How’d He Do?

For Hizzoner

For Hizzoner

When the 105th Mayor of New York City passed away earlier this month, it marked the end of an era. The New York of the late 20th Century was a city hemorrhaging jobs, prestige, and most of all, Capital. What had built up over the course of 300 years was nearly destroyed within a generation, due to suburbanization, concessions to unions, the expanding largesse of government, and corruption on all levels. All of it was not for naught, as it led to a rebirth of Gotham and it’s role relative to the rest of the United States and there was only one person who could spearhead this revival of the Big Apple.

Ed Koch.

Everyone has people that they admire in life and growing up, one of the ones that I looked up to was a sharp-witted man who rose up from his Greenwich Village Congressional District to run for Mayor 4 times, winning 3 of those contests with relative ease. For a kid reared in the suburbs who didn’t venture into New York much, it was part Oz, part Gotham, and part disaster area, and all of it a dynamic work-in-progress whose effects are still being analyzed and studied to this day.

Many baby boomers would say that John Lindsay was the best Mayor of their generation, since his election in 1965 marked the end of the Tammany Hall Political Machine’s stronghold on New York’s politics and the ushering in of a Progressive mindset that altered City Government and brought new ideas to the table. For sure, the City did change. Transit fares skyrocketed, Teachers went on strike in Ocean Hill and Brownsville, Social Programs escalated with backing from The Great Society, Crime went through the roof, Unions strengthened their hold, and whole neighborhoods were remade in a generation. What little progress was made with the redistribution and reallocation of wealth was more than offset by deferred maintenance, crumbling infrastructure, unplowed streets, and increased borrowing to meet fiscal needs. All of that came to an abrupt end in 1975 when President Ford effectively told the city to drop dead.

Thankfully, it didn’t.

Two years later, it hit rock bottom. Large parts of Brooklyn were decimated during the blackout that year, Son of Sam kept everyone in at night, and Howard Cosell told everyone watching the Yankees in the World Series that indeed, “The Bronx was burning.” What people couldn’t see then was that New Yorkers had had enough of higher taxes, worsening services, a hollowing out of the business cores, and disdain from the outside world at what had once been the World’s Greatest City. All of this led was borne on the shoulders of one man, who took on the Herculean task of bringing New York back from the Brink.

To be fair, it wasn’t easy. Taxes didn’t drop off overnight, the West Side Highway and East River Bridges took years to rebuild, much of the city’s housing stock had to be razed, handed over to private developers, and rebuilt, and there were problems such as the Crack Epidemic, and still-esclating murder rate to deal with. The biggest difference between those problems and those of a generation earlier came in 1980. Once again, the Transport Worker’s Union went on strike just like they did 15 years earlier but instead of the Mayor lacking a backbone when dealing with the situation, Koch stood on the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge and greeted New Yorkers who braved the elements and made the walk to work. As always, he asked them one simple question.

“How’m I doing?”

For someone who did so much to alter the course of the City’s History, he did not get a fair chance to go out on his own terms. Bess Meyerson, corruption, and the annoyance of Jesse Jackson led to his losing of the 1989 Mayoral Primary to then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who went on to become the first African-American Mayor of New York. It would have been interesting to see how Koch would have handled the riots in Crown Heights or the Police Uprising at City Hall in 1993, which along with the recession of the late-80’s and early-’90’s, ended up to Dinkins’ demise after only one term.

when I was growing up, I used to read anything that I was interested in and could get my hands on. Without an internet or a car of my own, that was how I found out about the world around me and what I wanted to see once I was able to get out onto my own. Every time I’d go to the library, I’d take out a giant stack of books and hold onto them until their due date, often paying fines because I had forgotten about them or wished that I could have them for just a little while longer. One of my favorite books was Manhattan – An Island in Focus By Jake Rajs. All of the shots in there were taken from the late-70’s to the mid-80’s and with the full color, oversized pages of it, reminded me of what the city was emerging out of what it was going to become for the generations ahead. Interwoven with the pictures was a quote from none other than Koch himself:

“New Yorkers walk faster, talk faster, and think faster. You don’t have to born here to be a New Yorker. But after six months here, you’ll be walking faster, talking faster, and thinking faster. At that point, you will have become a New Yorker.”

This, coming from a man like me who was reared in the Garden State.

As I drove around the city during my shifts in the weeks after his death, I kept asking myself what was his legacy and where could I find it. One day, it hit me – the city of today *is* his legacy. All those abandoned and condemned buildings? Torn down or rebuilt, as the city has much better housing stock today than at any time in generations? Those crumbling highways and bridges? Rebuilt, heavily used, and soon to be joined by a new water tunnel, riverfront park system, and rail extensions that will serve millions every day. The city’s finances? While taxes are still high, New York hasn’t come close to being broke since the MAC was implemented over 35 years ago. Cranes dotted the sky in the 80’s and they are again today all over the city, and not just in Manhattan.

Perhaps his greatest legacy was seen by all at his service. People of every color and nearly every corner of the World went to pay their respects for him on the East Side. Many of the Mayoral Candidates were there too, and it serves as a testament to him that the possibility of another African-American, an Asian-American, or even a woman may be running the city come next January. It was once inconceivable that someone who went to CCNY could be elected to the highest position of City Government but now, a diverse set of candidates seeks to lead New York into the future.

What it all boiled down to for most was that yes, Koch was just as known for his witty nature, his stint on The People’s Court, countering his party with his staunch support of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, and his relentless drive to clean up Albany as he was for his work as Congressman and Mayor, because it had been over 20 years since he last served elected office. Ask anyone who knew of him or met him and although he could have been a bit abrasive at times and spoke his mind, they’d all say the same thing about him:

He did well.

