Growing up in the 1970s, it was impossible, even in upstate New York, not to hear or know about Ed Koch. He was larger than life.
My earliest memory of Koch was seeing him on the evening news, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge during a transit strike like a band leader, urging New Yorkers on their way to work to stand firm, be tough, and carry on.
Several years later, the popular mayor ran for governor against a little-known (and, according to Gov. Hugh Carey, undistinguished) lieutenant governor, Mario Cuomo. Koch was supposed to win the Democratic primary. Everyone said so, including early poll numbers. He had money, key endorsements and the voter base of one of the nation’s largest cities.
One key misstep, however, ended his chances. Koch lamented out loud he’d be bored in Albany if elected. There wasn’t much to do for someone who loved the arts and good food. He even fretted about finding one good Chinese restaurant. Nor was Koch sure he wanted to live in the Executive Mansion in a lifeless neighborhood.
Cuomo, who adopted as his unofficial campaign theme song “Eye of the Tiger,” pounced like cat on a spring day cooped up all winter. Cuomo’s slogan was, thanks to Koch’s passionate love affair with New York City, “Cuomo Loves NY—All of It.”
In an upset, Cuomo won the primary and went on to defeat Republican nominee Lew Lehrman by two points. I remember watching Koch on Election Night. He was disappointed, but New York City's greatest champion also seemed relieved.
Koch was a loveable character with the endearing quality of a quirky uncle. He had restaurant tips, knew the best delis and offered opinions about theater and the latest movies, especially after he left office.
A Broadway musical was made about the bald, big eared mayor. His legacy may eclipse the revered, legendary Fiorello La Guardia, remembered for racing to fires and reading the Sunday morning comics on the radio.
Those old enough remember a very different New York when Koch took office than what exists today. During weekend trips in high school and college, I recall a place marred by crime, graffiti, low morale and blocks of strip clubs and porn theater palaces. It was Koch who set in motion New York’s renewal, further developed by Rudy Giuliani. Koch’s legacy not only had a profound impact on the city but also the state as a whole.
The man who very ably ran a diverse and vibrant city could not understand the majesty and grandeur that is the Empire State. He understood the heartbeat of a complicated place where every ethnic group is represented and the languages spoken number in the hundreds. He ran New York for what it was, is, and always will be—the crossroads of the world.
Yet Koch’s world didn’t exist much beyond the borscht belt in the Catskills just north of New York City. And that’s the irony.
Unlike many states and communities, once you’re a resident of New York City, you’re a New Yorker. It’s the city’s lifeblood, a phoenix always changing, coming back bigger and better. It thrives on differences and colorful personalities.
He may not have realized it, but Ed Koch told every American, whether from the hills of Kentucky or the cornfields of Iowa, that his city was as much theirs as his. It was not just the meeting place of the world, it was the face of America where everyone was welcomed and everyone’s contribution made New York great.
Koch was America’s mayor.
Paul Jesep is an attorney, policy analyst, and author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”; “Credit Card Usury and the Christian Failure to Stop It”; and “Crucifying Jesus and Secularizing America – the Republic of Faith without Wisdom.”