Event Highlight

Paying Tribute to David N. Dinkins, Mayor Eric Adams Discusses Future of City

By Elizabeth Horwitz MPA ’23
Posted Apr 27 2023
2023 Dinkins Forum: (L-R) Ester Fuchs, Mayor Eric Adams, and Michael Nutter
NYC Mayor Eric Adams (center) joined Professors Ester Fuchs (left) and Michael Nutter at the 2023 Dinkins Forum at Columbia SIPA on April 26. (Photo: Eileen Barroso)


New York City Mayor Eric Adams talked about public safety and paid tribute to the legacy of one of his predecessors in a visit to Columbia SIPA for the 24th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum on April 26. Adams was the featured speaker at the annual event, which was held in person for the first time since the passing of its namesake, the late Mayor David N. Dinkins, in 2020.

Adams made a point to praise Dinkins for making the city safer, noting that he often did not receive credit for the achievement. “After-school programs, more community policing… [Dinkins] was carrying out what he ran on — public safety and justice,” Adams said. “And that’s what I ran on. It took 30 years for his vision to come back to City Hall.”

Adams was introduced by Michael Nutter, who in addition to being a former mayor of Philadelphia is the first David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia SIPA. Nutter praised Adams for overcoming sometimes difficult family circumstances, as well as dyslexia and poor grades, to eventually lead of the United States’ largest city. 

“Mayor Adams’s life story should be an inspiration for all of us no matter what profession or what goals in life you may have,” said Nutter, citing Adams’s “resilience, perseverance, focus, and swag.”

Adams picked up on the same theme, which evoked the opening song of Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical. “If you can take a perfectly imperfect young man — arrested, dyslexic, rejected — and now I’m elected to be the mayor of the City of New York, then you can take anyone,” he said. “That young man in Rikers Island [New York City’s main jail] can look and say that ‘My mayor was arrested.’ That young child that's dyslexic in school right now can say, ‘My mayor is dyslexic.’ That person who’s in a homeless shelter is saying, ‘My mayor lived on the verge of homelessness.’”

We need to rethink and be bold enough to say, what should cities look like? What should be the indicators of our success? How do we do that success in real time?

— Mayor Eric Adams

Adams touted a number of his administration’s accomplishments, from falling crime to rising subway ridership. Following his address, Adams joined Nutter and Ester Fuchs, professor of international and public affairs and political science, for a discussion that touched on fighting crime, the future of the city as a construct, and more. 

“Cities are failing entities,” Adams said. “You cannot have an entity… where there’s no incentive to move the needle. If you fail in business, someone will go to your competitor. If you fail in education, 65 percent of Black and Brown children never reach proficiency. If you can’t go to private school, you’re stuck with it. If your streets aren’t being cleaned, you can’t hire private sanitation. You’re stuck with it. 

“So what if [cities] fail? What are you going to do, wait until next year, next term, hire another mayor and then redo it all over again? … I think we need to rethink and be bold enough to say, what should cities look like? And what should be the indicators of our success? How do we do that success in real time?”

Adams stressed the importance — for himself and for his staff — of moving among the city’s residents, and listening to them. 

“When you look at my team, you see New York,” he said. “And when they sit down and talk with me and I interview them, don't tell me about your degrees. Tell me who you are. Tell me about your family journey. How did you get here? Tell me your life experiences. Because if you're not a person that has gone through a lot, you can't help people who are going through a lot.”

He also talked about the need to be proactive, citing a quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “We spend a lifetime pulling people out of the river [but] no one goes upstream and prevents them from falling in in the first place.

You can’t be a detached spectator in the full-contact sport of life. If you’re not volunteering, you don’t have the right to criticize those who are in action.

— Mayor Eric Adams

“When you look at what we’re doing downstream, if we shift that focus upstream — dyslexia screening, making sure that we give people the mental health care that they need and not ignore them — then we can prevent the downstream mindset,” he said. “Instead of giving them the support they need, we allow them to fall in the river and pull them out.”

Fuchs later pushed back at the notion that all cities are failed entities, calling out the federal government for under-resourcing cities. Nutter, in turn, emphasized the affordable housing crisis, the importance of public safety, and stricter gun control as first principles of any mayorship.

“Another mayor taught me… and I never forgot, you can't have a great city if people don't feel safe,” said Nutter. “You can build all the big buildings, have monuments, have all the great things. But if people are afraid to be outside to see them, it doesn't really matter. They have to be safe.” 

Adams closed by calling on Columbia students to volunteer at the local level, something he said Dinkins had long encouraged as well. “You can’t be a detached spectator in the full-contact sport of life,” he said. “If you’re not volunteering, you don’t have the right to criticize those who are in action.” 

First held in 1995, the David N. Dinkins Forum convenes civic leaders, local activists, scholars, and policymakers to discuss urban policy. Among the speakers featured in previous years are Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, the late congressman John Lewis, and former attorney general Eric Holder

In his introduction, Nutter reflected on the recent death of singer-activist Harry Belafonte.

“I had the one occasion to meet Harry Belafonte very briefly at this same forum just a few years ago. Mayor Dinkins was here and that night we were honoring the late John Lewis. Can you imagine? Mayor Dinkins, John Lewis, and Harry Belafonte in the same room? It was a spectacular night. I’m honored to be here.”

Watch the complete event: