Friday, February 1, 2013

Hizzoner's Last Subway Ride

I took this photo in 1988 at New York's annual India Day parade.  Ed Koch, a Bronx-born Jew with no Indian blood in him at all,
owned the crowd, even the ones booing him and giving him a double-thumbs-down (see background).

hiz-ZON-er; a colloquial contraction of the words "his" and "honor," in reference to the mayor of New York City, sparsely used before and more widely developed during the three-term administration of former mayor Ed Koch, and now used for any of the city's mayors.

I'd already begun writing this essay yesterday, but when word came this morning of Hizzoner's passing at the ripe old age of 88 from congestive heart failure, I immediately decided to switch gears a little.

I didn't embrace all of Mayor Ed Koch's politics, but by many accounts, he was the most straight-shooting, unapologetically blunt, charmingly opinionated, and blatantly in love with his constituency as any politician can - and should - be.  Nobody can deny that Koch was one of America's rare big city mayors who's left his city profoundly improved for their investment in it.

It's easy to forget how truly remarkable a feat that represents, especially considering the times in which Koch served.  Big cities all across the country were in turmoil, but none more so than New York, having stared bankruptcy in the face, reeling from white flight, whipped by the steady exodus of corporate headquarters, struggling with unprecedented crime and death associated with drug abuse, and buckling under the disarray of its rapidly decaying infrastructure.

Then along came Koch, a gregarious bachelor of relatively modest means, who refused to run away from the city's problems, or his critics.  In fact, he embraced them.  He'd famously barge into a crowd of New Yorkers on the street and pump them with questions he expected them to answer on the spot about his results as mayor.  "How'm I doin'?" became his slogan, his performance review, and his give-it-to-me-straight-I-can-take-it feedback form.

How a Liberal Became New York's Conservator

Although a staunch Democrat - and a Greenwich Village liberal one at that - Koch didn't hold rigidly to any party line.  Indeed, in one of his mayoral campaigns, he ran as both a Democrat and a Republican, and crushed his main opponent, who was running, ironically, for the Unity party.  Koch resisted affirmative action, reasoning it was unfair to minorities who truly were equal with or better than whites.  He supported the death penalty, and worked to reduce the welfare rolls, but engineered one of the biggest public housing programs in the city's history. A Jew more socially than theologically, he strongly criticized Jesse Jackson for his anti-semitism, even though doing so cost him political clout among New York's black voters.

Unfortunately, his last term in office was tainted by corruption among his staff.  His successful efforts at weeding out complacency in the city's welfare department caused civic leaders in minority neighborhoods to question his Democratic credentials.  Gay rights activists bitterly accused him of being a closet homosexual as he dragged his feet during the AIDS crisis.  When it came time for his fourth mayoral primary race, left-wingers and the city's blacks overwhelmingly switched their allegiance to David Dinkins, an elegant tennis aficionado who became New York's next mayor, and first black in that office.

I remember seeing Koch at an India Day parade in the late 1980's, after scandals in his administration had taken a hit on his popularity. Some people in the crowds lining Fifth Avenue were booing him, and in a photo I took (above), you can see somebody giving him a double-thumbs-down.  Still, Koch was soaking it all in, and, with his arms high in the air, waving at them like he was a victorious conqueror!  He even loved it when his constituents felt comfortable booing him.

Once he was no longer "Hizzoner," Koch became a partner in a Manhattan law firm, wrote movie reviews, taught some college classes, and replaced the retired Judge Wapner on two seasons of The Peoples Court.  Impolite journalists occasionally floated questions about his sexuality, but Koch, who would freely share his opinion on everything else, kept that part of his life fiercely hidden.  Several years ago, he announced he'd bought a burial plot in Washington Heights' Trinity Cemetery, Manhattan island's last remaining active graveyard, saying that when he died, "the thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."

Mayor of Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

The New York I remember most is the New York of graffiti-splattered subways, trash piled high on the curbs, taxi cabs so dented they looked like yellowed wads of aluminum foil clattering down avenues, and pristine black Cadillacs prowling the seediest neighborhoods.  I remember the jarring juxtaposition of sleek steel skyscrapers next to rickety brick walk-ups, back before so much of Midtown and Downtown recovered its Fortune 100 mojo.

Friends called you up and let the phone ring just once so you'd know they'd gotten home safely from a dinner party.  It was a New York of Benzi boxes (for your car radio), Brownies (Department of Transportation officers in brown sedans chiding rubberneckers through bumper-to-bumper traffic), leaks in tunnels, rusty bridges, and putting on your jewelry after you got to the office.

