Ed Koch was one of those larger-than-life kind of guys. He looked like an Al Hirschfeld character long before Al Hirschfeld drew him. In the depths of decay in the 1970’s New York City was not a tourist-friendly place. Crime and the murder rate were up high, the scourge of an unknown disease, later known as AIDS, took its toll in the populace, and the overall demeanor of NY was grungy, seedy, and dangerous…and it was going broke because of it.
Koch, however, was the unlikely white knight of sorts that the city desperately needed. He enjoyed being a public figure, relished campaigning as few did, and never seemed to stop it even after he had won. His catchphrase, “How’m I Doin’?” was not a fictional attribution, but something he said as a matter of daily activity. His attitude could be, more often than not, pugnacious. He enjoyed mixing it up, and somehow that helped rally supporters to his side. He was not considered a part of the hoi polloi, and that gave voters a reason to feel they had one of their own on the inside.
Born in the Bronx, Koch first entered politics in 1967 on the City Council, representing Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He went on to serve in the House of Representatives from 1969 until 1978. He served three terms as mayor, from 1978 to 1989, with his last term plagued by scandal. The tipping point is believed to be when Koch ally, Queens Borough President Donald Manes, was accused of extortion in arranging contracts with the city’s Parking Violations Bureau. The federal government prepared to have Manes indicted, but instead he took his own life. This is not the only instance of presumed corruption leveled at the Koch Administration, with issues of bribery and conspiracy leaving a mark on his legacy overall.
In later years he would write an autobiography that would be turned into a musical, would succeed Joe Wapner as Judge on the popular syndicated television program The People’s Court and would be the judge on that program for two seasons. He would be succeeded by Judge Judy Sheindlin, whose fighting spirit mirrored Koch’s.
Politics produces few heroes and it is probably short-sighted to claim Koch was one; that would be a rose-colored description of history to say the least. However, Koch was a world class spokesman for New York City. He was the face of New York during a time period when all people saw was entropy at work, and because of that aspect he will likely be remembered long after many other mayors have come and gone. In some weird way he embodied all the pieces of the city and those who lived there. While people across the U.S. and around the world may not quite understand it, there will be a deep sense of loss felt among the New York Tri-State area for weeks to come. Somehow, Koch was one of our own.
Koch died early Friday morning, February 1, at the age of 88.