Koch rebuilt N.Y., often at the expense of blacks, poor

By Wayne Dawkins

I last saw iconic New York Mayor Ed Koch in mid-August in the green room of NY1 cable TV. Koch was about to do his segment as one of the three “Wise Guys” [Eliot Spitzer and Alfonse D’Amato] who talk about politics. I was there to be interviewed about my book on Andrew W. Cooper, the black newspaper publisher whose City Sun of Brooklyn needled the mayor and Koch never missed an opportunity to jaw back.

“He was a nice man,” Koch said of Cooper [1927-2002], my mentor, and then he asked to look at the book. I found his words funny and ironic, yet sincere since it was two decades since both men battled.

Koch, 88, who died Friday, should be known primarily for guiding New York City out of near bankruptcy and back to its rightful place as America’s greatest metropolis. Yet Koch had a terrible relationship with its black citizens, at that time at least one out of every four New Yorkers.

Koch balanced the books largely on the backs of poor people, most of them black and brown. When their leaders balked, he dismissed them as “poverty pimps.” The former Silk Stocking district congressman perplexed black former peers such as Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn and Charles Rangel of Harlem.

“I get the feeling,” said Chisholm in 1978, “that Ed has written off blacks and he’s saying ‘I don’t need you. There are just enough blacks in this administration to offset a charge of discrimination and I don’t need you anymore.’”

Said Rangel that year, “Ed has always been successful with his arrogance.”

Koch indeed was acerbic. The mayor said he was an equal-opportunity tough-love provider, yet there was evidence that Koch bruised blacks extra. He alleged in a New Yorker magazine profile that blacks were inherently anti-Semitic, and while he railed against poverty pimps and mismanaged government programs he did not have similar tough talk for public employee unions – dominated by ethnic whites – that almost bankrupted the city.

Koch’s first term, 1978-82, was brutal yet necessary. The city got its financial house in order thanks to a federal bailout and supervision of a financial control board. The mayor easily won re-election.

Blacks meanwhile chafed from escalating police brutality and deadly force. In a 1981 Village Voice expose by Cooper and Wayne Barrett reported 76 civilian deaths by police in the first two years of Koch’s watch, a sharp increase, and additionally a doubling of “accidental discharges” of police weapons, incidents that were exempt from disciplinary action.

Koch’s second term was tarnished by the 1984 lethal cop shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, 66, a and disabled Bronx woman who died because of a late utility bill, and in 1983 the case of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who died while in the custody of Transit Authority police.

During Koch’s third and final term he presided over racial chaos. In 1986 black man was beaten and chased to his death by automobile at Howard Beach, Queens. Bernhard Goetz, a white subway vigilante, shot four black youths who allegedly menaced him with screwdrivers. In 1989, a white woman executive who was jogging in Central Park was sexually assaulted and nearly beaten to death. A handful of black and Latino adolescent males were convicted of the “wolf pack” attack [the true assailant came forward a decade later and the wrongfully accused youths were released from prison. They are the subject of a new Ken Burns documentary].

By the last year of Koch’s third term New Yorkers suffered from racial fatigue and were tired of Koch’s racial sparring. He exited and New York elected its first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins.

Koch made a noteworthy admission long after he left office. In 2009, he told the New York Times he erred in closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in the late 1970s: “It was the wrong thing to do. Closing the hospital saved $9 million, but there was such a psychological attachment to Sydenham, because black doctors couldn’t get into other hospitals. It was the psychological attachment that I violated.”

Koch deserves credit for creating 3,000 new apartments from formerly vacant buildings by the end of his 12-year administration, reported the New York Times, and 13,000 more units were under construction while design work began on 20,000 more. The 10,000 vacant and abandoned buildings that Koch inherited in 1978 were reduced to 800 at the end of his service.

Koch profoundly improved New York on his watch, often brutally and at the expense of blacks and other poor people.

Yet the mean-spiritedness apparently moderated with age. I believed the mayor when he spoke kindly of my mentor last summer.

Dawkins, an assistant professor at Hampton University, is author of “City Son: Andrew W. Cooper’s Impact on Modern-Day Brooklyn.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A 1979 encounter with Mayor Koch http://www.politicsincolor.com/wdawkins/2010/best-year-my-life