For someone walking through Times Square today, it is hard to imagine that the five-star hotels, destination restaurants and the pedestrian plaza at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street haven’t always been there illuminating the “Crossroads of the World.”
Neil Barsky remembers a different Times Square, one lit up not by giant HD screens and the neon and LEDs of ESPN Zone and Toys R Us, but by X-rated movie theater marquees, head shop display windows and the strobing dome lights of NYPD police cruisers in pursuit.
This was the heart of New York City in the 1970s during the bad time, when the city teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy and irrelevance, and it is brought to the screen in all of its seedy glory in Barsky’s new documentary, Koch. The film, which opens in area theaters April 26, looks at how the fortunes of the city were changed with the 1978 election of Ed Koch, as mayor.
“It was striking to me just how dramatically New York City had changed in the last 30 years,” Barsky says. “I wanted to tell the story of how it changed, and the career of Ed Koch was a marvelous way to show the city’s fall and rise.”
Barsky knows a good story when he sees one: Before he created and ran Alson Capital Partners, a successful hedge fund that he closed down in 2009, Barsky spent decades as a reporter, working at publications from the Long Island Jewish World to The Wall Street Journal.
Two decades before Philadelphia’s own Ed Rendell was bestowed the title of “America’s Mayor,” Koch, also a Jewish, lifelong Democrat, was squiring around former Miss America Bess Myerson, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and doing his schtick on Saturday Night Live three times.
And for the politician whose rhetorical question, “How’m I doing,” became a catch phrase recognizable to this day, the recognition was well-deserved. Stepping in after the notorious failure of his predecessor, Abe Beame, to secure a loan from the federal government (which resulted in the equally famous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), Koch went to Washington and returned with the loan guarantees that enabled the city to begin a reorganization that created the blueprint for the New York City of today. His successes included building an unprecedented number of affordable housing units, getting labor costs in line by winning battles like the transit strike in 1980, and simply proving that New York City had the effective leadership that gave people the confidence to invest in, move to and visit the city.
Barsky’s film doesn’t shy away from Koch’s shortcomings. Most striking is the contentious relationship between his administration and the city’s black community, exemplified by the director’s use of interviews and archival footage to show how Koch’s campaign pledge to keep Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital was abandoned as one of his first major cost-cutting measures. His decision was viewed as a betrayal that infuriated onetime supporters like Calvin Butts, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, who recalls just how devastating the mayor’s decision and belligerent attitude toward the community was.
As might be expected of any politician who remains in office for so many years, Koch had other major setbacks. The film focuses on his apparent failure to take the outbreak of the AIDS crisis seriously enough, a position for which he was — and continues to be — pilloried by many in the gay community, especially since there have always been questions about Koch’s own sexuality. And the corruption scandal of 1986, which brought down numerous lieutenants in his administration — Koch himself was never accused of any criminal wrongdoing — comes across in the film as the most painful episode of his tenure.
Koch doesn’t apologize in the film for any mistakes made. “He was a little defensive about the AIDS crisis,” Barsky recalls. “Same thing about closing Sydenham Hospital — he said he regretted it — but he would then go on to show how he was right in what he did.” Barsky adds that Koch’s inability to be empathetic to those who needed official comfort was a constant challenge for him. New York Times journalist Sam Roberts sums up the mayor’s anti-Clintonian inability to feel the pain of others during an onscreen interview, when he says that Koch “is missing the synapse for empathy.”
Yet, in the film’s scenes of Koch outside the political arena, like during a break-the-fast meal with his sister’s family in Scarsdale, his loving exchanges with his great-nieces suggest that he did have that emotional connection in his personal life, at least.
Seeing Koch the doting great-uncle takes some getting used to, as does watching him visit his own grave site with his longtime friend and former chief of staff, Diane Coffey, in an eerily prescient sequence. Koch died at the age of 88 on Feb. 1, the same day that the film was released in New York.
Koch’s grave site is a microcosm of his relationship with Judaism. He was a proud Jew and a staunch defender of Israel. In addition to having the Shema inscribed in Hebrew, his headstone carries the last words of the murdered journalist, Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
But instead of being buried in a Jewish cemetery, he chose the nondenominational Trinity Church Cemetery in Washington Heights, reasoning that he wanted to be buried someplace “that was bustling” with visitors.
As someone suffering from congestive heart failure, Koch had good reason to be preoccupied with his demise. Yet, as the film shows through scenes of him stumping for local candidates as well as for New York Gov.
Andrew Cuomo, in addition to his TV appearances and newspaper columns, he kept up an astonishing pace for an octogenarian. “He said to me that he wanted to be relevant to the day of his death,” Barsky says.
Considering how much attention continues to be focused on him since his passing, he did just fine on that count.