By 9 a.m. Friday it had sunk in; Wikipedia had it. Ed Koch, the brashly quintessential New Yorker, World War II veteran, United States Congressman and Mayor of New York City, was dead at 88 of congested heart failure.
“How’m I doing?” His Honor was known to ask random passersby on New York’s streets, a question that came to define his three terms in Gracie Mansion from 1978 to 1989. Twelve years in office put him in a three-way tie for the longest serving mayor in New York history, alongside Fiorello H. La Guardia and Robert F. Wagner. Current Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will enter the club when he completes his last year in office.
Koch’s last day as mayor was nearly a quarter century ago but still New Yorkers remember him, in the public housing he built, the controversies that surrounded him and the documentary that now bears his name. They also remember him for who he was, a thunderous personality as distinctive as his name. Koch was supposed to attend a screening of “Koch” at the Museum of Modern Art this week but couldn’t because of his deteriorating health. Friday evening, filmgoers will be watching his obituary.
“To me Ed Koch was the quintessential New Yorker,” said Frank Seddio, head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “He was brash, he was loud, he gave his opinion. He had something to say about everything. Who’s more New York than that?” Seddio served under Koch as commissioner of traffic enforcement.
Born in the Bronx in 1924, Koch was many things long before he became mayor. At 19, he was a war veteran, joining the U.S. Army in 1943. At 43, he was elected to the city council, serving from 1967 to 1969. Immediately after the city council, Koch represented New York in Congress, where he stayed before returning to the city for his best-known role as mayor at age 54.
For a generation of New Yorkers, Koch has become one of the greats. “He was kind of larger than life,” said Stephen Levin, the city council member for Brooklyn Heights and Greenpoint.
Born in 1980, Levin spent his childhood in Plainfield, New Jersey watching the mayor on television. “Koch was the staple on Channel 4. He was on every single night.”
Levin met his political hero at a lunch in lower Manhattan with three other city council members in the summer of 2011. “It was a real thrill for me to be able to sit down with him,” he said.
In statements, Brooklyn’s city council members who work under the shadow of Koch describe a man of singular personality and energy who carved an indelible path as mayor.
“Edward Koch was a wonderful mayor whose work ethic embodied the spirit of the New Yorker. He came into leadership at a time when the city needed a strong voice; he worked tirelessly for the people,” Council Member Mathieu Eugene said in a statement.
For City Council Member Brad Lander, “Ed Koch stood for New York City, literally and figuratively. When our city was at its low point in the 1970s, he fought to bring it back. His brash, honest, human style will be sorely missed,” the Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens representative said in a statement.
New York’s population grew by a quarter million people during Koch’s tenure to 7.3 million strong by 1990. Those people will remember Koch for many things.
Seddio will remember that he didn’t like Koch at first. A police officer at the time, Seddio was put off by some of Koch’s ad campaigns in his first election that seemed to be anti-police. The negative opinion changed after Seddio got to know Koch. “He became one of the favorite mayors for police officers,” Seddio said. “He supported cops when he thought they were right, he told them off when he thought they were wrong. They liked the honesty about him.”
Borough President Marty Markowitz will remember Koch fondly. “Although he was born in the Bronx and raised in Newark, Mayor Koch lived with his family in Brooklyn as a young man, and I have no doubt it’s where he got the Brooklyn attitude, swagger and “chutzpah” that made him such a character and helped him navigate New York City through some of its most challenging times,” Markowitz said in a statement.
Perhaps there is a memory of Koch molded into the Queensboro Bridge which officially bears his name, a massive piece of steel that, traffic or not, guides New Yorkers across its expanse each year by the millions.
“Ed Koch is a real symbol of New York,” Levin said. “For me he really epitomizes mayor of New York City because of his toughness and humor. There was just something about him that he was kind of the perfect guy for his time.”