I was born in Manhattan, reared in the Bronx, and escaped New York City by graduating high school at 16 and going to college in Montana.
It was 1974. Abe Beame, a grumpy little man who looked like the political machine product that he was, occupied the mayor’s office that fall. The city teetered on bankruptcy’s edge, a fact for which Beame could hardly evade responsibility after having served as the city’s controller – its chief accountant – through the 1960s. Crime was rising, racial tension was high and the manufacturing base was fleeing, taking a large share of the city’s middle class and their jobs with it. New office towers were going up in suburban places like White Plains, N.Y., Stamford, Conn., and various towns on Long Island to accommodate corporations whose executives were as eager to get out of New York as I was.
On the September day when I fastened a Boeing 727 seat belt for the first time, I didn’t think I would ever live in New York again.
The following few years reinforced that belief. The city needed a federal loan to bail out its finances. Services suffered and neighborhoods sweltered. The summer of 1977 became known for the Son of Sam serial killer. That autumn, as the Yankees won their first World Series since their stadium was renovated (a project that began just before the city’s finances collapsed), ABC’s cameras showed the all-too-common scene of a Bronx apartment building on fire. (This is when Howard Cosell is supposed to have remarked, “The Bronx is burning,” though he never actually uttered the phrase on the air.)
Just a few weeks later, Rep. Ed Koch, a Democratic congressman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was elected mayor – and the city’s destiny changed, as did my own.
Koch was a lot of things – a liberal who was nonetheless willing to slash spending to balance municipal books; a blunt and argumentative man who could still almost immediately forget a disagreement; a realist who could look at his crumbling city and still believe that its best days were ahead of it. In this last, it turned out he was right.
Koch stabilized the city’s finances and, more importantly, its neighborhoods. There was some silliness, such as putting vinyl decals depicting curtains and flowerpots in the empty windows of vacant tenements to make them look lived-in. But there was substance, too, as the city got its finances in order while starting to attract young baby boomers back to its neighborhoods, where they could raise their families and take subways to their jobs. “Gentrification” entered our vocabulary, referring to neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan. It described the phenomenon – not always conflict-free – of well-educated and affluent newcomers replacing or living alongside longtime working-class residents.
A lot of things went right during Koch’s early years as mayor. He was not responsible for all of them, though he did not mind if anyone thought he was. A stock market boom began in the summer of 1982 and continued for the rest of the decade, which coincided with Koch’s three terms as mayor. This brought untold thousands of high-paying jobs to Wall Street, and the bonuses that these people earned percolated throughout the city. It was also the heyday of broadcasting, and New York never enjoyed such heights as a media center. The three major networks, all based in midtown, ruled the airwaves; The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal used new satellite technology to launch national editions; and book publishers expanded their lists and their influence. As a wave of mergers swept through corporate America, New York law and accounting firms could barely keep up with demand for their services.
This is what greeted me when I returned to the metropolitan area in 1983. I had joined The Associated Press after college. My journalism career took me to two state capitals, then to Washington, D.C., and finally, when I got married, back to New York City to cover federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I never actually moved into the city of my birth, settling in suburbs a few miles away, but for nine years I commuted there while working for The AP and, after a career change, for Arthur Andersen & Co.
My wife loves New York. Our daughters, who came along during and just after Koch’s tenure, love New York. I can’t honestly say that my heart belongs to the city, since I’m just not a city sort, but I appreciate how much New York has to offer, and I acknowledge how much nicer and safer it is today than when I was growing up.
Koch doesn’t deserve all the credit. He improved the city’s finances and business climate, but crime reached some of its worst levels late in his term during the crack epidemic. Dramatic improvements in public safety did not come until after the term of Koch’s ineffective successor, David Dinkins, who was replaced by former prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani and then by Michael Bloomberg.
But Koch, with his tireless engagement with the city, set the modern example of strong mayoral leadership that New York cannot function without. Koch seemed to genuinely love the city and its people – all people, for that matter. You can’t say that about Giuliani, and probably not about Bloomberg, either, though I have never met the current mayor personally. Koch liked to win arguments because he liked arguing; Giuliani likes to win arguments because he likes to win. There is a big difference.
Would I have returned to New York and stayed, if the city had remained on the path it was on during the terms of Beame and his ineffectual predecessor, John V. Lindsay? Would my daughters have developed an attachment to the city’s theater, museums, restaurants, nightlife and neighborhoods? I doubt it. Before Koch, New York was on a path familiar to places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, or maybe even that of Buffalo and Newark. During Koch’s administration and since, it has rejoined the ranks of global centers like London and Tokyo, and set an example that has been emulated from Shanghai to Abu Dhabi.
They say there are 8 million stories in the city. Ed Koch probably changed all of them. I know he changed mine.