Growing Up In NYC With One Of Its Best Mayors

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Entering Congress, 1964 (AP)

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.

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Running For Mayor, 1977

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.

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On a Camel, 1980 (AP)

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.

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Conceding defeat, 1989

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.

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With Andrew Cuomo 2010 (Getty Images)

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.

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10 Comments

  1. Elaine

     /  February 6, 2013

    Excellent article Todd. I have been thinking the same thing, not quite understanding why his passing meant so much to me when I was so young during his time as mayor. Thanks for finding the right words.

    Reply
    • Thanks Elaine! Its easier than we think to forget something we took for granted growing up. I think we did that a bit with Ed Koch.

      Reply
  2. Terrific read, Todd! I grew up in Queens in the seventies and early eighties, and every word of your article rings true. (Mayor Lindsay. Don’t get me started.) I found myself tearing up while I watched Koch’s funeral on TV, and saw the NYPD honor guard carry him out to the tune of “New York, New York.” It felt like my childhood, and old-school New York itself, were taking that long drive to Trinity Cemetery as well. Thanks for the outerborough online camraderie. PS — My great-aunt was Abe Beame’s secretary before he became mayor. She used to call him “Abey-Baby” behind his back.

    Reply
    • Thank you Kathleen, I guess I am guilty of thinking him as being mayor just a few years ago, but in truth it has been a little longer than that.

      Reply
  3. Koch taught me and an entire generation of gay men that we could—and would–drop dead from AIDS as far as he was concerned. While he was not responsible for their deaths, he showed ZERO compassion or concern for the plight of gay men–and others–who were dying from AIDS. in 1987, at a time when the much smaller San Francisco devoted more than $8M to AIDS prevention, Koch allocated a miserly $24K. SHAME SHAME SHAME SHAME, Nobody wants to remember your name. FIGHT AIDS. ACT UP!

    Reply
  4. I don’t know what the exact spending numbers were Jack but I don’t think it is accurate or fair to say that he didn’t care. I pulled up this story showing him supporting aid from the year 1983 http://www.flickr.com/photos/placesnomore/8450317179/in/photostream/ . There has always been a group that wants to vilify Koch because he was in the closet, He felt his sexual activity was his business, not anyone elses. Some wanted him to be something he was not, they wont forgive him for that.

    Reply
  5. Gene B

     /  February 6, 2013

    N.Y.C. MAYOR’S PRIVATE SECTOR SURVEY – 1989
    “How’m-I-Doing?”
    Mayor Koch asked Frank T. Cary [1920-2006], then the retired CEO of IBM, to chair a group of executives, managers and professionals from industry to study the operations of city agencies and make recommendations. The team of over 100 people from all the major industrial companies began in early 1989, working under an executive director Paul J. Kofmehl [1929-2007], a retired IBM vice president, with assistance of the consulting firm Price Waterhouse.
    After I retired from IBM in January 1989, I worked for about six months with this group. Our sub-committee looked at personnel records systems across most city agencies.
    PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS:
    – Politics and Elections were very influential. There were major differences between what went on in for-profit industries, both unionized and non-unionized, compared with running a large governmental operation.
    – Bureaucratic/civil service mentality was pervasive. This was not limited to municipal worker union members; managers were often just as resistant to change. For example, when I asked about a patently inefficient procedure, “Why is this done this way?” the reply was either, “We’ve always done it that way,” or “No one ever asked that question before.”
    A popular story involved a worker permanently stationed at the bottom of a staircase in a municipal building with no apparent duties. It turned out that once, decades ago, a person fell on that staircase, and ever since, an employee was assigned to sit nearby.
    – Automation of records, even microfilming, was in primitive stages. For example, original documents were always retained – it seemed a judge once asked for an original, so photo copies, even certified, were not used when originals were available. Paper files were all over city buildings and warehouses – some even on islands in the middle of the East River. In one agency, an armed guard was needed every time a clerk needed to retrieve a file from a storage facility.
    The Police Department elected not to participate in the personnel data survey. They fiercely defended their independence and were especially secretive about their computer systems. (The overall final report called for the NYPD to increase their technical and computing capabilities.)
    OUR SUB-COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS:
    – Digitize records on computers – save acres of space and labor costs.
    – Invest in major computerization upgrades (not necessarily IBM equipment) and reap large savings.
    OUTCOME:
    Mayor Koch lost the primary in 1989, so all the task force recommendations were passed on to the next Mayor (David Dinkins), who faced a deteriorating city with demoralized workers. When Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor in 1993, he began a major overhaul. Interestingly, the Police department’s use of new computerized systems (crime reporting, precinct accountability, etc.) has been cited as a major reason for the turnaround in quality-of-life issues and reductions in crime-rates.
    I ended up with Ed Koch’s signature on a photo of him, my wife and me, taken at a Gracie Mansion reception he hosted for his task force.

    Reply
  6. l higgins

     /  February 6, 2013

    great article. Having grown up in Queens in basically the same era, i have to say, well put!

    Reply
  7. What a great article! I was in junior high near Buffalo when Ed Koch became mayor. In the next few years I feel in love with NYC and made it my dream to live there. Still haven’t made it yet, but I’m a little closer to it living in Rochester and a son who’s a Freshman at NYU. lol Hopefully someday. :)

    Reply
  8. Tom Finn

     /  February 21, 2013

    Just a point of interest. The apartment building, 2, 5th Avenue pictured within the
    story is called Breevort Arms. This is the same building which famous recording artist,
    Buddy Holly moved into with his young bride
    Maria Elana. They were beginning a new life
    together but Buddy’s record royalties were being held up by his crooked manager, so, he had to sign on to a winter tour because they needed money. Of course everybody knows
    Buddy rented a small plane and pilot to get to the next stop on the tour. The plane crashed
    killing Buddy, two other stars and the pilot.
    I know this is off topic, but, whenever I see
    that apartment building, it takes me back to February 3rd. 1959.

    Reply

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