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Ed Koch attends the "Koch" screening on October 8, 2012 in East Hampton, New York.
Reading over all those profligate encomia to the late 3-term mayor of New York City, I wondered if it was time to rethink my own strong feelings about Edward Irving Koch. After all, I'd once liked him enough of him to have worked for his 1962 State Assembly campaign (which he lost), so how bad could he have been?
He did save the city from bankruptcy. He was both the face of New York and in your face. All his life, he was everything, everywhere: On TV, in the newspapers, writing columns, film reviews, celebrating himself every day of his life like Walt Whitman on steroids. And now everyone loves him. Now that he's dead.
But it would be unfair to be as snide about Koch as he himself was about so many others in his 88-year lifetime. He came to symbolize the change in New York over his 12 years in office: it was a city that professed harmony and dignity of all diverse peoples when he got in and became sour, bitter and divided for years after he left.
Few black people seemed to mourn him -- perhaps they recalled the violent deaths of people like graffitist Michael Stewart at the hands of NY transit police, or Yusef Hawkins and Michael Griffin's deaths in white on black street violence. The gay population still deplores his slow response to the AIDS onslaught in the early 80s.
For those of us who were there, the bigotry of the Koch period was subtle in origins but not in effect. Koch's fast shuffle of the city's finances and copious layoffs saved New York from financial bankruptcy but not the moral kind. My take on this is subjective, but it seemed to me that fewer people of color got invited to white people's parties. Social justice activity was subjected to frequent ridicule, and sometimes even racist jests. "Poverty Pimps" was a common derogatory term you rarely saw applied to Anglo community organizers or officials. Nowadays, we use the term "dog whistle" to describe a signal that sparks a coded response in a large segment of the population. In the late `70s and early `80s in New York, "Rising Crime" was a whistle that connoted black and brown malfeasance and menace -- while it was also increasingly a social reality.
Koch was the fountainhead of this Zeitgeist, whether in his war of words with Jesse Jackson, his willful and purely symbolic determination to close the black-run Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, or the way his confrontations of black and brown communities and leaders was calculated to play to the largely Catholic-Jewish white voter base. This tactic got him reelected but it pried apart New York, whose ethnicities remain separated in a Gotham that is now far safer and more prosperous than Koch's, but also even more divided between the rich and the poor. And rapidly acquiring a black and brown majority.
The division tactic had a further effect. It drove a considerable if uncertain number of us burned out New Yorkers, disillusioned with the mayor and his city, away from our home town to Los Angeles. Where you had not only a new and winterless metropolis of urbanity and excitement, but Sunset Strip and Malibu beach, Jonie Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and, of all things, hope for the future. You had, in Tom Bradley, a mayor who then seemed the polar opposite of Koch -- urbane, calm, a positive force for progressive politics and most of all, an amazingly inclusive leader, bringing together Los Angeles' ethnicities just as Koch was dividing up his great city.
So we meandered across the country to LA, where we were welcomed, if you can call it that, by soaring home prices, a tough job market, bad pizza, bland bagels, an abundance of "Welcome to California, Now Go Home" bumper stickers and T-Shirts that warned us, "I Don't Give a F*ck How They Do It in New York."
But over the years, we managed somehow. And we know that we might never have dragged ourselves to our beloved Southland if it hadn't been for the late Hizzoner.
To whom, therefore, a hearty, posthumous: "Thanks a lot, Ed."