On Monday, February 4, New Yorkers and people the world over said their final farewell to the “quintessential” New Yorker, none other than “Hizonner” himself, the legendary Mayor Edward I. Koch.
Serving the city of New York for three terms, Koch crafted his persona for public consumption as a brash, irrepressible and opinionated chap with brimming self-confidence. Needless to say, he was the optimal avatar of the city’s self-image; so much so that he often appeared to be like a character out of central casting. In other words, Ed Koch’s destiny was to be mayor of New York.
When Koch took office in the late 1970s he inherited a city that was on the brink of financial ruin, escalating violence in the streets and the perilous crack epidemic that virtually ravaged the city. Despite his mayoral vicissitudes, Koch rose to the occasion as a paladin of sorts, reviving New York from its nearly fatal experience with bankruptcy and restoring a semblance of solvency, much to the relief of its citizens. Somehow, Koch turned a $400 million deficit into a $500 million surplus. And let’s not forget the fact that he began a housing initiative when he left office in 1989 that yielded fruit in the years thereafter.
While it is true that racial tensions simmered because of Koch’s perceived denial of basic services to minority communities and his routine battles with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, Koch was indeed a “liberal with sanity” and desired to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers, irrespective of race, religion or gender. Despite his brashness however , Koch did possess a large degree of humility and was one who could admit the error of his ways. He attributed his strain in relations with minority leaders to his closure of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital and openly said that the ill conceived decision was his biggest mistake.
He made no excuses for the declining conditions of the city, but rather he acknowledged how horrible things were and spoke quite candidly about what City Hall could do to rectify the sorry situation.
Using his uncanny ability to convince New Yorkers that the place they called home could have a bright future, Koch did it all through his infectious optimism, his sharp wit and ever-ready humor.
For those of us old enough to recall, Koch was a ubiquitous figure. At times it seemed as if the city had cloned him. During the 10-day transit workers strike of 1980, the mayor was out on the Brooklyn Bridge every morning, greeting people as they walked into Manhattan and raising their spirits.
His constituents expressed their loyalty to him when in 1981, he was re-elected by a record margin, with the unprecedented backing of both major parties. In 1985, Koch glided to victory once again and this time with an even greater percentage of the vote.
While his 1982 bid for the governor’s job ended in defeat, it was greeted with pleasure by New Yorkers, who wanted to keep Koch close to hearth and home.
As an exceptionally outspoken and stalwart supporter of Israel, Koch even took on former President Jimmy Carter and others that he felt were unfairly critical of the Jewish state. His palpable connection to his Jewish roots in a time of growing anti-Semitism served as a source of strength and courage for all peoples struggling with the nefarious forces of prejudice and discrimination.
Like many of us who grapple with the enormous pressures of life, Koch fell in to a state of depression as this third term saw a number of corruption scandals and the suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes. One of Koch’s closest friends, the late John Cardinal O’Connor interceded and helped lift Koch out of the morose state of mind that consumed him.
As a man who thoroughly reveled in the public eye and immersed himself with attention from the media, he also needed validation; hence the line he’ll be most remembered for. When gathering amongst his fellow New Yorkers, he’d loudly ask, “How’m I Doing??”
While this column does not even pretend to do justice to the glorious legacy of Mayor Koch, we at The Jewish Voice salute the memory of Edward Irving Koch. He was truly a paradigm of greatness, of love for the city that survives him, a love for his people. May his memory be for a blessing and may his lively soul find comfort in Heaven Above.