In 1994, I think I was, I had the great misfortune to spend about six months working with Jonathan Soffer. The problem, I should hasten to add, was not with Jonathan. We had been hired by two crazy people, married to each other, to update a very prominent one-volume encyclopedia, and we were sort of stuck in a room together, somewhere in midtown, surrounded by hundreds of reference works, writing about everything from sand slugs and berkelium, to Pure Land Buddhism and feminism. It was sort of fun writing about everything, but the people we worked for were impossible, and Jonathan and I spent the day talking, and plotting our escapes, and we both eventually did, and we both went onto our respective careers. (This was, BTW, the last time I was ever gainfully employed in the city of New York.)
Jonathan has just published the first scholarly biography of Ed Koch, entitled Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. Koch cooperated with Jonathan on the biography, and knowing that Jonathan’s politics were somewhat to the left of mine (no mean feat), I have wondered for several years would he would have to say about hizzoner. Its an excellent book, respectful and thoughtful, offering an overview of the city as a whole during the three terms of Koch’s administration, from 1977 to 1989. Jonathan shows that in many ways Koch was the last white liberal mayor of the city, though his liberalism became increasingly attenuated as his tenure progressed. He gives Koch credit where it is due, especially in his housing program, and demerits when they are called for, and in all it’s a nuanced accounts of his ups and downs, highs and lows.
The most salient fact about the Koch administration is that New York City was widely seen as falling about in every possible way in the late 1970s, and by the time he left office, the city was firmly on the way to its 1990s rehabilitation. Koch did this by encouraging reinvestment and redevelopment, helping to make gentrification an (expensive) household word. Did Koch have an alternative? Probably not. Manhattan is not an island, outside of the more general forces of capitalism, and all the winds in the 1980s were blowing towards a free market. Would more or less the same thing have happened if someone else had been mayor? Probably, but the whole point of writing and reading historical biographies is get a reminder of the role that individuals play in history. Perhaps New York City had special advantages that explain the difference of its trajectory from, say, Rochester or Buffalo, but certainly Koch had a major role in what went right (and wrong) in the post-fiscal crisis city. The best thing that can be said about Koch is that he generally did the best he could under the tight constraints of a bad and illiberal time. And this is the best that can be said about any Democratic politician, with any real measure of power, on the local, state, or national level, in the two decades since Koch left the public stage. And compared to the very checkered records of the two post-Koch democratic presidents, Koch doesn't look all that bad.