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Ed Koch and a City on the Brink

New York Mayor Ed Koch talks to reporters in his office in 1979. Photo by Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

I was a rookie reporter when my congressman, Ed Koch, announced he was running for mayor. Really? Ed Koch? New York was writhing through its near-death experience: the books were out of whack, residents continued to rush to the exits and corporate headquarters were packing up just as the factories had for 20 years. Was this really a moment for a Greenwich Village liberal? Koch had impeccable reform Democratic credentials, a balding pate and a voice that swooped from an ordinary middle register then soared into a squeaky tenor when he got emphatic… and he got emphatic a lot.

The previous two mayors had struggled against what seemed like the inexorable decline of the city. Handsome and charismatic John V. Lindsay marketed New York as “Fun City,” and was constantly challenged to defuse the racial powder keg of communities fighting for ever-scarcer resources. Lindsay was succeeded at city hall by his comptroller, Abraham Beame, no one’s idea of a glamorous pol. Beame promised that he could tame the twin beasts of local overspending and the dwindling support from Washington. But New York had been playing games with its finances, balancing the books by skipping years of maintenance on aging infrastructure, and using various kinds of social welfare payments it could no longer afford to aid workers left behind as blue-collar jobs disappeared.

The subways stopped with a lurch between stations, plunging thousands into unexplained darkness for long stretches. The parks looked like hell. Graffiti suddenly seemed to cover every surface that could be reached by a tagger with a can of spray paint or a wide-tipped marker. Buildings burned when firefighters wrestled to open a hydrant only to find it was dry. Engineers threatened to close the East River bridges after it was discovered wintertime salt and postponed maintenance had eaten away at the roadbeds.

The Daily News headline was another reminder to Beame-era New Yorkers that the rest of the country from President Gerald Ford on down was prepared to write us off: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. The future of America’s biggest city looked bleak.

Enter Ed Koch. A smart guy and a terrific hands-on politician saw the late-70s political landscape very clearly. New Yorkers were angry, and in the residential areas of the outer boroughs where a lot of change was absorbed in a short amount of time, they were tired of 1960s liberalism. He headed out to Queens and Brooklyn and told middle-class homeowners he shared their disgust with disorder, graffiti and sagging standards. Seniors yelped their delight when he switched to Yiddish to answer a question from the floor. The bachelor who lived a stone’s throw from Greenwich Village ground zero, Washington Square Park, headed out to gymnasiums and bingo halls with former Miss America Bess Myerson on his arm.

A tough primary race against the incumbent Mayor Beame, New York Representative Bella Abzug and Queens lawyer Mario Cuomo came just after the July 1977 blackout that plunged the city into darkness on a hundred-degree day. There was light against the black sky, from fires set by arsonists and looters who confronted cops and firefighters in street battles. That same year, the aerial shot of an important game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx also captured fires around the beleaguered borough. Sportscaster Howard Cosell intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” Koch’s promise to bring order to the city moved him to the front of the pack.

He won. And he won again. And again. The short, quiet bureaucrat Abe Beame was replaced a character. Koch was quick-witted, smart-mouthed, suffered fools badly and came right back at reporters trying to paint him into a corner in free-wheeling city hall news conferences. He spoke in an unapologetic New York accent — of a certain era — kissed old ladies, kibitzed with storekeepers, and whether in real delight or to camouflage his disdain I had seen his rubbery, hawkish features crinkle into a smile. Sometimes that smile was followed by a withering comeback.

It would be hard to exaggerate how menacing, crazy and desperate New York could seem in those years. Deinstitutionalization had filled the streets of New York with mentally ill homeless men and women. To meet the stern demands of New York’s fiscal masters, the city lost some of its sovereignty to a financial control board as a condition of its emergence from fiscal danger. There were sharp cutbacks to minor and major programs designed to cushion the worst effects of poverty. Under Koch — who was mayor through a recession, then the solid growth of the 1980s — the city was able to pay its bills and make some of its desperately needed repairs.

New York’s social fabric however, was in deep disrepair. If Ed Koch had a blind spot, it was his inability to connect with, empathize with or understand the lives of millions of black and brown New Yorkers. Combative when he could have commiserated, dismissive when he should have been sympathetic, Koch sometimes had me wondering whether he understood how so many minority New Yorkers saw him. Or whether it would have worried him if he did.

Koch deplored subway shooter Bernhard Goetz’s taking the law into his own hands and opening fire on potential muggers on the bus. Yusuf Hawkins, a black teenager, headed into an all-white Brooklyn neighborhood to see a used car and was shot to death during an encounter with a group of white teens. At the end of the Koch years, during the mayor’s primary run for a fourth term, a young woman was nearly beaten to death in Central Park, and a group of black and Latino young men were charged and wrongfully convicted in the attack. New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, beat Koch in the Democratic primary in 1989.

Throughout his mayoralty and in the years after, Ed Koch remained the irrepressible and surprising politician who became a nationally-known figure in a way most mayors never do. No one, not even his fiercest political foes, ever doubted his single-minded devotion to his work, or his love for the city.

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