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Ed Koch, 1924-2013

Cities decline. St. Louis was the third largest city in the United States in 1900 and now it’s the 58th. Cities die. Detroit had the most well-to-do middle class in the United States in 1960 and is now a lunar landscape. New York could have been one of those cities. In the mid-1970s, it gave every indication of becoming one. It went broke. It was drenched in crime, its transportation system covered in graffiti, its police force stained by corruption, its education system a calamity, its parks more muddy than grassy. And in the summer of 1977, all the horror came together in a blackout in which looters caused what would today be more than $1 billion in damage in a matter of six or seven hours.

Along came Ed Koch, a reform-minded congressman from Greenwich Village, considered to stand on the left of the Democratic Party. In retrospect, his election and assumption of the mayoralty was nearly providential. In one respect, what he did for the city was reasonably simple—he made it clear to the business community, which was fleeing in droves, that he understood how important it was to the city’s present and future, and did what he could within the limits of the day to alter New York’s anti-capitalist climate.

But it was what he did intangibly that really made the difference for a suffering city. He personified its understanding of itself—brash, informal, cheerful, pugnacious, blowhardish, tough, optimistic, and convinced of its own greatness. He seemed to have a mystical sense of how his theatrics might actually help New Yorkers feel better about where they lived, at a time when New York had become a sitcom punchline for danger and dirt and decay. He was as angry as they were about the crime; he was as in love with its energy; he was as disgusted by the kids running wild; and he was as dismayed by the self-destruction of the poorest neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx, where he was born.

He served a term too long, and had a sad final few years in office, but he tore into his post-mayoral life with the gusto he’d shown in his first two terms. He wrote bad movie reviews; he hosted “The People’s Court”; he had a radio talk show; he did television; and he was courted by both parties because you could never tell where he was going to come down. He wasn’t that much fun to be around, to be honest, because with Ed, everything, and I mean everything, was about Ed. He could not begin a sentence with any other word than “I.” 

But, in the end, there is this to be said about him, and it may be the most important thing: He cared, and cared deeply, about his people, and their homeland, and their future. He fought for them, he fought against those who would wound them, and knew who their enemies were both foreign and domestic (he told Vanity Fair that the living person he most despised was Jimmy Carter).

He died as he lived, a good Jew.

UPDATE: After I posted this came word that Koch had already designed his own tombstone, and had chosen for his epitaph the final words spoken by Daniel Pearl, the journalist slaughtered by Al Qaeda: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

Baruch dayan emet.


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