An Aha moment! We’ve seen how the Bureau of Municipal Research came to invent a new science of honest, efficient, effective and professional government: disgusted with the cronyism of Tammany Hall, a band of New York plutocrats (names like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Harriman), came together at the dawn of the 20th century to teach New York and cities around the country the wisdom of budgeting, performance audits, investigative studies and professional training for civic leaders.
But what exactly was the catalyst? In the hundreds of file boxes recently processed, we found the answer. It was an editorial in the New-York Tribune of March 11, 1901. We didn’t find the clipping itself, but someone at the Bureau had taken the trouble to retype it and stick it in the files, with the penciled notation: “This was the editorial in the N.Y. Tribune that led to the founding of the Bureau.”
The idea of a citizen agency to monitor government had been kicking around New York for years in the late 1800s, particularly under the auspices of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), an early influential charity that spawned the Citizens Union. Which, in turn gave rise to the Bureau of City Betterment, forerunner of the BMR. Masterminding that movement was a wealthy and powerful philanthropist, Robert Fulton Cutting, whose story we outlined in earlier posts.
Anyway, in that March of 1901, Frank Tucker, vice president of the Provident Loan Society, read the Tribune editorial and called it to the attention of Cutting. The Provident was another great reform institution, a nonprofit pawn brokerage created during the financial panic of 1893 to provide New Yorkers desperate for cash an alternative to loan sharks. The founders included J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jacob H. Schiff, August Belmont Jr., Salomon Loeb and Gustave H. Schwab. And its executive office, erected in 1909, was on the northwest corner of 25th Street and Fourth Avenue (renamed Park Avenue South in 1959) – a block from Baruch! It is still there.
So what did the Tribune editorial say?
It began with a tale of the Rivington Street Baths. Henry S. Kearny, Commissioner of Public Buildings under Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck (the first chief executive of consolidated New York and, yes, the namesake of the Queens expressway, pronounced either both WIKE and WICK, take your pick) wanted almost $52,000 (nearly $1.5 million today) to run the baths for a year. Under pressure, the editorial said, Kearny conceded he could do it for less than half that, $24,272. That the first figure was wildly inflated through cronyism if not corruption was made clear when the Tribune called Kearny “the Tammany official.”
The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which ran its own baths, said it could do the job for even less, $17,500. Kearny protested that the city, unlike the AICP, had to abide by the Prevailing Rate of Wages Law. But then the Court of Appeals freed the city from “the trammels of the law,” as the Tribune editorial put it, and Kearny agreed that he could revise his figures substantially downward after all.
The Tribune then concluded with a plea for outside oversight that planted the seed for the Bureau of Municipal Research: “This incident is doubtless typical of what would happen in every department were there some institution in position to check official estimates and show what the identical work in question could be done for, with politics left out…[e]xtravance is the rule, and generally it is impossible to restrain it, as has been done in the matter of the baths. That is the price the people pay for putting their government in the hands of those who regard the public treasury as a private crib.”
You can read the whole editorial here: