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February 6th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Jonathan Soffer on the Many Legacies of Ed Koch

“It was clear to most New Yorkers that Koch had a deep abiding love for his city. That reputation, that started when he was in public office, was solidified because he stayed in the public eye. He would exert political power, but it always seemed to be because he wanted to continue helping New York.”—Jonathan Soffer

Never is a biographer’s perspective more relevant (or sought after) than when their subject is finally laid to rest. Since the passing of larger-than-life former NYC mayor Ed Koch on Friday, Jonathan Soffer, author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, has been a central voice in the debate on what shape Koch’s legacy should take. In the following post, we bring you an amalgamation of Soffer’s latest commentary on Koch, one that highlights the author’s argument that the “King of New York” will be a man of many legacies.

A Legacy of Free (and Colorful) Speech

Koch was sometimes honest about his politics to a fault. I think, more than any other reason, he lost his chances for re-election to a fourth term when he said that Jews would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson. He could not be deterred from saying things that were just excruciating. But paradoxically, it gave him a reputation for honesty.

~ From Soffer’s interview with TIME Magazine, for more click here.

Koch’s love of New York showed most in his civil libertarianism. A first-rate soapbox orator himself, Koch didn’t just tolerate dissent and non-violent street protests, he relished them — even when he was the target. In the early 1950s the young Koch gave speeches for Adlai Stevenson on Wall Street. As a City Council member in the sixties he led protesters from Greenwich Village who encircled Mayor Lindsay’s Gracie Mansion demanding more police. Koch was strong on free speech issues.

~ From Soffer’s op ed in the NY Daily News, for more click here.

A Legacy of Jewish Pride

Koch’s three epitaphs, chosen several years before his death, expressed the centrality of Judaism to his identity. The first quotes the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” The second, is the Sh’ma, and the third, which the mayor wrote himself after suffering a stroke in 1987, reads: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”

~ From Soffer’s biography of Koch in the Jewish Daily Forward, for more click here.

A Legacy of Housing Reform and NYC Rebirth

At a time when [President] Reagan had all but eliminated federal housing programs, Koch organized state, local and private money to rebuild the areas of New York that had burned down, flattened or discarded as a result of austerity programs from the 1970s… the city lost over 100,000 units of housing from 1970 to 1980 — a lot to fire. That’s enough to house a city the size of Oakland, Calif. Koch’s housing program, which lasted beyond his mayoralty and continues in its general format, built around 250,000 units of housing. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.

~ From Soffer’s interview with the NY Daily News, for more click here.

Soffer explained that under the Koch administration, guidelines for zoning were created and so were the illuminated signs and the standard for how bright they should be. “He wanted a Time Square that was bubbly…I think New York City has lost one its great advocates for New York. While many New Yorkers disagreed with him — and many strongly disliked him — they know he was honest and forthright, and he cared deeply about New York City.”

~ From Soffer’s interview with the International Business Times, for more click here.

A Legacy of Gay Rights and AIDS Controversy

I wrote about in my biography, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City — and he read the manuscript and he did not make a mark on it — that “Ed Koch does not construct himself as gay, he does not construct himself as straight either.” He mostly kept his sexuality private. In one incident, a talk show host asked him if he was gay, and Koch turned on the talk show host and said “Did you have oral sex with your wife last night? Because that’s precisely the question you’re asking me.”

~ From Soffer’s interview with TIME Magazine, for more click here.

In his book, Soffer lays much of the blame for Koch’s reluctance to take the lead in fighting the new gay disease at the feet of the federal government. New York State at the time had (and, in fact, still has) the country’s largest per capita expenditure on the local level of Medicaid expenses. According to Soffer, “If Washington had taken over these expenses, New York City would not have had a fiscal crisis, it would not have had to cut services, and city government would have been in a far better position to deal with the public health-related problems of homelessness, AIDS and drugs.”

~ Soffer quoted by EdgeNewYork, for more click here.

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