The passing of Ed Koch a few days ago brought back a lot of memories of how special it was to grow up in the city he ran. New York City was rejuvenated in the late 70’s and 80’s, sometimes we forget about how much the man who led the city through that period was responsible for it.
It is probably because I am a movie person that when I think of Ed Koch I flash back to the mayor of the city in the Pelham 1-2-3 movie from the early 70’s, a part played by Lee Wallace. He bore a striking resemblance to the mayor, even though Koch wouldn’t be elected for another four years. The resemblance was only skin deep, Wallace was wimpy and unlikable, Koch brilliant and bold.
The fact that a city mayor would be portrayed as weak and ineffective in the early 70’s shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone. For about 30 years that’s more or less what the city had been getting from its real mayors. Since the days of Fiorello LaGuardia the city had not seen a mayor really willing to take the city under his weight and carry it to where it had to go. LaGuardia seemed to be the last person who knew how to combine good policy, strong character, street toughness and a colorful personality to energize the city, that was until Ed Koch came along.
Growing up in the 1970’s in the city, I only remember bits and pieces of discussion around our house about who the mayor was, and most of it wasn’t good. Lindsay was the guy who didn’t care about us and wouldn’t plow us out if it snowed. Beame was incompetent, corrupt, weak. My most vivid personal memory of 1977 was the blackout. Before July 13th, 1977 I had never walked outside at night in Queens in complete and total darkness. When the power came back on, I saw on the news all the looting that had taken place nearby, it was unnerving and put the city in a bad light.
1977 also brought about new hope. There were some new faces running for mayor. There was Bella Abzug who my Mom liked because she thought it was about time a woman had a chance to run things; there were the two new relative unknowns, two people I had never heard of before, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. Koch was a Manhattan congressman from the Bronx, Newark, and Brooklyn. Cuomo was the Secretary of the State of NY from Jamaica. Koch promised to restore order to the city and balance the budget. He ran a convincing enough campaign to win 20 percent of the vote and finish just ahead of Cuomo. He beat Cuomo again in a runoff primary, and Cuomo again in November to become mayor.
Koch’s first few years in office were the best and most significant of his career. He made smart but difficult budget cuts, he built back up the police force. He resurrected the cities credibility, he made it safer, he promoted it tirelessly. He made the city desirable again to investors, he made it something tourists and real estate developers wanted to come back to for the first time in decades.
I was too young to know he was reinventing the city, I just knew I liked seeing him on TV, he was entertaining. No other politician had the guts to come right out and ask us how he was doing. Koch always seemed to look good no matter how he looked in every appearance. Michael Dukakis may have looked silly riding a tank with a combat helmet on his head, but Koch looked good with a turban on his riding a camel. It was the camel moment that really won me over. How could you not identify with a bald skinny guy from Brooklyn riding a camel in the desert asking us how he was doing?
Cuomo and Koch would face off again in the 1982 democratic primary for governor. Koch wanted to parlay his success and move to state office. I remember wanting to see the guy who had turned our city around do the same for the state, but the result was disappointing. Maybe it was because Koch wasn’t as well known upstate as Cuomo was, maybe it was because he was Jewish. Maybe it was because Koch had insulted the country lifestyle in an interview he did a few months before the election, (before he knew he would have the chance to run). If it was the insults, you could say Koch’s big mouth at first had helped him become mayor, and now it had helped him stay mayor.
Koch remained relatively popular in the city until his last term in office. By that time black leaders felt their constituents weren’t getting their fair share of the cities new prosperity, Koch was slow to listen. Friends became involved in scandals which made Koch look corrupt even if he wasn’t. As a result, Koch became vulnerable and David Dinkins defeated him in the September 1989 primary, ending his three term mayoral run.
Just for the record, LaGuardia’s third term didn’t go much better than Koch’s. By 1945 a sometimes stubborn LaGuardia had stretched his relationships with city leaders to the breaking point, he had lost a strong democratic ally in the white house when FDR passed away, he had lost his popularity with the city. When the legendary mayor said he wouldn’t seek a fourth term in 1945, it was probably because he knew he wouldn’t have won anyway even had he tried.
Koch and LaGuardia both were brought in to reform the city, to clean it up, which they both did with great success. They both managed to reinvent New York, and in the process made us proud of them for doing it. They also both brought the city to a place where they no longer could lead it anymore. They should go down as two of the best mayors our city ever had.
I had no idea the loss of Koch this past week would have affected me as much as it has. He probably did more to improve the quality of life within the city than I had realized. He made my life better, and for that I owe him a debt of gratitude. Thanks Mr. Mayor for navigating us through some pretty hard times and making us laugh while you did it, you will be missed.