Ed Koch’s legacy: A safer, cleaner New York

Holly Bailey
View photos

NEW YORK—Greenwich Village, with its historic brownstones and close proximity to Washington Square Park—one of the city’s most famous public spaces—has long been considered one of Manhattan’s most sought-after addresses.

But 35 years ago, the area, despite also housing New York University, wasn’t so nice. The park was the epicenter of New York’s growing drug trade—with dealers and their customers conducting illicit transactions from morning until night. The park’s famous arch—modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe and a future backdrop to films including “When Harry Met Sally”—was covered in racist graffiti. And the ground was so littered with broken shards of glass that people in the neighborhood joked it was like living near an old bottling company.

“It was a disaster,” Joan, a 65-year-old Manhattan resident who declined to give her last name, recalled as she strolled through the now-pristine park Friday morning with her Labrador retriever, Charlie. “People avoided this place. You couldn’t walk through here without being scared, even during the day.”

It was a sentiment that defined New York at the time, as the city sat on the brink of bankruptcy and faced down a crime epidemic unlike any in its history. The summer of 1977 might have been the era's low point: Residents were on edge over a series of murders committed by a serial killer known as the Son of Sam, and New York was plunged further into chaos after a citywide power blackout prompted massive looting and riots throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx.

But that fall, Ed Koch, a wisecracking congressman and Greenwich Village resident known for his unbridled candor, won the city’s mayoral election—in part by promising he would bring New York back from the brink. That New Yorkers now live in one of the safest and most successful cities in in the world is in large part due to Koch having been one of the city’s greatest champions.

“He gave us back our morale, our pride,” Jack Lebewohl, whose family runs the 2nd Avenue Deli, one of the city’s oldest dining establishments, told Yahoo News.

The former mayor—who served three terms from 1978 to 1989, and who died Friday at age 88 of congestive heart failure—came to power in an era few would consider a golden age for New York.

Not only was the city in dire financial straits, but a bailout request from the federal government had been denied by President Gerald Ford and members of Congress. That prompted the New York Daily News to run one of its most famous headlines ever: “Ford to the City: Drop Dead.”

The rampant crime and the turbulent feel of the city was captured in films like Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” in which production was repeatedly interrupted by the sirens of police cars responding to crime reports around Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen, where the movie was largely filmed.

In kicking off his bid for mayor, Koch spoke not just of restoring the city’s financial standing but of trying to change the city’s scary image. And he took that message to average people. He spent hours riding the subway throughout the five boroughs asking for votes—shaking hands in subway cars often covered from floor to ceiling in graffiti.

“How’m I doing?” Koch would ask, again and again, soliciting advice from people.

After winning the election, Koch immediately moved to hold municipal spending down and worked to restore the city’s credit. Using the funds he did have, Koch poured money into capital projects, like refurbishing city streets and other infrastructure such as subways and bridges. He also backed efforts to restore the city’s park system, visiting public spaces like Washington Square Park and Central Park, vowing to rid them of crime and restore them to their original grandeur.

Koch also focused on up-and-coming neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where he put more police officers on the ground to push back on prostitution and drug dealing that had come to rule the streets, and pushed for more economic development.

“When he was inaugurated in '78, it was a welcome change,” said Robert Albinder, a general manager at Katz’s Delicatessen, who has worked at the Lower East Side deli for more than 30 years. “He was somebody who was looking to deal with the crises that we were having, but he also just gave you a better mood. He rejuvenated the city. You started seeing a lot of improvement in people’s attitudes and businesses coming back.”

He added, "Of course, it took a long time. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. But from his term on, the city changed for the better.”

Koch did not have a perfect tenure at City Hall. While his first and second term was helped by the city’s economic turnaround under his watch, Koch’s third term in office was dominated by scandal. Many of his top aides were caught up in corruption scandals—though Koch himself was never implicated in wrongdoing.

Koch also publicly feuded with critics who trashed the mayor's slow response to the AIDS crisis in New York. (Associates later said he was wary of being too vocal about AIDS amid public whispers about his sexuality.) The mayor also had a poor relationship with African American leaders in the city. He lost his bid for re-election in 1989 after a year of racial tensions in the city, including over the case of five black teenagers accused of raping a woman jogging in Central Park.

But even those who disagreed with some of Koch's moves in the mayoral office have praised him as being an unabashed champion of New York City. In a statement Friday, activist Jesse Jackson, who publicly feuded with Koch, praised him as someone who had "helped a lot of people."

“Not everyone will agree with me, but he was a unifier," said the 2nd Avenue Deli's Lebewohl. "He worked to bring the city together and get it moving again. He left the city better than he had found it. New York wouldn't be what it is without him."