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.
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.