“How’m I doin’?” Ed Koch’s ubiquitous question to New York City during his three terms as mayor (1978-1989), an arguably more interesting time in the city than now (and you’ll get no argument from me), was always complicated to answer.
Perhaps a more laudatory portrait than I think Koch deserves but far from a hagiography, Neil Barsky’s “Koch,” using expertly chosen archival footage and stills and well-shot new footage, cuts between the history of the mayor’s 12-year tenure and his life before and after the job he considered a perfect fit.
Koch was a little-known congressman when he entered the Democratic primary for mayor in 1977, pushing past a roster of stars (Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Herman Badillo) and defeating Cuomo (running on the Liberal line) in the general. The least liberal of the field, Koch’s law and order platform gained appeal after the rioting and looting that accompanied the July 25, 1977 blackout.* And his candidacy was saved from likely fatal damage by rumors of him being gay with the bearding of the beautiful and educated former Miss America, Bess Myerson.
The city was peering into the abyss, desperate enough to consider bankruptcy, when Koch took office. President Ford scoffed at the idea of a bailout–the Daily News’ headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” remains one its most famous–but Koch, perpetually New York’s biggest booster, secured $1.5 billion in Federal loan guarantees.
And proceeded to remake New York. Supremely self-confident, often combative, tactless, convinced of the correctness and righteousness of his positions, Koch: took on and won concessions from the once omnipotent municipal unions (1980 transit strike); shuttered Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, betraying supporters whom he had promised he would keep it open–the beginning of hostilities between the mayor and the African-American community, a relationship he tried to repair while in office and afterwards (Peter Noel’s Village Voice cover story); condemned a block of 42nd Street and with giant subsidies to real estate developers, began the Disneyfication of Times Square; partially in a fit of pique at frequent New York Times editorials criticizing pervasive homelessness, created an unprecedented 10-year, $5.13 billion affordable housing building plan; was MIA on AIDS–giving out thousands of free condoms and shutting down the baths didn’t qualify as an AIDS policy–but supported a gay and lesbian city rights ordinance, which he signed.
How did Koch do? Following him on his current political rounds, to his sister’s house in Scarsdale for Yom Kippur break fast, interviewing him, advisors, supporters, rivals and well-known journalists (including Bob Herbert and Wayne Barrett, not known as Koch cheerleaders), Barsky’s answer is multi-faceted–and complicated.
Update: Former New York City mayor Ed Koch died of congestive heart failure at 2 am. today, February 1, at New York-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital. He was 88.
* (On the evening of the 1977 blackout I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my building on Greenwich Street, looking south toward the World Trade Center, having an epic argument with my boyfriend, when the towers flickered off and then came back on. I was sizzlingly angry, appropriate metaphor: “ready to blow a fuse,” so I made a joke that I had shorted out the buildings–and then seconds later, darkness.)