If New York City had its own currency, Ed Koch would surely
be on one of the bills. He left office in 1989 but still stays in the public
eye any way he can, from being a pundit and author to a TV judge and movie
columnist. But Koch was more than a folksy catchphrase (“How’m I doin’?”) or a
brash personality. He came into office as the city faced bankruptcy and put in
policies that reinvented New York physically and financially.
Historian Jonathan Soffer’s biography, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, is a richly sourced and detailed assessment of the mayor, a city
in the financial trenches and urban politics. We spoke with Soffer, a professor
of history at NYU-Poly, about working with Koch, his enduring public persona
and the real cause of New York City’s money problems.
New York Press: What
was your relationship with Koch during your research and writing?
Jonathan Soffer: Cordial
but independent. He did read the draft and did comment on them. The agreement
was that he would tell me when he thought I had gotten my facts wrong but the
interpretations were entirely mine and he pretty much stuck to that. He was
really a gentleman about that. I actually wonder if I myself would be so calm
if somebody were writing a biography about me.
You write about his
most heated battles as mayor. What do you think of his personality and style?
There were beneficial aspects to it. As I quote Sen. Daniel
Moynihan in the book, he gave New York back its morale. But his bluntness raised suspicions among many members of minorities that he was not protecting or promoting their interests.
Koch has been trying
to shame state lawmakers into taking up reform measures for his New York
The rhetoric of the campaign does illustrate Koch can
operate in two modes pragmatic and compromise, on one hand. On the other hand,
he can divide people into friends and enemies. People who don’t support his
exact reform proposals are enemies of reform. That rhetoric is the kind of
rhetoric that led people to believe Koch was a divisive mayor.
Speaking of reform,
you document his administration’s brushes with corruption during his third
This is one point in which we differ. He was consistently
very serious about reform and engaged in a lot of reform—judicial reform,
taking the politics out of the appointment of city judges. At the same time, I
think he did maintain friendly relationship with county leaders and overcompensated
for his earlier suspicion of regulars that were kind of intense. He was known
as a hard-noser on these kinds of issues. He abandoned this suspicion of the
regulars and kind of overcompensated a little bit and wasn’t suspicious enough
of Democratic bosses Stanley Friedman, Donald Manes and Meade Esposito.
This era of New York
City—from John Lindsay to Koch—has been a popular topic as of late.
People are fascinated because the city went so low; because
it’s a period of transition where the old post-war LaGuardia city is largely
destroyed. Destroyed in terms of physically destroyed, destroyed in terms of
the political economy of the city and how the city makes its money—all of that
collapsed in this period of 1962 to 1984. It is being replaced over the course
of the Koch administration. On the other hand the Rent is
Too Damn High has become a common slogan. My rent back in 1977 was $260 a month for an apartment in
Manhattan. And it wasn’t that bad a place to live. The city was much more
different place to live in, in a lot of ways. But it was tough to live here.
People were proud of overcoming that for the pleasures of living here. They very much valued the pleasures of the city.
Whether that would have continued as more and more of the city continued to
burn, if the city had actually gone into bankruptcy I don’t think that would
have continued. It might have gotten so bad that they would have left like they
Since this is a biography so late in his life, this might have been an opportunity for him
to come out as gay, as so many people believe him to be.
He says it’s a private matter and what I wrote in the book, and
he read this before it was published and he didn’t say anything to me about it.
I wrote that Ed Koch does not construct himself as gay, and he does not
construct himself as straight either. He has not told me who he had sex with. I
actually did not ask him.
I did ask him about things that had come out in the press
claiming that rumors that somebody named Richard Nathan had told playwright
Larry Kramer and had been investigated by Rudolph Giuliani as to whether or not
he had had an affair with the mayor. Nathan, when he was alive, refused to say
that publicly or confirm it in any way. And he’s dead now, so a fourth-hand
rumor is all there is. There’s no proof of it. My feeling was, if Rudy Giuliani
couldn’t prove it and Larry Kramer couldn’t prove it, there’s no way I was
going to prove it.
How does a former
mayor of New York—one of the biggest cities in the world—stay in the public eye
with such acts as being a People’s Court judge, movie critic, pundit, etc.?
I think Ed likes to be in the public eye. I think he is
extremely witty and funny to watch. I’ve been doing joint appearances with him
and he’s really fabulous in front of an audience. He wrote a book on buzz and
how to get yourself talked about. He really does know how to do that. But at
the same time, one of the main reasons is that he has a very strong sense of
justice sometimes that gets him in trouble politically when someone doesn’t
have the same idea of what justice is, but he wants to use his ability to get
attention politically to advance things he thinks are just. He can be very
controversial because not everyone agrees that what he sees is just is just.
In describing why New
York City’s finances were in the tank, you avoid maligning generous programs,
liberalism and unions.
When Koch took over the mayoralty, the cost of providing
care to the uninsured people, whether through Medicaid or through direct care
subsidies to the Health and Hospitals Corporation, was 106 percent of New
York’s budget gap. If someone between 1970 and 1980 said, “OK, healthcare
costs, we need to do something about healthcare, we need to have a federalized
healthcare system, we need to expand Medicare.” If someone developed a
federalized healthcare system for United States, New York would probably not
have had a fiscal crisis. And Ed Koch realized this at the time.
The city got swamped by cuts in federal spending by what
became an anti-urban much more suburban oriented series of presidential administrations
in the 1970s and 1980s in both parties. The time Koch gets there, industry is pretty
much gone and it’s gone partly because cities all over America are being de-industrialized.
That industrial city model had to be replaced and pretty much the only place to
go by the time Koch came in was finance. And that made up a much less
diversified economy. It worked for a while but it’s cyclical and has its ups
and downs that made it much more difficult to stabilize the economy. Since this
last crash, as astute an observer of Bloomberg said after 9/11, the era of
finance as the engine of its economy is ending. I think finance, insurance and
real estate is going to continue to be tremendously important to the city’s
economy. But the city has to find a way of earning its living. It’s reinvented
itself many times since 1626 and hopefully it will reinvent itself again.