Ed Koch would have gotten a kick out of his funeral. The eulogies were moving and often funny, the crowds were adoring and the reporters were out in full. Yep, he would’ve loved it.
Except, maybe, for one thing: he would have wanted to squeeze a few more miles out of his final ride. He would have liked one more trip through the Bronx, the borough he helped to transform at a time when it was a symbol of urban decay. One more trip to Staten Island, the home of so many of the cops he loved and who loved him. One more journey through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens that once were places of despair and now are thriving communities of hope.
Ed Koch inherited a city that New Yorkers under the age of 40 can hardly imagine. The New York of 1977, the year of Mr. Koch’s election as mayor, was a city that had lost heart. For the first time in its storied history, young people fled to make their fortunes elsewhere. The glamour was gone; in its place was a threadbare city of faded glory.
And then along came Ed Koch, this tall, screechy-voiced congressman barely known beyond his Upper East Side congressional district. It is hard to believe now, but there was a time when Ed Koch was an obscure pol, at least outside of reform Democratic circles. He was not supposed to win the Democratic mayoral primary in 1977, not against his better-known foes—Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Percy Sutton and a relative newcomer named Mario Cuomo. But win he did.
Over the next 12 memorable years, Ed Koch dominated the city as no other mayor had since Fiorello LaGuardia. He restored the public’s trust in its leaders at a time when the city seemed ungovernable and in decline.
The great achievements of the last 20 years—historic drops in crime, education reform, renewed economic vigor—took place after Mr. Koch left office. But he surely set the stage for the city’s renewed vitality under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. He said as much in an interview with The Observer, days before he entered the hospital for the last time. “I’m proud of what I did,” he said. “I also believe that Giuliani, and particularly Mike Bloomberg, have made tremendous contributions to the city. I look upon what I did as laying the groundwork and the foundation on which they could build, and without what I did, they couldn’t have done what they did.”
Ed Koch restored New York’s spirit with enthusiasm, with chutzpah and with a welcome dose of simple common sense. He had no time for cant and dogma. He dispensed with the notion that business was somehow the enemy of the people, a notion that was popular in certain sections of his home borough. He understood that New Yorkers were frightened—by crime, by hopelessness, by decline. It was his job to find solutions that would make the city believe in itself again. By the time he left office, the notion of New York as an ungovernable city seemed quaint, a leftover from the 1970s.
Ed Koch was passionate about New York and made others passionate as well. Similarly, he was passionate about Israel and was able to communicate that passion to Jews and gentiles alike. It was no coincidence of history that Cardinal John O’Connor, the city’s leading Roman Catholic during a portion of his tenure in City Hall, also happened to be a steadfast friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
Edward Irving Koch was one of a kind. This year’s mayoral candidates would do well to embrace his legacy—and his passion—for New York, New York.
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