NEW YORK — Richard L. Murphy, a social policy innovator who aided tens of thousands of disadvantaged New York City children and teenagers through his community organization in Harlem and as the city’s youth commissioner under Mayor David N. Dinkins, died Thursday in Manhattan. The Taunton, Mass., native was 68.
The cause was complications of stomach cancer, according to Sister Paulette LoMonaco, a friend of his and the executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a social service and youth development agency.
With a track record of building grass-roots community organizations and coalitions, Mr. Murphy was appointed commissioner of youth services by Dinkins, a Democrat, in 1990. He immediately expanded the agency’s scope, maintaining that youth programs were an important anticrime tool. He increased spending on city programs to $70 million a year, from $20 million.
One of Mr. Murphy’s initiatives was to open an emergency youth hot line, which received thousands of calls a week — some as desperate as a plea for help from a teenager pondering suicide, others as mundane as a query about what neighborhood activities were available.
Another effort by Mr. Murphy was to keep dozens of schools open for tutoring, exercise classes, and other activities beyond the usual 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours. Thirty-seven schools, at least one in each district, participated as part of Dinkins’s Safe Streets, Safe City program.
The idea, Mr. Murphy said, was to create dozens of ‘‘small universes’’ in which young people could learn, dream, and grow and, in the process, stay out of trouble.
‘‘You can have a policeman on 178th Street and a policewoman on 179th Street and you can sweep kids off the streets,’’ he told The New York Times in 1990, ‘‘but unless you give them something to do, they’ll simply go to 180th Street. You have to give kids something to do.’’
The concept of using schools as community centers spread to other cities, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
But after Dinkins was defeated in 1993 in his bid for reelection, his successor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, accused Mr. Murphy of giving contracts to Dinkins supporters, overspending his budget, and generally running a sloppy agency.
Giuliani also contended that someone had burglarized the youth department to destroy evidence against Mr. Murphy. Investigations found that the burglary had no political purpose and that Mr. Murphy had not broken laws on contracts.
Exonerated, Mr. Murphy later accused Giuliani of creating ‘‘a youth police state’’ because of his heavy use of juvenile detention centers.
In an interview on Thursday, Dinkins said, ‘‘Many youngsters grew up to be better people because of the ingenuity of Richard Murphy.’’
Mr. Murphy became engaged in youth issues in the late 1960s as a recent college graduate who had bounced between jobs before finding part-time work as a city social worker. One day he noticed a young man at a lunch counter and asked why he was not in school. The youth said he did not have school that day because it was a special day off. The next week, Mr. Murphy spotted the same young man in the same place, only this time he offered a different story.
‘‘I got involved,’’ Mr. Murphy said in an interview with The Times in 1985. ‘‘I followed the kid, went to his home. That was the beginning.’’
He found that of New York City’s million or more students, as many as 200,000 were skipping school each day, many of them getting into trouble. In response, with financing from the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, he started the Rheedlen Foundation to help truants finish school.
Rheedlen (the name was a combination of two aunts’ names) was founded in 1970 in Harlem and expanded to other New York neighborhoods. It later became the Harlem Children’s Zone, which now provides after-school and other educational services to 12,000 young people and their families in 97 blocks of Harlem. The effort has been copied in other cities.
Geoffrey Canada, president of the organization, said Mr. Murphy had worked with the city to open several schools for Rheedlen’s recreational and educational activities during the 18 hours that schools were otherwise closed. Mr. Murphy named them Beacon Schools.
Richard Lawrence Murphy graduated from Boston Latin School and Georgetown University. Early jobs included working for the federal health department, NBC Sports, and a financial services firm.
Mr. Murphy began winning trust and respect in Harlem by handing out day-old bread on the streets in the morning. On Fridays, he gave children a quarter to call him on a pay phone if they ran out of food over the weekend. His trademark was a colorful bow tie.
After serving as commissioner, Mr. Murphy worked for nonprofit organizations, including Food Change (now named Food Bank for NYC), which addresses emergency food needs. With his help, the group started a culinary arts high school in Manhattan, Food and Finance High School, on West 50th Street.
Mr. Murphy leaves his brothers, Barry and Brian; his son, Noel Garcia; his daughter, Asia Washington; and a grandson.