Abram Beame – mayor of New York

Abram Beame, mayor of New York by John Rennie

Abram Beame – mayor of New York

Many East Enders have moved on and out, and very many have gone on to greatness. But Abraham Beame, who died earlier this year, is surely unique. Beame left London, and ended up mayor of New York City.

Abraham David Beame was the son of Polish Jews who, like hundreds of thousands of others were fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia. And like many others escaping the pogroms, the Beames ended up in Whitechapel.

Abraham Beame in Whitechapel
Abraham was born on March 20th, 1906. His father, Philip Birnbaum, a socialist, went on to New York. Meanwhile, his wife, Esther Goldfarb stayed in the East End to recover from the birth. She also changed the family name to the more Anglicised Beame.
If Whitechapel had been tough on the immigrants it was good preparation for their arrival in New York, where they settled into the bustling, crowded and poor Lower East Side.

From Whitechapel to New York
The Beames saw the way out as being hard work and education. And like many an immigrant before him he went on to achieve top marks at school, while holding down evening and weekend jobs, including labouring in a paper mill and working shifts at his dad’s restaurant.

He was a born money man, winning perfect scores in his accountancy exams, before going on to teach the subject at high school and university.

He came to politics late, and was an unlikely mayor of New York. At 67 years of age, only 5ft2in tall, this self-made working class cockney was in stark contrast to the Ivy League educated career politicians who normally inhabited the office. While his rivals were at home in the upper class suburbs of New York and New England, Abraham would be calling on all friends back in the working class district of Queens, many of whom had accompanied the Beame family on the long ocean crossing from the East End to Ellis Island.

Beame as New York Mayor

When Beame entered office he inherited a $1.5billion budget deficit. The extraordinary debt had come to a head as other crises hit the city and the nation, including the Watergate investigation, protests against the disastrous war in Vietnam, terrorist bombings in New York and a city wide power failure that resulted in violence and lootings. It looked like the great city was set for collapse.

His period in office also coincided with the horrific serial killings perpetrated by the so-called “Son of Sam” (killer David Berkowitz). Beame found himself pilloried by the media for the mounting debt, though he had inherited 15 years of municipal mismanagement. At the peak of the New York City financial crisis, Beame threw out pleas for aid to New York state governor Hugh Carey and US president Gerald Ford – all were refused.

Saving New York from bankruptcy
But Beame’s financial and business sense started to pay off. He hammered out emergency plans, programs and stopgaps as well as securing state and federal loans from the heads of the state and the nation, but it didn’t make him popular. Rises in income tax, subway and bus fares were painful medicine, and cuts of city employees, wage freezes and the implementation of college tuition fees only made him less so. And Beame left office in 1978 after the election of Ed Koch with a $200 million surplus, having entered office with the city facing bankruptcy.

Abraham retired from politics but remained active in business, banking, charity and education. But the stresses and strains of public life had taken their toll. The former mayor suffered from heart troubles for a decade, including heart attacks in 1991, and in July last year. After undergoing a second major heart surgery in December of 2000, Beame fell into increasingly frail health and died on 10 February 2001.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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