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.