Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s remember former New York City Edward Koch -- who died early this morning at age 88 from congestive heart failure (what a few years ago would have been called "peacefully in his sleep") -- as a transformative figure. Unlike President Obama, who claims that mantle as he pulls America down a few notches, Koch was instrumental in rescuing New York City from near-dystopian depths.
New Yorkers and especially newcomers to the City under the age of, say, thirty-five never saw nor sensed the New York City of the Abe Beame years. It was a much different city.
Just consider how popular culture viewed New York City. Hollywood movies and TV shows provide a great clue.
Today we have "CSI: New York" and "Law & Order." When Koch was first elected Mayor in November 1977, we had the graffiti-scarred trains of "Welcome Back, Kotter."
Movies portrayed New York City as the city of danger, overrun with criminals and vice. We had "Death Wish," "The Warriors" and "Taxi Driver." Best of all, we had a 21st Century New York envisioned as a penal colony, one big ungovernable prison, in "Escape From New York."
Ed Koch pulled New York City out of sharp fiscal doldrums. The City was near bankrupt in the 1970s and the Ford Administration refused to bail it out of its debt, leading to an immortal (infamous) New York Daily News headline in 1976: "Ford to New York: Drop Dead." Simply put, the City was imploding under the weight of social program spending, a literally crumbling infrastructure (Exhibit A: The old West Side Highway whose elevated structure over what today is Twelfth Avenue was literally crumbling onto the street below.) and, most notably, a declining tax revenue base represented by a fleeing middle-class, fleeing business owners and homes which were disposed of in either fire sales or in actual fires to collect on the insurance. (Exhibit B: Howard Cosell on TV during the 1977 World Series, reporting that in the distance over the Yankee Stadium facade, "the Bronx is burning.")
Hard to believe now, but New York City's reported Census population declined by nearly one million, from 7.9 million in 1970 to barely over 7.0 million in 1980.
Ed Koch stood up to the urban decay. In many ways, he was a pragmatic conservative. He made the City governable again and safer to live in. He understood that stakeholders -- businessowners, investors and homeowners -- had to feel comfortable staying here and coming here in order for the City to survive, never mind to thrive. He paved the way for the Giuliani years and the completion of the City's transformation into an urban oasis.