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Blue and orange, in memoriam

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Brooklyn’s Finest

The Oculus - Barclays Center

The Oculus – Barclays Center

“I can’t stand it.”

As I made my way down Flatbush Ave. time and time again, I asked anyone and everyone that I was taking home to Brooklyn what they thought of the building pictured above, as it was under construction. Doctors, teachers, parents, artists, office workers, waiters – nearly all of them had an opinion on it and it wasn’t good. They were afraid of the crowds, traffic, loss of character in neighborhood, and the rise in property values. With much fanfare last fall, the Barclays Center finally opened and the long-awaited redevelopment of the Long Island Railroad yards finally had some concrete results that people could see and judge for themselves. Of course, I was one of them since I attended one of Coldplay’s concerts there right before New Year’s.

I’m not a huge fan of stadiums and arenas from an economic development standpoint. As much as I love my sports teams and the facilities they play in, it’s more of an aesthetic and design standpoint that I judge them from, and not whether they can bring a neighborhood back from a decline. As any New Yorker could attest to, the centerpiece of the greater project known as Atlantic Yards was more than just an arena for an NBA team. It was supposed to be a Frank Gehry-designed sports facility with loads of housing behind it and a skyscraper that would have been dubbed “Miss Brooklyn”, since it would have been the tallest in the Borough once completed. Most of those plans were scrapped in favor of the arena that SHoP ended up designing (to rave reviews) while the housing is still in limbo. What the final appearance of the yards will be remains anyone’s guess but the site already had a story that could be seen underneath the LED lights and exterior.

For starters, there’s been a huge re-branding of the team that formerly resided in my home state. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that their primary color was chosen to be black since it’s a timeless color that doesn’t go out of style. The concourses and seats inside were this hue as well, leading me to believe that it was a done deal long before the team announced their new name and color scheme. Along with that was a huge proclamation that professional sports had returned to New York’s most populous Borough, long after the Dodgers had bolted for the West Coast half a century earlier and left Brooklyn without its own team to root for. Unfortunately, pro sports *had* returned to the Borough a few years earlier, just not at the Major League Level.

The irony of the Nets rechristening as “Brooklyn” was the tale of the Dodgers and how they left the East Coast in the first place. Nearly everyone knows that Walter O’ Malley wanted a new Stadium for his team to replace the aging Ebbets Field. Robert Moses, who controlled nearly every City and State development agency in New York in the late 1950’s had a site ready for him…but it was in Queens. O’ Malley nixed the idea, packed up everything, and the following season, the Dodgers were playing their games in Wrigley Field (no, not that one in Chicago) before Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. Two years later, the expansion Metropolitans moved into a facility on the same Queens property that Moses had envisioned for “Dem Bums” and by then, there was a whole world of excitement next door with the World’s Fair going on in Flushing Meadows Park.

What many don’t know is that none of this would have happened had O’ Malley had his way. As hated as he remains to this day, he wanted to keep the team in Brooklyn. His goal was to have a concrete, state-of-the-art Stadium built right in the heart of the Borough, on the largest undeveloped parcel that remained in Brooklyn. The team would have only moved a little over a mile away, the Dodgers would have stayed in New York, and maybe Horace Stoneham would have sought a simliar replacement for the Polo Grounds. The new field would have been built on top of the railyards just beyond the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues…

…which is precisely where the Barclays center opened 55 years later.

This isn’t a lesson on how the blackmailing of cities over sports venues can come full circle but rather, one in urban planning. Much like the MTA yards on the West Side of Manhattan, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn represents the aspirations of a place looking to move into the future on one of the last blank slates in its cityscape. Cultural attractions, improved mass transit connections, housing, parkland, and open space are seen as the magnets that will draw the professional and affluent residents that 21st Century Cities will need in order to survive and maintain the tax base. Naturally, someone will end up being displaced and dismayed at the whole environmental and review process, which will ultimately turn out to be the residents and drivers (including yours truly) when all it said and done. Much of the traffic patterns around the new Arena were screwed up for months during the construction of it, which had to be done on time for the Jay-Z concert that marked its opening. There still isn’t anywhere good for Yellow drop-offs and pickups, although the black cars have their own space for those functions. After all, Brooklyn is an Outer Borough!

The locals who decried the monstrosity that arose over the railyards have no choice but to live with it now, and the high rises that are planned to go on the back side of it. Even if the entire project was cancelled, the wave of development that has crept over the Lower East River Bridges and settled in Downtown and Boerum Hill has already changed the appearance of the Borough forever. Rents are closer than ever to those in Manhattan and more people are commuting within Brooklyn now for work than ever before. As evidenced by the high ticket prices and cost of concessions at the Barclays Center, it’s not the only way that Manhattan has reared its ugly head in the former “Outer Borough”.

As I’ve said before, a cabdriver told me once that when he used to drive people to Brooklyn, cops would tell him where Manhattan was and how to get back there since they thought he was lost. That’s no longer the case and as more people want to call the Borough home, the onslaught of high-end apartment towers, chain stores, and cultural amenities geared towards the rich will only continue to proliferate. Even though the Barclays Center is largely clad in weathered steel designed to invoke the surrounding industrial past, there’s no doubt that the building on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues is from the future, and a harbinger of more change yet to come.

Barclays Center from across Flatbush Ave

Barclays Center from across Flatbush Ave