Koch’s Legacy

Steven Wishnia Feb 22, 2013

As former Mayor Edward I. Koch lay dying in Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital on the night of Jan. 31, I was riding an uptown 1 train toward Washington Heights. The florid graffiti that used to decorate or defile the subway, the STITCH I, STAY HIGH 149, DONDI, and LADY PINK tags and spray-painted murals, were long gone. In their place were ads for Microsoft Windows 8. The fare was about to rise to $2.50, five times what it was when Koch took office 35 years ago.

That symbolizes Koch’s legacy. As mayor, he began the transformation of New York City from the vibrant, crime-ridden squalor of the 1970s to the plutocrat’s paradise of today. That made it a safer and richer city, but excluded most of its people and starved its cultural life. To those who loved him, he was a feisty loudmouth, the epitome of the no-nonsense New Yorker. To those who despised him, he was a blustering bully who dismissed anyone who disagreed with him as a “wacko.”

Koch began his political career as a Greenwich Village liberal, an early supporter of abortion rights and a congressmember who opposed the Vietnam War. He moved hard to the right in the early 1970s, however — partly, like many New York Jews of the era, from a mix of Zionist nationalism and a racism-refracted reaction to muggings and the black anti-Semitism unleashed during the bitter 1968 teachers’ strike, and partly from opportunism, to win white-backlash voters in Queens.

By the time he ran for mayor in 1977, he was greeting voters with “Hi, I’m for capital punishment. Are you?” The New York Post, recently taken over by right-wing magnate Rupert Murdoch, devoted its news pages to campaigning for him. Its headline on primary day was “VOTE TODAY—VOTE FOR KOCH.” With black, Jewish-feminist, and Puerto Rican candidates splitting the liberal vote, Koch led a seven-way Democratic primary and beat future governor Mario Cuomo in the runoff.


As mayor, wrote former Village Voice reporters Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett, he “fashioned a governing coalition of real estate, finance, the Democratic party machine, the media, and recipients of city contracts,” with outer-borough whites his electoral base. Wall Street boomed, especially after Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, and yuppies began to gentrify neighborhoods like the East Village and Park Slope. Multimillionaire bond traders rode in stretch limos and styled themselves “masters of the universe.”

The rest of the city wasn’t doing so well, whipsawed between the Reaganomic and street-thug iterations of greed. The anthem of summer 1982 was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” with its chorus of, “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” On the Lower East Side’s Avenue B and scores of other blocks, there were more places to cop heroin than to buy milk.

Hundreds of buildings were abandoned. From 1970 to 1984, the city lost 300,000 apartments, one-seventh of its rental housing stock. Rents were doubling and tripling; apartments that had been $150 a month in 1977 cost $600 less than a decade later. Marvin Markus, whom Koch picked to chair the city Rent Guidelines Board, earned the nickname “Marvin Markup” for setting increases as high as 11 percent a year for rent-stabilized apartments. The number of homeless people, estimated at barely 2,000 in the 1970s, exploded, with more than 20,000 a night staying in city shelters by 1985. When impoverished families were evicted, the city paid $3,000 a month to house them in crack-infested hotels.

Koch’s response to those who couldn’t afford Manhattan’s rents was, “There are other boroughs.”

He eventually recouped the buildings lost with a massive renovation program, but it came at a price. Reagan, whom Koch all but openly endorsed for President in 1980, cut off federal funds for constructing new housing, forcing the city to finance renovating abandoned buildings through tax breaks and public-private partnerships. Many became “80/20 housing”: 80 percent luxury apartments, the rents of which were supposed to subsidize the 20 percent that were “affordable.”

In one of his last interviews, Koch repeated the “if you can’t pay the rent, you move” line. Poor people “can live in the low-income projects,” he told the Wall Street Journal. But no new public housing has been built since the ’80s. The city Housing Authority now has more than 160,000 families and individuals on the waiting list for its approximately 180,000 apartments.


Race, poverty, and crime were inextricably intertwined. Reagan gained political capital by cutting programs perceived as aiding black and brown people; Koch earned his as someone who would “talk back to the blacks.” Although he wasn’t as blatant as Rudolph Giuliani, privately he used the Yiddish epithet “schvartzes.” Black New Yorkers generally detested him, especially after he closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980. That loathing, sometimes expressed with anti-Semitism and homophobia, was probably the main reason he lost his bid for a fourth term, defeated by black candidate David Dinkins in the 1989 Democratic primary. The primary came three weeks after the murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, who’d gone to the then-Italian turf of Bensonhurst to buy a used car and got jumped by a pack of white youths, a bat-wielding posse organized by a 19-year-old gunning for his ex’s new black boyfriend. It capped the decade’s litany of racially charged killings by white mobs or police.

The Koch era also saw the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, with the gay communities of New York and San Francisco its first epicenters. Although Koch was widely believed to be gay, his administration did far less than San Francisco’s, ignoring the issue at first and refusing for years to spend money on clinics, home care, or hospices. As late as 1985, when more than 3,000 New Yorkers had been diagnosed with AIDS and no medicines had yet been developed, the city health commissioner was insisting that it was not “a crisis.”

Though Koch claimed to be a reformer, he cut deals with Democratic machine bosses, giving them control over who got certain city jobs and contracts in exchange for their support. The result was a series of scandals that erupted in 1986. The most notorious was a scam to sell the city bogus parking-ticket computers; the boss of the Bronx went to jail, and the borough president of Queens committed suicide. The Democratic county leader in Brooklyn was convicted of felonies in an unrelated case.


Koch wasn’t personally on the take, but his mayoralty began the transformation to a different style of corruption, one far more profound than bookies bribing the cops to look the other way or middle-management politicians raking off their cut. The new style involved the city government working primarily to help the rich get richer, to create a “world-class city” for the 1 percent to live and do business in. That was Koch’s accomplishment, what people mean when they say he “saved” New York and “brought it back.” He started the change from a city where you’d occasionally get mugged for $20 by a junkie or stickup kid to one where you get mugged every month for $2,000 by your landlord — never mind that before the 1970s, New York was a place of strong labor unions, rent control, and free tuition at City University.

Under Michael Bloomberg, this is official ideology. On Manhattan’s far West Side, bus service on Ninth and Tenth Avenues gets slashed, while the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spend more than $2 billion extending the 7 line by one stop to facilitate luxury highrises built by politically connected developers.

Koch’s best legacy is perhaps the “pooper-scooper” law, which required people to pick up their dogs’ excrement. Enacted in 1978, it was the first such law in the nation — and it left the city’s streets noticeably cleaner.

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