Brownstones were what upwardly-mobile white people were selling for a pittance so they could escape to the bucolic suburbs.  Homeowners literally couldn't give away burned-out shells of row houses in Harlem.  Brooklyn was considered no-man's land, as were what's now the hip enclaves of SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village, and TriBeCa.

This was also the New York City of Ed Koch's mayoral tenure.  But it wasn't the city he wanted to leave to posterity, so he set in motion an approach that was equal parts haphazard, unrealistic, painful, conceited, expensive, and in-your-face for resuscitating the wounded warrior his hometown had become.

Being the irascibly belligerent place it's always been, perhaps New York City would have somehow managed to pick itself up from the brink of insolvency and reinvent itself into the wildly popular place it has once again become.  Perhaps if another person had been mayor instead of Koch, the Big Apple would have been able to reclaim its status as the world's capital in an even shorter period of time.  After all, Koch would have been the first person to tell you he wasn't perfect.

But Ed Koch is the person who won three consecutive elections during one of the most pivotal times in the city's history.  It was his love for his hometown, combined with his independent spirit and his plucky - some would say goofy - tenacity, that either egged on his detractors to prove their own worth, or championed his supporters to ignore naysayers and keep forging ahead towards the light at the end of the tunnel.  Even if it might turn out to be an oncoming subway.

Disagree with his politics if you must, and I do disagree with some of them, but Koch's ability to convince New Yorkers that they were exceptional and resilient speaks volumes to the impact one person's personality and charisma can have in turning around a sinking ship.  Granted, New York's renaissance isn't entirely due to Hizzoner, but if anybody else had done anything less than what he did, the city it seems everybody now wants to visit - if not live in - would be a far lesser place.

The Race to Replace?

Perhaps fittingly, then, the year in which Koch died is also a mayoral election year in New York, and it's shaping up to have some real fireworks that Koch would have probably relished.

First, you've got your left-wingers like Christine Quinn, a married lesbian, who worked her way up the non-profit ladder, and today exhibits a firm grasp on how New York's socially liberal apparatus runs.

Then there's a mish-mash of lesser liberals like John Liu, the city's comptroller, whose campaign has been caught up in corruption charges.  Bill DeBlasio, the city's public advocate, is a tall white guy married to a short black woman, whose son sports a head of hair - a tall, wide, round, stunning afro - the likes of which we haven't seen since the early Koch era.

Thanks to Rudy Giuliani, and now Michael Bloomberg, Republicans in the Big Apple feel comfortable in thinking they have some skin in this mayoral race yet again.  And it's not like they don't have at least two high-profile candidates that could put up strong numbers against any liberal opponent.

First is Joseph Lhota, who just resigned as chairman of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority for his mayoral run, and who acquired significant name and facial recognition during and after Hurricane Sandy's flooding of the city's subways.

Then there's grocery store magnate John Catsimatidis, who earned his billions in the energy industry, but portrays himself as a folksy, hometown New York businessman trying to make a profit in the notoriously expensive and regulation-heavy city.  So far, he's the most unlikely person to win the race, considering the substantial girth of his that he proudly swaddles in cheap suits, his utter lack of political experience, and his penchant for schmoozing more with fellow Greeks at ethnic events than with the city's vainglorious power brokers.

Surprisingly, however, Catsimatidis is a licensed jet pilot, and his bleached-blond daughter is married to a grandson of the late President Nixon.

It's unknown who Koch would have ended up officially endorsing for this year's mayoral race, but my guess is it would probably have been Quinn, not so much for her liberal credentials, but because she likely has the most bona-fides for City Hall's extreme rough-and-tumble politics.

But I would not have been at all surprised if Koch gave Catsimatidis some consideration, at least if the Greek tycoon managed to squeak through the Republican primary.  Although Catsimatidis is a lot of things Koch never was - stupendously wealthy, married with kids, one of whom is hitched to a Republican icon, and - oh yeah - a Republican himself - Koch once supported New York's current billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he was still running as a Republican.  And Catsimatidis has the same affable bluster and chutzpah that endeared Koch to so many New Yorkers during those grim years a generation ago.

Indeed, no matter how unattractive or odd they may be, genuine people seem to bring out the best in New Yorkers, and that's what Koch was.  A genuine person who hid almost nothing.

That's why, even though he was a liberal, conservatives like me can still look back on the guy with a fair degree of admiration and respect.  If I was then the person I am today, I probably wouldn't have voted for him, at least in his first mayoral run.  But for the time, and the place, he proved himself to be somebody the city truly needed.  And nobody can deny him that legacy now.

If New York can possibly be epitomized by one person, I can't think of anybody more appropriate to be that person than Ed Koch.

"Ya done good, Yerroner."

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