Former Mayor Ed Koch passed away early this morning, he was 88. Koch had been in and out of the hospital in recent months, and was admitted Monday at New York Presbyterian Medical Center.
“Earlier today, New York City lost an irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion, Edward I. Koch,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement released this morning. “He was a great mayor, a great man and a great friend. In elected office and as a private citizen, he was our most tireless, fearless and guileless civic crusader. Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback. We will miss him dearly, but his good works – and his wit and wisdom – will forever be a part of the city he loved so much. His spirit will live on not only here at City Hall, and not only on the bridge the bears his name, but all across the five boroughs.
“I’m expressing my condolences on behalf of all 8.4 million New Yorkers, and I know so many of them will be keeping Mayor Koch and his family and friends in their thoughts prayers. As we mourn Mayor Koch’s passing, the flags at all City buildings will be flying at half-staff in his memory.”
He was moved to intensive care yesterday as his condition worsened.
Koch – who served as mayor from 1978 to 1989 – died at about 2 a.m. today, sources said.
George Arzt, Koch’s spokesman, said the former mayor lost consciousness soon after entering the ICU.
Arzt said he’d always recall Koch’s sense of humor.
“Most people didn’t know how funny he was,” said Arzt.
Koch, who had become a movie reviewer after leaving City Hall, responded, “Just don’t tell me what the plot is.”
Arzt also told the story of how awed he was upon joining Koch as his press secretary.
“I got into the car and said I couldn’t believe how a kid who grew up in Williamsburg was now sitting next to the mayor,” Arzt said.
“Oh shut, up,” he recalled Koch telling him. “Everybody comes from somewhere.”
Gov. Cuomo said in a statement today, “With the passing of Ed Koch, New York has lost one of our most admired public leaders. Ed Koch embodied the highest ideals of public service and his life was dedicated toward making New York – the city and our state – a better place for all. From his days on the front lines of World War II, his time in Congress, to his leadership as Mayor guiding New York City through difficult years, Ed Koch never strayed from his unwavering commitment to serving others.
“No New Yorker has – or likely ever will – voice their love for New York City in such a passionate and outspoken manner than Ed Koch. New York City would not be the place it is today without Ed Koch’s leadership over three terms at City Hall. Mr. Mayor was never one to shy away from taking a stand that he believed was right, no matter what the polls said or what was politically correct.
“Many times in my life I have turned to Ed Koch for his advice and guidance. Just yesterday I spoke with the Mayor to wish him courage and strength, and let him know he was on all of our thoughts and prayers. I will miss his friendship, and we will all miss his perpetual optimism and tireless commitment to continually striving to improve our city, state, nation and world. On behalf of all New Yorkers, I send my condolences to his family and friends.”
The three-term mayor and former congressman was first elected to City Hall in 1977. Since leaving elected office, he has worked as a lawyer and remained an active presence on the city’s political scene.
“All New York City mourns the passing of Mayor Koch whose wisdom, good humor and fierce determination guided us through a most difficult period in the city’s history. Communities across the city experienced a renaissance as a result of his commitment to neighborhoods and affordable housing development,” said, Kathryn Wylde, the President & CEO of the Partnership for New York City.
The larger-than-life Koch, who breezed through the streets of New York flashing his signature thumbs-up sign, won a national reputation with his feisty style. “How’m I doing?” was his trademark question to constituents, although the answer mattered little to Koch. The mayor always thought he was doing wonderfully.
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz said of Koch, “Mayor Koch lived with his family in Brooklyn as a young man, and I have no doubt it’s where he got the Brooklyn attitude, swagger and “chutzpah” that made him such a character and helped him navigate New York City through some of its most challenging times.”
Markowitz said the boroughs flag would be lowered “in remembrance of this one-of-a-kind New York icon.”
A new documentary about Koch’s career premiered at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday. He had been expected to attend before falling ill, his spokesman said.
Bald and bombastic, paunchy and pretentious, the city’s 105th mayor was quick with a friendly quip and equally fast with a cutting remark for his political enemies.
“You punch me, I punch back,” Koch once memorably observed. “I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.”
