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Mayor Edward Koch rides a subway to work in June, 1981. He died on Feb. 1, 2013, at age 88. (CHESTER HIGGINS JR./NEW YORK TIMES)
Mayor Edward Koch rides a subway to work in June, 1981. He died on Feb. 1, 2013, at age 88. (CHESTER HIGGINS JR./NEW YORK TIMES)

Ed Koch rescued New York City from financial ruin Add to ...

For a major metropolis, New York is a safe and shiny place. Crime is low, rents are high and brand-new skyscrapers light up the night. Much of the credit for the city’s health usually goes to two mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani. But to really understand how New York was reborn, you have to start with Ed Koch.

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There was a time, not very long ago, when the city was close to bankruptcy. Times Square was a cesspool, not the home of Starbucks and Sephora. Parts of the Bronx were in such disrepair that filmmakers used them as a stand-in for the German city of Dresden, devastated by bombing in Second World War.

If that version of New York seems hard to imagine today, then it is a fitting tribute to Mr. Koch, who died early Friday at the age of 88.

Mr. Koch, the city’s mayor from 1978 to 1989, set into motion forces that still inform the way the city works and how it views itself.

By rescuing New York from financial ruin, he set the stage for the city’s next act. He was an early and ardent proponent of gentrification, using tax breaks to spur construction. He launched a major program to build affordable housing in blighted neighbourhoods. And he adopted a public persona – voluble, profane, opinionated – that was a mirror image of the city he governed.

Mr. Koch “reinstilled pride in being a New Yorker at a time when people were in despair,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of public policy at New York University. “He epitomized what New Yorkers wanted: someone who would be in their face, on their side.”

Mr. Moss said his favourite memory of Mr. Koch came during the subway strike of 1980. As commuters walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to get to their offices, they were greeted by a yelling and gesticulating Mr. Koch. “Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!” Mr. Koch recalled saying. “And people began to applaud.”

Mr. Koch inherited a city in dire financial straits. His predecessor, Abraham Beame, had been featured on the cover of Time Magazine dressed as a beggar and holding a tin cup.

So Mr. Koch came up with a plan to balance New York’s budget in four years and persuaded the federal government to extend $1.65 (U.S.) billion in long-term loan guarantees. To the surprise of many, Mr. Koch’s plan worked.

Some of Mr. Koch’s policies set a pattern for years to come. “For better or worse, New York has been gentrified, and that was successful in many ways because of Ed Koch,” said Jonathan Soffer, a historian at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and the author of Ed Koch and The Rebuilding of New York City.

Mr. Soffer also points to innovations like the Central Park Conservancy, a private non-profit group set up in 1980 to rescue the city’s most famous park from years of neglect. Its lawns had turned to dust and it was considered so dangerous that New Yorkers were too afraid to enter it. Thirty-three years later, the Conservancy remains the official manager of the park, under contract from the city. Last year, it received an unprecedented $100-million donation from hedge-fund manager John Paulson.

By the end of his three terms in office, Mr. Koch had at least as many detractors as fans. His relationship with the city’s African-American community was fraught with tension and anti-AIDS activists accused him of doing too little to stem the spread of the epidemic.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a man who identified so wholly with his city and his job never had a quiet retirement – or indeed, any retirement. Mr. Koch wrote books, hosted television shows, penned film reviews and always kept his hand in politics. Would-be mayors and more courted his endorsement.

Mr. Koch, never shy or modest, recently summed up his impact on New York. “Everybody thought it was going to become Detroit, but I saved it. I rebuilt it,” Mr. Koch told an interviewer from DuJour magazine. “The first thing I did was give people back their sense of pride. The second thing was that I balanced the budget for the first time in fifteen years. Third, I rebuilt the city with 250,000 affordable apartments. Not bad for a kid born in the Bronx.”

KOCH’S QUIPS

His philosophy

“You punch me, I punch back. I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.”

His politics

“I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers. Why? Because I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.”

On NYC

“At age 88, I wake up every morning and say to myself, ‘Well, I’m still in New York. Thank you, God.’ ”

On his 1989 political defeat

“The People have spoken … and they must be punished.”

His sexuality

“My answer to questions on this subject is simply F--- off. There have to be some private matters left.”

On dieting

“The best way to lose weight is to close your mouth - something very difficult for a politician. Or watch your food - just watch it, don’t eat it.”

On students

“The fireworks begin today. Each diploma is a lighted match, each one of you is a fuse.”

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

 

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