Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s death on Friday brought back memories of a city on the brink. I was a young freelance writer living on Avenue A in the tough, drug-infested East Village when Koch was elected Mayor in 1977. Urban decay was destroying neighborhoods and crime was rampant. I loved New York even in its worst days, but took self-defense classes and karate to feel safe in the subways after dark. New York was trying to come back from a brush with bankruptcy in 1975 that is best encapsulated by a Daily News headline that read “Ford to City: “Drop Dead.” Mayor Abe Beame, an accountant by training, lacked the charisma to rally a city awash in debt. Not so Ed Koch.
“I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers,” he said upon taking office. “I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.” Koch, a Democrat, was a master showman, as much at home on the city streets as he was in the halls of power.
In its obit, The New York Times proclaimed Koch “parlayed shrewd political instincts and plenty of chutzpa into three tumultuous terms as Mayor of New York with all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams.” He was arguably the most colorful mayor since Fiorello H. La Guardia nyti.ms/14zLmAV .
As the Times obit pointed out, historians give the mayor’s three terms mixed reviews, but everyone agrees he came in like a bull. Said the Times, “Confronted with the deficits and the constraints of the city’s brush with bankruptcy in 1975, he held down spending, subdued the municipal unions, restored the city’s creditworthiness, revived a moribund capital budget, began work on a long-neglected bridges and streets, cut antipoverty programs and tried to reduce the friction between Manhattan and the more traditional other boroughs.” He went on to steadily improve the city’s finances in his second term.
The glory days didn’t last forever, and it took another tough Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to revive New York from the excesses of the junk bond era, and current Mayor Bloomberg to keep it on track after the 2008 Wall Street crash, but Koch left his mark on some incredible years that I’ll always treasure.