Abraham D. Beame: History Of New York City Mayors

Mayor Abe Beam

Photo: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Abraham D. Beame also known to New Yorkers as Mayor Abe Beame had one of the shortest mayoral terms in New York City’s history, but it was definitely one of the most memorable. He inherited several challenges left behind by his predecessor John V. Lindsay. He managed to overcome some of them, while also facing other unexpected issues during his time in office. His term occurred during a pivotal time in the city’s history. Abe Beame was born in London, England on March 20, 1906. His birth name was Abraham David Birnbaum. Abraham and his parents Phillip and Esther moved to the United States when he was just three months old. The family settled in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Abraham graduated from P.S. 160 and the High School of Commerce. After high school, he enrolled in classes at the City College of New York’s School of Business and Civic Administration. Beame received an undergraduate degree in business with honors from the college in 1928.

Abraham D. Beame opened his own accounting firm, Beame & Greidinger, while he was still in college. He later taught accounting at Richmond Hill High School in the borough of Queens from 1929 to 1946. Beame also taught commercial law and accounting classes at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey from 1944 to 1945.

Abe Beame’s first taste of politics was serving as Assistant Director of the Budget for New York City from 1946 to 1952. He eventually became the city’s budget director, and held that position from 1952 to 1961. He became known as a shrewd bookkeeper who carefully monitored the city’s income and expenses. He successfully negotiated all of New York City’s labor contracts and avoided work strikes or stoppages during those years. The management programs that he established allowed the city to save about $40 million in labor costs. Abraham was elected comptroller of New York City in 1961 and again in 1969.

Mayor Abe Beame was considered a machine politician. He belonged to the Brooklyn section of the traditional Democratic group in the 1950’s. Beame was the personal accountant for political leader Irwin Steingut and was a member of the Madison Democratic Club in Crown Heights before serving two terms as city comptroller. He made his first run for mayor in 1965. Abraham was the Democratic party nominee that year, but lost to Republican candidate John V. Lindsay.

Mayor Abe Beame became the city of New York’s 104th mayor on January 1, 1974, after having defeated John J. Marchi in the 1973 election. He inherited some considerable problems, as the city was on the brink of bankruptcy when he took office. It was the worst financial condition that New York City had ever experienced. Mayor Abe Beame worked hard to turn the city around. He adjusted the budget, reduced the number of personnel and froze salaries to cut costs. His actions were met with equal amounts of praise and criticism.

New York City was more than $450 million in debt in October 1975. Mayor Abe Beame announced on October 17th that the city lacked the necessary funds to pay their debt for the day. He encouraged citizens to pitch in to help improve the livelihood of their friends and neighbors and to keep important services running.

Mayor Abe Beame applied for federal funding to keep the city afloat. President Gerald Ford denied Beame’s initial request, although he would eventually sign off on federal funds for New York City. Abraham also received assistance from several state-sponsored organizations in his efforts to turn things around.

Beame endured another crisis in 1977. The city experienced a major power failure on July 13th. Most of the city went without power for more than a day. Sewage made its way to city beaches and food began to spoil in thousands of restaurants in New York City. To quell tensions and the growing discomfort from his citizens, Abraham established a Blackout Action Center at the city’s police headquarters. There people could seek support and find resources as officials dealt with looting and other crimes that ensued during the blackout.

Abraham D. Beame ran for a second term as mayor in 1977. By then his popularity had waned, and he finished third in the Democratic primary behind Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. Koch won the election in November 1977.

Abraham’s fiscal policies were highly debated during his term. By 1975, things had deteriorated to the point where state agencies had to assume control of the New York City budget. The city had a $1.5 billion deficit when Beame took office, but was operating at a $20 million surplus when his term ended. It was the beginning of a recovery that would continue for several years.

Beame married Mary Ingerman, his childhood sweetheart.  They were married until her death in 1995. The couple had two children, Edmond and Bernard. His family lived in Brooklyn and later moved on to residences in Crown Heights and Park Slope neighborhoods.

Mayor Abe Beame passed away on February 10,2001 at the age of 94. He had been hospitalized at New York University Medical Center where he underwent open heart surgery before his death. Beame had a history of heart problems, He suffered heart attacks in 1991 and 2001 and had previously undergone open heart surgery in August and December 2000.

Mayor Abe Beame was the first mayor of New York City who practiced the Jewish religion. He was honored multiple times for his charitable and civic contributions by various city groups. Abraham was awarded the Townsend Harris medal in 1957 to recognize his leadership in the community.

Many historians and political experts have examined time in office. He was widely criticized for his handling of the financial crisis.  The history of Mayor Abe Beame was condemned at times for laying off city workers, allowing garbage to go uncollected, closing schools and fire departments and raising taxes as he tried to cut costs and decrease spending. He was also praised for the city’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and a very successful Bicentennial celebration that summer. Beame also garnered praise for having a scandal-free administration.

Abraham D. Beame had one of the most challenging New York City mayoral terms. He had to deal with a collapsing infrastructure, public distrust, the “Son of Sam” attacks in 1976 and 1977, a city-wide blackout and much more. He was never one to shy away from a problem, and some say that he never forgot an insult or a favor. If he hadn’t taken drastic actions to reduce spending and improve the budget, the city might never be as prosperous as it is today.

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