Wave and other avant-garde influences that emerged outside of the mainstream Hollywood production system. These techniques, from disjunctive montage sequencing, to complex visual distortions, to manipulations of cinema’s conventional temporality, proved uniquely effective in representing New York’s turbulent physical and social reality cinematically. Revealing the contextual blight of New York on the silver screen proved profitable for the film industry, which encouraged studios to continue funding productions shot in New York, thus fueling the city’s economy. In effect, the city turned its dystopic conditions, which largely arose from a lack of finances, into a revenue-generating opportunity. Thus the city and the Hollywood production system — both in a state of crisis — found within their mutual precarity an opportunity to be mutually ameliorative.[10]


Anderson Avenue, 1968 Sanitation Strike | Photo by Dennis Miller, via Flickr

Anderson Avenue, 1968 Sanitation Strike | Photo by Dennis Miller, via Flickr

Even more profound than the economic impact of films produced in New York at this time was their effect on cinema audi­ences. These films contributed to a revolutionizing of the type of production spectators around the country became accustomed to viewing. Gritty and “realistic” location-shot New York City films such as Midnight Cowboy stood in stark contrast to the historically based epics that were the fading staple of the Hollywood production system as late as 1963.[11] The pageantry and stagey aesthetic of the latter could not be more divergent from the nearly documentary or complexly edited character of films shot in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Equally, these New York City films contrasted those previous that were either actually or fictionally set in the city. The contextual grit and vice of films such as Taxi Driver significantly revise the portrait of an enchanted city found in the backlot-shot New York City musicals of the previous few decades (e.g., Singin’ in the Rain), or in the shadowy New York of the film noir cycle. Thus, taken together, the films resultant from Lindsay’s executive order constituted a new image of New York in popular media — an image that deeply leveraged the city’s contextual conditions. This new mediated image would eventually alter the sort of urban narrative that cinema spectators associated with the city, coloring popular expectation of the material New York among media audiences.

Such a modification of New York’s popular image may have been one of Mayor Lindsay’s motivations behind Executive Order 10. In his 1969 book about his mayoral experience, The City, Lindsay wrote that American cities suffered from a lack of positive narratives about urbanism within cultural discourse. Lindsay cites novels such as Moll Flanders as indicative of the prevailing pejorative attitude with which Anglo-American narratives have treated the city.[12] In nuanced reasoning befitting a media-savvy politician, the mayor argued that the derogatory popular image of cities in American culture, and their associated stigma of moral decadence, essentially resulted in an electorate supportive of representation that favored suburban and rural constituencies. This, in turn, resulted in anti-urban policy and — critically — policy that under-funded urban areas while monetarily incentivizing the suburbs. As examples, Lindsay cited policies such as the massive federal funding of the interstate highway system, which enabled population dispersal, and the postwar FHA grant subsidies of low-interest loans for suburban homes.

Lindsay went so far as to suggest that the repeated derogatory narratives of urbanism within American culture affected American psychology. Lindsay wrote: “. . . it is historically true: in the American psychology, the city has been a basically suspect institution, reeking of the corruption of Europe, totally lacking that sense of spaciousness and innocence of the frontier and the rural landscape.” The agility with which Lindsay’s reasoning traverses and interconnects psychological, political and economic registers is revealing. Apparently, for Lindsay issues of urban policy and finance were intricately intertwined with the psychic resonance of cities among Americans. The psychology of Americans, their subsequent voting habits, and the economic policies that resulted were richly interrelated within an underlying apparatus. With this in mind, the mayor seems unlikely to have been oblivious to the psychic associations attached to his own city that would be affected by the media productions enabled by Executive Order 10. Indeed, the mayor’s thoughts suggest that he may have viewed the manipulation of the city’s image in media as an indirect vehicle for change in the material New York, as the new media productions would change audience attitudes, their voting habits, and subsequent urban policy.

Thus, at first glance the motivations behind Executive Order 10 may seem clear — a nearly desperate attempt to draw taxable activity to New York in an era of blight and economic decline. However, with a review of the interests and concerns surrounding Lindsay’s policy, the effects of his action are revealed to be discursive: complex, multifaceted, and interrelated. Lindsay’s Executive Order intertwined the financial interests of New York to those of the Hollywood studios and affected the way New York was portrayed in popular culture, thus inflecting the city’s psychic resonance among Americans. The latter outcome also benefited from the alliance with another, rather unlikely, division of the city’s government: the City Planning Commission. The planning commission was among the most financially needy of the government agencies under Lindsay that stood to benefit from media-related revenues, and the ideology behind their use of the funds they were granted is significant. By conceiving of New York through various mediatic registers in their planning policy, the commission played upon the expectations of those exposed to the city through film and television, and implanted mediatic understandings of the city within the material New York to be experienced by the urban subject. The apparatus emerged.



[1] Urban renewal began as a federal policy enacted by Congress in 1949 in order to channel capital development funds to the nation’s struggling cities during their postwar decline. In New York, urban renewal was managed through the City Planning Commission, an agency under the direct oversight of the office of the mayor. Urban renewal projects typically entailed the wholesale leveling of decrepit neighborhoods, replacing them with subsidized housing or late-modernist development. Between 1949 and 1959 alone, the city spent more than 141 million in federal dollars on urban renewal projects and more than one billion in private investor dollars.

[2] The Model Cities program was created in 1966 as part of President Johnson’s war on poverty. The program was administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and was meant to improve and fund the coordination of existing federally funded urban programs, such as Urban Renewal, with locally produced planning. The program advocated the participation of local citizens in the planning process and extended beyond the physical aspects of the city to fund the delivery of social services.

[3] Exceptions did occur, most notably Jules Dassin’s 1948 film noir The Naked City. With much fanfare, and nearly twenty years after the studios relocated to Hollywood, the film brought mass location shooting to Manhattan. At the time, the film was widely understood to be remarkable in its insistence on location shooting. After the film studios moved to Hollywood, productions that were fictionally set in New York were usually shot on backlot recreations of the city that had been built at great expense and detail by major studios such as Paramount and 20th Century Fox. Films from this period include classics such as RKO’s Swing Time (1936, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949). Narratives set within New York remained common and quite popular. The popularity of these films made the possibility of returning to location shooting in New York all the more attractive when the opportunity arose. See James Sanders, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 44–84, for a description of the major studio’s efforts in recreating New York in the art departments and backlots of Hollywood.

[4] From the advent of the sound film in the 1920s until the development of the directional microphone, noise pollution was the most immediate detriment to shooting in the city. In California, where construction space was abundant, sealed soundstages became a more appropriate shooting location. See Sanders, 44–45.

[5] Cinema Center was funded by Irving Michael Felt, president of the Madison Square Garden Corporation and brother of former City Planning Commission chairman James Felt.

[6]  Lindsay, in fact, went on to play the role of Senator Donnovan in Otto Preminger’s 1975 film Rosebud. Preminger’s previous film, Such Good Friends (1971), was filmed in New York under the stewardship of Executive Order 10.

[7] The economic boon for New York from Lindsay’s policies was not limited to direct tax revenues on film productions. A 1968 article on the mayor’s work to bring film to the city appeared in American Way, the American Airlines Magazine, directly indicating the cross-pollination of Lindsay’s policy and tourism within the city. The article points to the recent shooting of Up the Down Staircase as an enticement for travelers to spend their next vacation, and their money, in New York: “It was a ball for the fortunate tourists and natives who happened in on the beautiful Miss Dennis while she was at work. And there will be many more such happenings in and around the landmarks of New York.” See “Watch Out–,” American Way 1, no. 3. 8.

[8] This estimate was Lumet’s own. Most films comprising this figure were produced after Executive Order 10, but Lumet’s figure includes tax revenues from films dating back to 1956.

[9] Industry ticket sales were 900 million dollars in 1962.

[10] David James has theorized that such conditions, when both the dominant mode of cinematic production and society at large are in states of crisis, can give rise to an allegorical relationship between the two. James wrote: “Films made in periods such as this (in times of crisis) frequently attempt to negotiate with surrounding social and cinematic changes, and even when they are not explicitly about the search for a satisfactory mode of production, their plots often have some metaphorical relation to their own manufacture. Consequently, as the site of conflict or arbitration between alternative productive possibilities, they invite an allegorical reading in which a given filmic trope — a camera style or an editing pattern — is understood as the trace of a social practice.” See David E. James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 14.

[11] This was the year that Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra debuted. The film was a major financial disappointment for 20th Century Fox.

[12]  This was not an isolated argument for Lindsay. He repeated it on several occasions, including at a 1966 speech at the Urban American Conference in Washington, DC.


McLain Clutter is an architect, writer, and Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture. His Ann Arbor-based design practice is called Master of None. Clutter’s essays and design work have been featured in Grey RoomMONU306090, the Journal of Architectural EducationPigeon, the edited volume Formerly Urban: Projecting Rustbelt Cities, and other publications. He has exhibited and participated in conferences internationally. Imaginary Apparatus: New York and its Mediated Representation was published in August 2015 by Park Books and the University of Chicago Press.