Edward “Ed” Koch, former mayor of New York City and the subject of Neil Barsky’s documentary “Koch”, was a decisive and charismatic figure who dominated New York’s politics for decades. “Koch” follows his tenure as mayor from 1978-1989 and includes interviews with Koch and his longtime friends and associates. The film opened in New York in February, and will be released on DVD this August.
At a recent screening at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, Barsky described his motivations behind making the film, and what Koch’s legacy could teach the current mayoral candidates. The portrait also makes one wonder how Koch — who put his stamp all over the city in his 12 years in office — would approach new challenges, including enacting the newly released coastal protection plan proposed by Mayor Bloomberg.
With an election coming up, the next mayor will be stepping into very big shoes, and at a time of rapid change. In some ways Koch may be a better yardstick for candidates than Mayor Bloomberg, as City Hall will need a skillful negotiator who can get things done without the political independence that our current mayor’s personal fortune provides.
Koch passed away on the opening day of the film this winter; Barsky lamented that Koch “would have been a great partner in promoting the film.” The film does not seek to pass judgment on him, and Koch is presented as a complex man with a deep love of New York City. While highlighting heart-warming scenes of elderly Koch sharing Passover Seder with his extended family, it also takes a critical look back at his positions while mayor on racial issues and gay rights.
Barsky praised Koch for “giving New York its morale back” after the economic crisis of the 1970s. “He knew how to say ‘no’, which is a word that New Yorkers don’t want to hear” and this helped make hard decisions to resuscitate New York’s economy, according to Barsky. Koch famously slashed city spending and jobs to bring New York back from the brink of insolvency in the late 1970s.
Koch also deserved more credit for rebuilding the city through his ten-year housing initiative which committed five billion dollars to build or renovate thousands of apartment buildings, helping to dramatically turn around decaying neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Barsky stated that the “seeds of recovery were planted by and under him” and this has been overlooked due to the harsh criticisms of Koch’s relationship with the African American community during his mayoral tenure. Koch was heavily criticized for the closure of Sydenham Hospital, a predominately African-American health care center in Harlem. Sydenham had a history in New York as one of the first hospitals that would take black doctors, and was beloved by the people it served. His ardent support of the closure, and refusal to compromise, led to protests and riots amongst the African American community. In the film, Koch retrospectively acknowledges that closing the hospital was the wrong decision.
The film also focuses on Koch’s controversial relationship with the gay community. Koch, a life-long bachelor, was considered to be closeted by many people, and he always stated that his personal life was his private business. He passed unprecedented (for the time) gay rights legislation in 1986, but was heavily criticized for his handling of the AIDS epidemic and also for allegedly remaining in the closet. Barsky described the background reality: “In the 1970s, one could be gay or one could be mayor, but you couldn’t be both.”
When asked what Koch’s tenure could teach the current mayoral candidates, Barsky emphasized his willingness to say ‘no’ to special interests. The director, whose earlier career includes accomplishments in journalism and finance, expressed concern about the upcoming union contract negotiations and the excessive pandering to special interests, which will make governing difficult once the new mayor is in office. Koch “showed what government can do” and was good at governing in hard times, but struggled once New York City was on better financial footing.
Whether you love Koch, hate him, or don’t know much about him, “Koch” provides a balanced view of a controversial figure who shaped much of the New York we know and love today. Two of the best epitaphs — and signs of respect — come in the film from his sharp critics, Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and from Wayne Barrett, a journalist who uncovered much of the corruption that undid Koch’s third term. Koch himself was not a part of the scandals, but they dogged his administration. Barrett now though calls attention to the enormous building program Koch began, with hundreds of thousands of units of new housing an accomplishment for the city that rivals “the Pyramids,” in Barrett’s words.
How did Koch see himself? Like the 59th Street Bridge, which was renamed for him.
“It’s not soaring, beautiful, handsome, like the George Washington or the Verrazano. It’s rugged, it’s hard working — and that’s me.” (NYP 2/1/13)
New York Times obituary, February 1, 2013, and a summary of his mayoralty (NYT 2/2/13).