As Ed Koch Dies, His City Lives

Ed Koch died this morning at 2:00am in New York City.  He was 88.  All the Manhattan television stations are plastered, pixel-to-pixel, with memories and videos from their vast archives memorializing his large life.  Ed was my first New York City major, and he embodied everything you wanted in a public leader:  He was brash and brilliant and caring and tough and brutal when he had to be.

Ed Koch was also a bit of an enigma.  His personal life was questioned — Was He Gay Or Not? — by both opponents and supporters, and while his sexuality didn’t seem to concern him much, it was made a paramount issue in his life as mayor by ACT UP/ NY, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, who wanted him to step forward and do more for the suffering of what they felt was his disavowed, and unacknowledged, community:

January 19, 1989: The Housing Committee meets with Mayor Kochs’ top housing advisor Caryn Schwab to discuss the lack of action on AIDS housing. Representatives from almost every N.Y. City agency attend. Schwab defends the Koch administration record, while the Housing Committee gained information for future actions.

January 31, 1989: The Housing Committee meets with HRA Commissioner Grinker to discuss the lawsuit Mixon vs Grinker, which tried to force the Koch administration to provide appropriate housing for people with AIDS and HIV.

March 28, 1989: ACT UP’s second anniversary protest draws 3,000 to New York’s City Hall, making “Target City Hall” the largest AIDS activist demonstration to date. ACT UP protests the inadequacy of New York’s AIDS policy under Mayor Edward Koch. About 200 are arrested.

If Ed Koch’s sexuality didn’t matter to him — then it shouldn’t matter to anyone else — but if his public policy as mayor was cruel and discriminatory, then we must all join together to condemn him.

When Ed was recently asked about the secret to his longevity, he answered with two words: “gefilte fish.”  He went on to explain that an old Jewish mother friend of his would send him a jar of gefilte fish every week and, she said, if he ate some every day for lunch, he would always be healthy.  He followed her instruction and lived a long time in excellent health.

After he left public life as Mayor of New York, Ed, for a brief time, became the judge on The People’s Court television show.  He was awful on the show precisely because he adjudicated those arguments just as he led us as mayor — with an open mind and a thoughtful heart.  Ed was interested in people, and he would ask questions and chat and tell stories from the bench.  He was fascinating to watch on television as an engaged intellectual, but reality courtroom shows are more about brashness than brilliance.  A reality show judge is all about screaming and belittling the plaintiffs and defendants — but Ed didn’t have that sort of special meanness in him, and so he was fired.

Ed Koch was New York; and the City, and its people, are indebted to him for loving all of us more than we tended to hate ourselves.  His legacy is ever-long and everlasting — and now that we are forced to move forward without him, we can only look back in wonder at the man who made it just a little bit easier, if not more exciting, for the rest of us make our own lives in the Big City.

13 comments

  • Everyone I have seen or spoken with today has been affected in some way by Ed Koch, and saddened by his passing. It’s sad that he lost the position as a People’s Court judge for all the wrong reasons.

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  • He really was New York City. We had two great Manhattan icons. The World Trade Center and Mayor Koch. We lost them both in different ways, but we do have good memories.

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  • A big loss indeed, he will be missed and many prayers to friends and loved ones too.

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    • Beautifully said, Brielle! I think the thing I liked most about Mayor Koch was his worth ethic. He was up and in the mayoral office by 4am every morning and I think he left at midnight. He never slept!

      In his older age, up until a short while ago, he went into his law office every single day and worked a long day. It was part of his human ethic to stay busy and engaged. He was quite a spirit!

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  • Classic man. He was more famous as a New York icon than the “I Love NY” heart logo campaign.

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  • Larry Kramer certainly isn’t even-handed when it comes to Ed Koch, yet you refer to his play as evidence of why we should be wary of the former mayor in death. Is the greater sin one of omission or one that is actively prosecuted?

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    • That’s an excellent story!

      As a disaffected Methodist, and pretty much active atheist, I tend to side on the sin scale that purposeful sin is worse than one of inaction. Inaction creates a vacuum that can still be filled by good people. Intentional sin leaves no room for heroes or the valiant — all the energy is burned out of the world by the grotesque act — and the only way to get it fixed is to stop the fire.

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      • Yes, I don’t understand why the NYTimes and Koch downplayed the AIDS problem and Larry did the right thing by hammering them in the public square. We live for that sort of dramatic result in a dire call to action. Kushner did it later, and perhaps, better, with his Angels trilogy.

        When I was talking about intentional sin — I was, of course, thinking of our favorite whipping boy, and most destructive president ever — G. W. Bush, who intentionally lied to us and misled us and bombed the bejambers out of the Middle East to create the ultimate “love me Daddy” moment. You can’t put a bomb back in the building once it has been fired. Dead people cannot be resurrected, but the sick and dying can be… A cover-up, even if it is quiet and subtle and purposefully professional, still leaves a little bit of room for the Larry Kramers to crowbar the truth inside. Bombs tend to obliterate and leave no witnesses and scorch the earth — sure, one could try to make the same case for the AIDS epidemic, but there’s a level of magnitudinal intention against the human will that the intentional sin stakes in situ. AIDS was almost always a death sentence for awhile, but a bomb blast is, and was, pretty much always the end.

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  • In WordPress.com, go into your admin area. Go to USERS | MY PROFILE and click on the image in the upper right to upload a Gravatar of your choosing. Then fill out the “About You” window on that page to create your public bio that links to the image you uploaded. Then change your “Display Name” to reflect the public name you want to use and not your username. Save the page to make all the changes permanent. Now, wherever you go on WordPress.com, your Gravatar and other info will follow if you are logged in to the system.

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    • P.S. — The image you upload will become your system-wide Gravatar that will replace the face you see here. It takes time to propagate across the system, so give it an hour or two and you should be good.

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