Asked by an interviewer to name his greatest accomplishment, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch declared with characteristic immodesty that he had “saved the city.”
The garrulous, in-your-face Koch, who personified the fighting spirit of New Yorkers of the World War II generation, died Friday at 88. His funeral was held Monday.
The obits have recounted his great accomplishments and just as monumental flaws. But those of us who remember New York’s wild, tumultuous late 1970s hardly recognize the city today, so thoroughly has it been transformed.
Back then, Times Square was a cesspool of drugs and prostitution, subways were a mugger’s theme park and graffiti was everywhere. Racial tensions ran high and civil-service unions thumbed their noses at the public. Chaos, excitement, sleaze and menace were everywhere.
The Rolling Stones captured the temper of the times in their 1978 song “Shattered”:
Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side,
Bed bugs uptown
What a mess, this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
© Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing
And as Jonathan Mahler showed in his superb book about the period, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning,” Koch’s victorious 1977 mayoral campaign came in the midst of a rampage by serial killer Son of Sam and a blackout that led to extensive rioting and looting.
The city really seemed on the brink of anarchy:
Between 1973 and 1976 the city had lost 340,000 jobs….Black and Hispanic teenage unemployment was hovering at 70 and 80 percent, respectively…There had been seventy-five felonies committed every hour in New York in 1976, making it the worst crime year in the city’s history.
And of course, the city had barely avoided bankruptcy in 1975 (remember the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline in the Daily News?). Now its finances were under the control of the state and an independent board.
Mayor Koch did not change this all overnight—crime actually rose in the 1980s as the crack epidemic hit hard. But he balanced the city’s budget ahead of schedule, stood up to transit workers during a 1980 strike and got control of its finances again by 1986. The massive conversion of rental buildings to cooperative ownership in the late 1970s was the beginning of a great real estate boom that has lasted to this day.
Most important, Koch showed that the city could be governed if you had the chutzpah to do it; that model was adopted by successors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who completed the turnaround that Koch began.
Koch’s record had serious blemishes. He did little to combat the plague of AIDS, because, said gay activists, the lifelong bachelor was gay himself and didn’t want it revealed. His confrontational style inflamed racial tensions rather than assuaging them. And his third term was marked by a corruption scandal that didn’t implicate him personally but touched many around him.
Koch would have been the first to admit he wasn’t perfect, but his record was on balance impressive. He brought order out of chaos, his epitaph might read. Or more simply: He saved New York City.