Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch Oversaw City's Renaissance

Feb 1, 2013
Originally published on February 1, 2013 7:17 pm



We're going to take a few minutes now to remember former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who died early this morning. Koch was a colorful and pugnacious force in New York City politics, serving three terms as mayor from 1978 to '89. He presided over the city's recovery from a fiscal crisis while grappling with homelessness, rampant crime and the outbreak of AIDS. He did all that in a very New York tone, as we hear from Jim O'Grady of member station WNYC.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: Ed Koch sounded like no mayor who'd come before him.


ED KOCH: It boggles my mind that people can say these idiotic things. It's idiotic. Idiotic.

O'GRADY: Fighting was like breathing to him.


KOCH: All right. But let me - OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't care about Westway. I want to know about public transportation.

KOCH: I understand your question. Sit down. I'll give you an answer. OK?

O'GRADY: Born in the Bronx in 1924, Ed Koch grew up in Newark doing the Great Depression and saw combat as an infantryman in World War II. In 1963, he was a member of the Greenwich Village Independent Democrats when he took on powerbroker Carmine DeSapio in a long shot race for district leader and won. Koch relished campaigning.


KOCH: I probably enjoy campaigning more than most other people in public office because I like people and I enjoy going out there and telling people what I've done.

O'GRADY: He used those skills to win five terms in Congress. But it was as mayor that he first gained national attention for a question he shouted at New Yorkers in the street.


KOCH: How am I doing?

O'GRADY: Historians say Koch did well, balancing the books after the city's near-bankruptcy and battling crime to a draw while constantly stressing his commitment to law and order, as with his remarks to a police academy class.


KOCH: I think you, the cops, you are the salt of the earth. You are the people who make it possible for civilization to continue. This is a sick society. There are a lot of lunatics out there.

O'GRADY: Koch also went hard at his opponents, and they returned the favor. Like during the 11-day transit strike of 1980 when the mayor famously walked across the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour and took sides against the Transport Workers Union. That riled up one subway worker who said this about the mayor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The people of New York, when they find out the facts, I hope and I pray they will turn around, pick him up bodily and throw him off the bridge.

O'GRADY: Koch's third term, from 1986 to 1989, was marked by scandal. One of his major allies was accused of extortion. That man then committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart. Koch tried to downplay the problems at a press conference.


KOCH: There's corruption. There's been corruption, as I've said in so many occasions, since Adam and Eve and the two gorillas who came before them. Some of you may be corrupt.

O'GRADY: By the end of his third term, Koch's outsized personality began to wear thin, and the voters rejected his bid for a fourth term. Out of office, Koch published "Mayor," a best-selling book that became an off-Broadway play, reviewed movies and even served as a judge on TV's "The People's Court."


KOCH: Well, you didn't have to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We felt threatened by the situation.

KOCH: Then call a cop. All right. (Unintelligible).

O'GRADY: In 2010, the city announced it would put Edward I. Koch's name on the Queensboro Bridge. That pleased him.


KOCH: There are other bridges that are much more beautiful, like the George Washington or the Verrazano, but this more suits my personality because it's a workhorse bridge. I mean, it's always busy. It ain't beautiful, but it is durable.

O'GRADY: In a 1989 interview, Koch was asked to compose his own epitaph.


KOCH: He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely loved the people of the city of New York, and he fiercely defended the city of New York.

O'GRADY: Ed Koch was the 105th mayor of New York City. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.