Dean Ellen Schall opened the event with a tribute to public service,
saying, “City government is the most amazing opportunity. You can get a lot of
responsibility and make a huge amount of difference.” Dean Schall had worked as
the deputy of Juvenile Justice in Ed Koch‘s administration and will always
refer to him as “Mr. Mayor.”
Rob Polner, director of Public Affairs for NYU Wagner, moderated the
discussion and gave a context of New
York City in the late 1970s, when Ed Koch was first
elected as mayor. Polner described NYC as being in “permafrost of gloom” and
was anticipated to go the route of other industrial cities like Detroit. Crime was
rising, people were dying of HIV/AIDS, and homelessness was a huge problem.
“Koch,” he commented, “led NYC through a true renaissance” by securing business
investment and public works that would revitalize the city.
Jonathan Soffer then read an excerpt from his new book, Ed Koch and
the Rebuilding of New York City. He pointed out that Koch’s successes were not
things people expected; his own campaign manager had said he had 20-0 odds of
winning the election! Koch added that in the first poll, only four percent of
people in the city knew his name. But he did win the election of 1977, and
again in 1981 and 1985.
During his tenure, he took on issues such as housing projects,
homelessness, crime, the city’s debt and corruption in the judicial
system. Koch was asked, “What are you
most proud of?” He responded that he gave NYC and its people back their morale.
“We were in the depths of despair; people needed to be energized.” Soffer
reminded the audience that Koch balanced the city’s debt within three years, a
feat nobody thought possible. But Koch was quick to respond that it wasn’t him
alone that did this. Rather it was the people of New York, people like Ellen Schall, who
accomplished these things. “There’s nothing comparable to public service when
it’s done honorably and done well. It’s like an aphrodisiac.”
Koch reminisced about his policy to address homelessness and the
Billie Boggs incident. In 1987, Koch introduced a new program that would pick
up homeless people, take them to Bellevue
Hospital, and treat
them with medical and psychiatric care. Koch defended his policy that year to
the American Psychological Association, saying, “I am the number one social
worker in this town, with sanity.” However, the New York Civil Liberties Union
did not agree with the policy and defended one woman who was picked up, Billie
Boggs. In court they argued that she could not be forcibly committed to
psychiatric care and won the case.
A guest asked both Soffer and Koch what their most memorable moment
was in writing the book and serving as mayor, respectively. Soffer’s moment was
his interview with Robert Wagner, Jr., which was hours long. Koch’s response
was the twelve-day subway strike of 1980. He was in a meeting with the police
commissioner when he looked out the window and saw thousands of people walking
across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.
“It was like Lake Ladoga,” Koch remembered, referring to a frozen lake
on the outskirts of Leningrad
that allowed Soviet soldiers to get supplies into the city and defeat the
Nazis. Koch went downstairs from the meeting and started yelling, “Walk across
the bridge!” encouraging people to continue coming to work.
In closing, Dean Schall asked all of the people who served in Ed
Koch’s administration to stand. Well over a dozen people stood, and Dean Schall
encouraged the current students at NYU Wagner to talk with them during the
reception. Koch added that members of his former administration continue to
meet every year, and roughly 200 people attend these get-togethers. “You can’t
stop them from coming,” he said. “Most are now in the private sector but if
they had the opportunity to go back to public service, they’d go in a
What do you think? If you could change one thing that Ed Koch did as
mayor, what would it be and why?