Ed Koch: The mayor who saved New York
Feb 12, 2013
By the time of his death last week, aged 88, Ed Koch “had become as much of a New York icon as the Empire State Building”, says The Economist. Tall, baldish, squinty-eyed with a U-shape smile described by one obituary writer as “more satanic than cherubic”, he personified the brash and feisty qualities of the city.
During his three terms as mayor, Koch delighted and appalled New Yorkers in equal measure. Yet he was their “authentic voice” – as opinionated as a cabby, as pugnacious as a “West Side Democrat mother”, says The New York Times. Forever “kvetching and ah-hahing”, he told a story like a raconteur in a deli and ran his administration, by his own account, “like a large and very quarrelsome Jewish family”. For all his many faults as a “slippery egoist” who, by his third term, had become tarnished by corruption scandals and a corrosive relationship with the black community, he set the modern mayoral template.
“To fully appreciate Koch,” says The Wall Street Journal, “it helps to have lived in New York before he became mayor in 1978”. The city was emerging from near bankruptcy, the subways were graffiti-ridden and broken down, the streets increasingly violent. A serial killer then terrorising the city added to the impression that New York was on its knees. The financial situation was so parlous (Koch inherited an annual municipal deficit approaching $2bn) that Time ran a cover of his predecessor as a beggar with a tin cup. Upon taking office, he went to work on the finances and wrought a stupendous recovery (see box). “I saved the city,” he told an interviewer with characteristic immodesty in 2011.
The second son of Polish Jewish immigrants, Koch was born in New York in 1924, says The Daily Telegraph. His father was a furrier, but the business went bust in the Depression and the family was exiled to Newark, New Jersey. There he got his first job, aged nine, as a hat check boy in his uncle’s restaurant. Having served in France as a decorated infantryman during World War II, Koch returned to take a law degree and set up practice as an attorney.
A “dedicated liberal” and Democrat, he cut his political teeth campaigning for Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign. But he made his name in New York by taking on the corrupt patronage system of “Tammany Hall”, the local Democratic Party machine, and later showed the same fearlessness to win the mayoralty.
In retirement, Koch became more of a celebrity than ever, says The New York Times. Yet he was “an intensely private man”. When asked about his sexuality in a new documentary, Koch, he replied: “none of your fucking business”. His great love was for his city. Ed Koch “finally left New York for someplace better”, said the city’s police commissioner last week – “although he’d probably argue that’s not possible”.
'How'm I doing?'... 'Terrific'
By the usual standards of measuring a former mayor’s legacy, “historians and political experts generally give Koch mixed-to-good reviews”, says The New York Times. Had he got out after his first term, they would have been ecstatic.
Three weeks into his office, the self-styled “Mr Competence” had presented the US Treasury with a recovery plan, which envisaged balancing the budget within five years. Confidence began returning to the city and with it a downtown boom. Koch beat his self-imposed deadline by 12 months, achieving a surplus of $200m.
His political move rightwards – and authoritarian moves to beat crime and tame unions – were seen as betrayal by some. But Koch “was a liberal mugged by reality”, says The Wall Street Journal. His legacy to New York is a turnaround “that never arrived in Detroit, Philadelphia or much of Los Angeles”.
“I’m not the type who gets ulcers, I give them”, Koch famously observed. He was soon greeting everyone he encountered with, “How’m I doing?” – invariably answering “Terrific!” before they could answer. As a campaigner, Koch was a bully, notes The Daily Telegraph. And he acted as though he were the head of a sovereign state, “pursuing a vigorous foreign policy of his own, quite independent of Washington’s”. Although known as a champion of Israel, “the main thrust of his foreign policy was addressed to the Irish question”. The British, he said, “should get the hell out”.
A passionate fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who appeared on Broadway in Singin’ in the Rain, Koch’s “cinematic qualities” extended well beyond New York, says The Guardian. He certainly had a role to play in the development of city government in Britain. Ken Livingstone embodied a London version of Koch’s “from the soil of the city” shtick; Boris Johnson is a disciple of his media skills. He showed “British politicians what mayors might be like”.
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