Ed Koch became mayor of New York City at a time when no one wanted to touch it (except, of course, Mario Cuomo). It was at a time when Times Square was at the height of porn palace saturation, the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and no one had any solutions to make the mounting problems subside. Enter Bronx-born Koch: Tough-talking, unapologetic and ready to take the action necessary to get New York back on its feet. In Neil Barsky's first feature film, Koch, the complexities of Koch's often pugnacious personality are explored.
Barsky takes the time to probe all aspects of Koch’s life, though the primary aspect that took up that life was politics. With an extensive political background that was fortified during his time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Koch initially ran for mayor in 1973 but received little support. It wasn’t until the crises of 1977 that Koch was taken seriously as a candidate. His platform of restoring “law and order” proved highly effective after the infamous blackout that occurred on July 13th, 1977, which resulted in near anarchy in the wake of looting and violence. As the election drew nearer, Koch’s only real competition was Cuomo, whose team was believed to come up with the smear campaign slogan: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” The first in a series of allusions to Koch’s sexuality that would be made throughout his political career, Koch responded by pairing up with the first Jewish beauty queen to be crowned Miss America, Bess Myerson. Although the two were seen everywhere together, it was always purely platonic. Barsky, in his examination of Koch’s sexuality, notes, “What was interesting to me wasn’t that he was gay or straight; what was interesting to me was that he was alone.”
Barsky even takes the time to question Koch personally on the matter in the documentary, to which Koch responds, “It’s none of your fucking business.” Though in the past Koch has stated he was a heterosexual, the speculations never subsided—particularly due to his tenuous rapport with the gay and lesbian community, which bolstered claims that he was trying to distance himself from homosexuals merely because he was one. In fact, most of Koch’s issues and sources of contention often tended to be with minority groups, including black people. When one of the interviewees of the documentary is asked if Koch was a racist, he responds, “Koch is worse than a racist, he’s an opportunist.” His tumultuous relationship with the black community intensified in 1980 when he shut down Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, a facility that was created exclusively to treat black patients and employ black medical care workers. His open contempt for Jesse Jackson during the 1988 presidential election added to voters’ belief that he was a racist, not to mention the killing of a black teen, Yusuf K. Hawkins, in Bay Ridge by a group of white kids. Koch’s unsympathetic response prompted further ire from the public during a final term that was already fraught with scandal—including the suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes, large scale political corruption and kickback schemes involving political appointments.
With so much controversy surrounding the outspoken mayor, it seemed inevitable that he would lose his fourth attempt at running for mayor in 1989. Ousted by the first black mayor, David Dinkins, Koch’s response was to quip, “The people have spoken…and they must be punished.” Such simultaneous levity and vitriol is what frequently made Koch misunderstood and got him into trouble. Regardless of his tempestuous rapport with the people of New York, it can never be said that Koch did not love his city and the population that made it what it is. A case in point is the notorious transit strike of 1980. The standoff between Mayor Koch and the MTA lasted from April 1st to April 11th in which time Koch would not back down on the salary raise increase he had proposed to the contracted workers. In the nearly two weeks that public transportation was shut down, Koch became well-acquainted with the denizens of New York as they walked or biked the Brooklyn Bridge to get to the city. It also gave him ample opportunity to ask his most famous question, “How’m I doing?”
Although Koch may have been usurped as mayor, it didn’t keep him from remaining at the forefront of politics. Until his very recent death (February 1, 2013), Koch was a vocal public figure, who even dared to cross party lines for some of his endorsements, including his support for Mayor Bloomberg. A scene in the documentary in which Koch visits his tombstone seems especially macabre when viewing the film now. But Koch’s acknowledgement of his imminent death is in keeping with the blunt and honest nature of his New Yorker’s personality. He also had no problem expressing, "I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me." Fear not, Ed, for you’ll always be present in this city of synchronized hopes and dashed dreams.
Barsky manages to prove that he is a worthy documentarian with the potential to branch out into narrative film. His knack for pairing just the right music with certain scenes is a strong indication of that fact (e.g. Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”). Concluding the film with the unveiling of the sign for the newly renamed Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, Koch graciously accepts the honor by quoting the following line from The Great Gatsby: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” There is perhaps no greater honor to have one’s named associated with such a symbol.