1980s mayor became a symbol of New York City
By DEEPTI HAJELA February 1, 2013 7:32AM
Updated: March 3, 2013 6:08AM
NEW YORK — Ed Koch’s favorite moment as mayor of New York City, fittingly, involved yelling.
Suddenly inspired to do something brash about the rare transit strike that crippled the city in 1980, he strode down to the Brooklyn Bridge to encourage commuters who were forced to walk to work instead of jumping aboard subway trains and buses.
“I began to yell, ‘Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!’ And people began to applaud,” the famously combative, acid-tongued politician recalled at a 2012 forum.
His success in rallying New Yorkers in the face of the strike was, he said, his biggest personal achievement as mayor. And it was a display that was quintessentially Mr. Koch, who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during a three-term City Hall run in which he embodied New York chutzpah for the rest of the world.
Mr. Koch died at 2 a.m. Friday from congestive heart failure, spokesman George Arzt said. He was 88.
Mr. Koch was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital on Monday with shortness of breath, and was moved to intensive care on Thursday for closer monitoring of the fluid in his lungs and legs.
After leaving City Hall in January 1990, Mr. Koch battled assorted health problems and heart disease.
The larger-than-life Mr. Koch, who breezed through the streets of New York flashing his signature thumbs-up sign, won a national reputation with his feisty style. “How’m I doing?” was his trademark question to constituents, although the answer mattered little to Koch. The mayor always thought he was doing wonderfully.
Former Mayor David Dinkins, who succeeded Mr. Koch, called the former mayor “a feisty guy who would tell you what he thinks.”
“Ed was a guy to whom I could turn if I wanted a straight answer,” he said Friday.
Bald and bombastic, paunchy and pretentious, the city’s 105th mayor was quick with a friendly quip and equally fast with a cutting remark for his political enemies.
“You punch me, I punch back,” Mr. Koch once memorably observed. “I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, said in a statement Friday that although they disagreed on many things, Mr. Koch “was never a phony or a hypocrite. He would not patronize or deceive you. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He fought for what he believed. May he rest in peace.”
The mayor dismissed his critics as “wackos,” waged verbal war with developer Donald Trump (“piggy”) and fellow former mayor Rudolph Giuliani (“nasty man”), lambasted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and once reduced the head of the City Council to tears.
“I’m not the type to get ulcers,” he wrote in “Mayor,” his autobiography. “I give them.”
When President George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004, Democrat Koch crossed party lines to support him and spoke at the GOP convention. He also endorsed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election efforts at a time when Bloomberg was a Republican. Mr. Koch described himself as “a liberal with sanity.”
In a statement Bloomberg said the city “lost an irrepressible icon” and called Mr. Koch its “most charismatic cheerleader.”
“Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback,” Bloomberg said.
Mr. Koch was also an outspoken supporter of Israel, willing to criticize anyone, including President Barack Obama, over decisions Mr. Koch thought could indicate any wavering of support for that nation.
In a WLIW television program “The Jews of New York,” Mr. Koch spoke of his attachment to his faith.
“Jews have always thought that having someone elevated with his head above the grass was not good for the Jews. I never felt that way,” he said. “I believe that you have to stand up.”
Under his watch from 1978-89, the city climbed out of its financial crisis thanks to Mr. Koch’s tough fiscal policies and razor-sharp budget cuts, and subway service improved enormously. But homelessness and AIDS soared through the 1980s, and critics charged that City Hall’s responses were too little, too late.
Mr. Koch said in a 2009 interview with the New York Times that he had few regrets about his time in office but still felt guilt over a decision he made as mayor to close Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. The move saved $9 million, but Mr. Koch said in 2009 that it was wrong “because black doctors couldn’t get into other hospitals” at the time.
“That was uncaring of me,” he said. “They helped elect me, and then in my zeal to do the right thing I did something now that I regret.”
His mark on the city has been set in steel: The Queensboro Bridge — connecting Manhattan to Queens and celebrated in the Simon and Garfunkel tune “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” — was renamed in Mr. Koch’s honor in 2011.
Mr. Koch was a champion of gay rights, taking on the Roman Catholic Church and scores of political leaders.
During the 1977 mayoral campaign against Mario Cuomo, posters that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” mysteriously appeared in some neighborhoods as Election Day approached.
A lifelong bachelor, Mr. Koch offered a typically blunt response to questions about his own sexuality: “My answer to questions on this subject is simply, ‘F--- off.’ There have to be some private matters left.”