Friday, February 1, 2013

'Koch' Gives Us the Man in All of His Guises

IT would be difficult to find someone who would not give Ed Koch credit for bringing New York City back from its dark age in the 1970s.

This is among the episodes addressed in “Koch,” the documentary about the man who some call New York City’s greatest mayor. It opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center before rolling out at select venues across the country.

What should be a happy day is a little less so because on the day the film is opening it is also the death day of EK. He died around 2 a.m. of congestive heart failure; a memorial service is scheduled for Monday. EK just turned 88 in December.

Ed Koch (left) defeated fierce political competitor Mario Cuomo in the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary. Photos courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Today, he is being remembered as a colorful, larger-than-life flawed, but principled figure who never shied away from speaking his mind. Indeed, Hizzoner was not one to hold his tongue when he had something to say, the consequences be damned. That trait gained him many admirers; even his detractors respected him, though some bitterly disagreed with him.

Much of this territory is covered in “Koch” from first-time director Neil Barksy. The film puts a spotlight on the good, the bad and the ugly – warts and all, including EK's love of the spotlight. A few wags have quipped that he is smiling down from heaven because he managed to upstage the opening of the film about his life. (See trailer above.)

Ed Koch and Bess Myerson en route via bus to a mayoral inauguration in January 1978.

“Koch” is by no means a love letter about this son of Polish immigrants. For instance, it attempts to address issues around the mayor’s sexuality, which had always been a closed subject. EK was a lifelong bachelor and was never publicly tied to anyone except former Miss America Beth Myerson who was by his side in his second run for mayor in the late 70s. She disappeared after his victory, causing many to believe that the whole “relationship” was window-dressing.

“Koch” addresses both triumphs and failures, the most notable – which the mayor acknowledged himself – was the closure of a Harlem hospital. He’d said on the campaign trail that he would not attempt to close the hospital.

This reversal was viewed as a betrayal by many in the black community. The lone event caused a schism between a man who as a young lawyer in the '60s represented civil rights workers in Mississippi and one of the city’s most important communities. It would take years for this relationship to heal. Some would argue that today some wounds still fester.

Other peccadilloes that “Koch” presents is EK’s seeming ignorance of the rampant corruption in his administration, as well as his failure to show leadership in the AIDS and crack crises. Both proved devastating for New York.

While sad chapters in the life of this politician and wit, others are happy such as the billions-dollar housing program that rebuilt many neighborhoods in New York, particularly the Bronx. EK was born in that borough but grew up in Newark, New Jersey Jersey. He was also active in the fight to save Grand Central Terminal from demolition. That world famous beaux art structure celebrates its 100th anniversary today (

Thanks in part to Ed Koch, Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th anniversary today. Archive photo.

EK’s greatest accomplishment, as “Koch” and many who have spoken of the mayor today have asserted, was working tirelessly to save New York during a time when crime was rampant, infrastructure was crumbling, jobs were non-existent and the city was near broke. He served three terms and lost a bid for a fourth term in the 1989 primary to David Dinkins who would go on to be the city’s first black mayor. EK was the city’s second Jewish mayor.

In "Koch," the man discloses that any number of people approached him about running for a fourth term. He declined and demured in typical Ed Koch fashion in one of the film's most memorable zingers: "No, people threw me out and now the people must be punished.”

He’s one of the very few mayors in the history of the city who remained relevant and in the spotlight long after his tenure. EK accomplished this by becoming a jack of all trades. It was he who replaced Judge Joseph Wapner on The People’s Court; he wrote books, including a children’s book inspired by his childhood. He hosted a radio call-in show.

Ed Koch and chief of staff Diane Coffey at his gravestone. The epitaph reads: "He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York and he fiercely defended its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II."

The former mayor became a film critic. And up to the time of his death he was one of the “Wise Guys” on "Inside City Hall," a political public affairs program that airs on NY1, the 24-hour cable station that covers New York City.

As EK might ask, “How am I doin?”

The reply might be “you done good,” Ed, the conclusion that “Koch” ultimately reaches.

Visit to learn more about “Koch.”

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