- Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City
Jonathan Soffer has produced a remarkable labor of love, both for the city of New York and for the “Jewish mayor” who led it during the late 1970s and 1980s. Drawing on numerous interviews as well as Koch’s personal papers, Soffer presents a sweeping biography of the man who garnered both fame and infamy as a congressman, mayor, and television personality. Although Koch—the media-loving public servant who polarized the city over the answer to his trademarked question “how’m I doin’?”—is the center of attention, he is also Soffer’s vehicle to tell a larger story about politics in late twentieth-century America. In constructing this larger narrative, Soffer joins a growing coterie of scholars interested in American Jews and the postwar New York urban experience.
When Ed Koch became mayor in 1977, New York faced a severe financial crisis, its overwhelming debt unmanageable because the city’s credit had been destroyed. Unlike his predecessor Abraham Beame, who had watched the economy’s downward spiral but had ceded his power to the Emergency Financial Control Board, Koch centralized power in the office of the mayor and instituted austerity measures and promoted gentrification in an attempt to restore the city’s budget. Almost miraculously, the budget was balanced by 1981, what Soffer calls “quite simply the greatest turnaround accomplished by any New York mayor in the twentieth century” (399). Not everyone agreed with Koch’s handling of the fiscal crisis. Many argued that Koch had “balanced the budget on the backs of poor” while doling out “corporate welfare” (234).
Supporters and critics of Koch have long argued over the mayor’s tenure, as well as his legacy. Perhaps no issue quite captures the extent of Koch’s ability to divide his constituents as race. Koch often found himself at loggerheads with members of the African American community, from the Forest Hills housing controversy (which occurred before Koch was even mayor), to his decision to close Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, to his frequent tension with Charles Rangel and Jesse Jackson. Koch’s constant attempts to court the working-class ethnic vote in New York’s outer boroughs by racially coded appeals to “law and order” also helped alienate many black voters. Similarly, gay New Yorkers were often split over Koch, some sticking by him for his years of support for equal rights and others blaming him for his inaction during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. [End Page 95]
Despite his prodigious research, Soffer is, like the citizens of New York, unable to come to a complete view of Koch and his true political beliefs. After all, this was a man who was elected mayor of New York on the Democrat and Republican tickets simultaneously. Soffer does his best to explain how Koch’s politics were determined by larger contexts. Even as he fought busing and affirmative action and reduced welfare, Koch made sure to attack President Reagan enough to avoid being called a “neocon,” and he never favored social conservative issues like curtailing abortion or gay marriage. In some ways, Koch remained consistent. His support for Israel was unwavering, and he never relinquished his view that politics was his “personal battlefield” (106).
Soffer’s book contributes to and complicates the vast literature on American Jews and liberalism. Soffer nicely contextualizes Koch’s migration from (far) left to (moderate) right within a larger pattern of ethnic political change during the 1970s. “Ethnic Ed,” as Koch was known, appealed to, and found comfort politicking among, working-class ethnics, especially Jews and Catholics. The complex demands of ethnic affiliation, party allegiance, and economic necessity all played a part in determining how Jews’ politics underwent change in the late twentieth century.
If there is one major criticism of the book, it is that Koch’s Jewishness is not explored in greater detail. Soffer seems content to label him a “fairly secular Jew,” but we are left asking for more specificity about how the background of the...