Written by Michael A. Gonzales (@Gonzomike)
It was not difficult for Ed Koch, who died on Friday at the age of 88, to become mayor of New York City in 1978. He was running against Abe Beame, the ineffectual one-term mayor whose four years were riddled with financial burdens and woes that damn near ruined a once great metropolis.
When the city sought financial assistance from President Gerald Ford, the papers read “Ford To City: Drop Dead,” and the city seemed as though it were about to collapse into the river. It didn’t help matters when a year later a summertime blackout bought out real-life midnight marauders.
After kicking Beamey to the curb, Koch took office in January 1978 and went on to become one of the most iconic politicians of his generation. Although he once declared that he wanted to be mayor forever—and he was elected three times—he was eventually ousted from office by David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, in 1989.
“Ed Koch was certainly New York City's most charismatic mayor,” says Brooklyn-born novelist Jason Starr, author of Twisted City. “But he seemed more effective, and more comfortable, at coming up with quips and soundbites on the evening news than he was in fighting crime or easing racial tensions. The most lasting image of him as mayor may end up being the night he hosted Saturday Night Live.” You can’t be mad at a may who called President Reagan a “wacko” on national TV.
He seemed more effective at coming up with quips and soundbites on the evening news than he was in fighting crime or easing racial tensions.
Though he was described by President Obama as “an extraordinary mayor and a quintessential New Yorker,” Koch’s legacy was much more ambiguous to people who actually lived in the city. Some of those I spoke with a day after Koch’s passing hailed him as a “prince” who brought the city back from the brink of financial ruin to calling him a “scumbag” for the many acts of police racism and various policies that went on during his watch.
As a Harlem boy who wasn’t much into politics, I still found it impossible to ignore the changes that happened in our community and to many people of color during Koch’s three terms in office. Like when graf writer Michael Stewart was choked to death by police in the 14th Street subway station, or when Eleanor Bumpers was blasted by cops evicting her from her Bronx apartment. Or the lack of police presence in my Harlem neighborhood when the crack cowboys and corner boys took over the hood.
When five black and Latino youths were wrongly accused of raping a jogger in Central Park, Koch was riding shotgun in the lynch mob calling for those young men to be executed, as detailed in the recent Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five.
“I remember being pissed of at Koch all the time,” says musician, film maker, and hip-hop pioneer Michael Holman. “My views have mellowed over the years, but at that time I thought he was a raging bigot.” Through it all, Koch would go on television, open his arms as though embracing the entire city and ask. “How’m I Doing?”
Through it all, Koch would go on television, open his arms as though embracing the entire city and ask. 'How’m I Doing?'
After his death the media lionized Ed Koch as though he were perfect, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
“He was a popular mayor, but I always felt as though he was on the wrong side of the issues,” said former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab Five Freddy from his home in Harlem. “His policies polarized the city. People of color were under attack. He was very media savvy, he had his shtick down, but I wasn’t feeling him at all.”
Journalist Barry Michael Cooper wrote the screenplay for New Jack City, which documented the crack epidemic during that period of New York City history. “As the political pyre of New York's racial bonfire of insanity spiraled higher and hotter, Ed Koch seemed to dance in the midst of the flames as if it was his own disco inferno.” Cooper recently published an e-book called Hooked On The American Dream-Vol.1: New Jack City Eats Its Young—an anthology of his articles for The Village Voice and Spin that provides a sort of time capsule for those seeking the untold stories of Koch’s reign.
Having worked in homeless shelters throughout the Eighties, I can attest that these depressing abodes were spookier than the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In Times Squares, the entire area was littered with welfare hotels. Within the walls of these once grand hotels, drugs were rampant and pimps were running brothels out of the rooms. During my decade-long stint within the system, there were countless crazy incidents, including two suicides, and despite Koch’s reassuring rhetoric, things never seemed like they got any better.
Regardless of all the problems in the city Koch remained a charismatic figure. Grammy-winning record producer Dante Ross fondly remembers the day he bumped into the mayor in Greenwich Village. “I was skateboarding down 8th Street when I saw him.” says Ross, who was 13 at the time. “I stopped him and we debated for ten minutes. My teacher had marked me absent during a transit strike and I didn’t think it was fair, so I thought he could make her change it. I respected his accessibility. I didn’t always agree with his politics, but I respected him as a man. He was a tough Jew.”
I didn’t always agree with his politics, but I respected him as a man. He was a tough Jew.
One of Koch’s early battles was his war on graf writers who were relentlessly tagging and bombing the subway system. Despite his ongoing conflict with these street artists, Koch still had balls to appear in the classic 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars. “He took on the fight against the graf crowd with enthusiasm and humor,” recalls Henry Chalfant, Style Wars producer and co-author of the classic graf book Subway Art. “More than politics, I’ve always thought of him as a showman. He was a theatrical person and New York always needs a colorful figure to like.”
Former graf artist Cay Adams, who appears in the film as well, remembers finding it funny that the one time he saw Koch in person was at a screening of Basquint, the biopic about the former graf writer turned legendary painter. “He was no joke about the subways,” Cey says with a laugh. “He thought the subways were fucked up and he was determined to clean them up.”
Writer, editor and guitarist for the White Mandingos Sacha Jenkins says, “Of course, as a kid who wrote graffiti in New York way back when, Koch was the enemy, but he was also a real New Yorker--which meant he could be brilliant and difficult at the same time.”
Koch was the enemy, but he was also a real New Yorker--which meant he could be brilliant and difficult at the same time.
James Romberger, who worked with the brilliant gay writer/artist David Wojnarowicz on the recently reissued graphic novel 7 Miles a Second (Fantagraphics) clearly remembers Koch’s indifference towards the AIDS crisis that took Wojnarowicz’s life and so many other great New Yorkers’. “He was a closeted gay man who was also an enemy of the poor,” Romberger alleges. “Look at what happened with the Tompkins Square riots. He only cared about some of the city’s citizens, not all.”
Comic book writer Robert Morales, who frequently collaborates with artist Kyle Baker, says, “Many people credit him with bringing the city back, but he did that by killing off the middle class and selling out the neighborhoods. Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, instead of rebuilding neighborhoods, he painted phony windows on abandoned buildings.”
Independent film and music executive Gary Harris, who began his career at Sugar Hill Records and later worked with A Tribe Called Quest and D’Angelo has a different view. “Of course he wasn’t perfect, but while Koch was Mayor, hip hop emerged as both a voice of the voiceless and an economic power tool for the powerless. Club life and creativity flourished and a golden age in art, music, fashion and design coincided with his era. Artists flocked from everywhere to the Apple. Empires were built, and great cultural figures made their mark.”
Indeed, once Ed Koch lost at his fourth run for mayor and he was replaced by Dinkins, who was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, and later Michael Bloomberg, the city quickly changed from a funky town where one could smoke a joint on the street or a cigarette in a bar or go watch porn on 42nd Street to a yuppie paradise where bottle service and expensive real estate are the norm. Say what you will about Koch, but he wouldn’t have tolerated the “malling of Manhatan.”
Now, instead of Show World or Danceteria, we have Rite-Aide or Starbucks. Even the hood ain’t the hood no more. As Judy McGuire, author of The Official Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Lists puts it “New York was punk rock under Koch. Now it's adult contemporary.”
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