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.