I was born in New York when Ed Koch was mayor, and for one reason or another, in the foggy memories of my early youth in Queens, I can scarcely remember the man’s name mentioned in a positive light. My family’s disapproval probably had something to do with the mayor’s shakedown of the transit union. My grandfather was a card carrying member who drove to the 7 train until he retired. But there were plenty of reasons for New Yorkers to dislike Koch, from his tempestuous personality to his handling of racial issues, the AIDS epidemic, corruption among party bosses, and more. The new documentary Koch tries to put his legacy in perspective. It is an affectionate, but by no means a fawning biography; instead Koch wants to understand the man, mark his charismatic personality, and place his legacy in context.
What the documentary makes clear is that the New York we know today has its roots in Koch’s tenure, even if his hardnosed Republican successor, Rudolph Giuliani, gets most of the credit. Most significantly, Koch cleared the way for redevelopment of Times Square and to revitalizing urban housing. When treating the Times Square development, the documentary lets some dissension slip through. We hear the voices of New Yorkers protesting that Koch is making midtown unaffordable (an almost laughable sentiment considering the hyper inaccessibility of real estate there today). The mayor brushes off the criticism with his characteristic acerbic incredulousness. They don’t understand, he says. The taxes generated by Times Square will create affordable housing elsewhere in the city. It’s not hard to recognize in his comments the attitude that has largely driven the development that has radically changed New York in the thirty years since. Whether or not you see that change as good or bad, Koch the documentary allows you to make up your own mind. And it also let’s know that Koch the man doesn’t care what you think.