The mayor dismissed his critics as “wackos,” waged verbal war with developer Donald Trump (“piggy”) and mayoral successor Rudolph Giuliani (“nasty man”), lambasted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and once reduced the head of the City Council to tears.
“I’m not the type to get ulcers,” he wrote in “Mayor,” his autobiography. “I give them.”
Under his watch from 1978-89, the city climbed out of near-financial ruin thanks to Koch’s tough fiscal policies and razor-sharp budget cuts, and subway service improved enormously. But homelessness and AIDS soared through the 1980s, and critics charged that City Hall’s responses were too little, too late.
Koch said in a 2009 interview with The New York Times that he had few regrets about his time in office but still felt guilt over a decision he made as mayor to close Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. The move saved $9 million, but Koch said in 2009 that it was wrong “because black doctors couldn’t get into other hospitals” at the time.
“That was uncaring of me,” he said. “They helped elect me, and then in my zeal to do the right thing, I did something now that I regret.”
Among his favorite moments as mayor was the day in 1980 when, seized by inspiration, he walked down to the Brooklyn Bridge during a rare transit strike and began yelling encouragement to commuters walking to work.
“I began to yell, ‘Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!’ And people began to applaud,” he recalled at a 2012 forum. His success in rallying New Yorkers in the face of the strike was, he said, his biggest personal achievement as mayor.
Current mayoral candidate and former MTA head Joe Lhota called Koch’s personality “perfectly emblematic of New York City: loud, funny, out-going and in-your-face.
“For me, I will always remember Mayor Koch holding press conferences without his jacket, in a wrinkled shirt with his sleeves rolled-up, jousting with reporters. He loved every minute of it. He always represented the hard-working people of the City. Personally, I will always be thankful for Koch’s leadership in bringing the City out of the Financial Control Period. He was flawless in getting the City back on its feet.”
His mark on the city has been set in steel: The Queensboro Bridge — connecting Manhattan to Queens and celebrated in the Simon and Garfunkel tune “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” — was renamed in Koch’s honor in 2011.
Koch was a champion of gay rights, taking on the Roman Catholic Church and scores of political leaders.
Rep. Peter King called Koch “a true friend and trusted advisor.”
“Ed Koch personified the spirit of New York. New York’s Mayor For Life is now New York’s Mayor for eternity,” King said in a statement.
His impact stretched beyond politics into pop culture. Koch made a cameo in the movie “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” and in 1983, he hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
When Koch took over from accountant Abe Beame in 1978, one thing quickly became apparent — with this mayor, nothing was certain. Reporters covered him around the clock because of “the Koch factor,” his ability to say something outrageous any place, any time.
After leaving office, he continued to offer his opinions as a political pundit, movie reviewer, food critic and judge on “The People’s Court.”
Koch remained a political force in Albany well into old age. He secured a promise in 2010 from then-aspiring Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a number of state legislators to protect the electoral redistricting process from partisanship — and then vocally protested when Cuomo and others reneged on that pledge two years later.
Even in his 80s, Koch still exercised regularly and worked as a lawyer for the firm Bryan Cave.
At his 80th birthday bash, Bloomberg said Koch was “not only a great mayor and a great source of advice and support to other mayors, he happens to be one of the greatest leaders and politicians in the history of our city.”
He had been in the hospital twice in 2012, for anemia in September and then for a respiratory infection in December. He returned twice in January 2013 with fluid buildup in his lungs.
He had undergone surgery in June 2009 to replace his aortic valve and gallbladder surgery a month later. He had a pacemaker inserted in 1991 and was hospitalized eight years later with a heart attack. In early 2001, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Polish immigrants Louis and Joyce Koch. During the Depression the family lived in Newark, N.J.
The future mayor worked his way through school, checking hats, working behind a delicatessen counter and selling shoes. He attended City College and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II, earning his sergeant stripes.
He received a law degree from New York University in 1948 and began practicing law in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, where his political career began as a member of the Village Independent Democrats, a group of liberal reformers. He defeated powerful Democratic leader Carmine DeSapio, whose roots reached back to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, in a race for district leader.
Koch was elected to the City Council and then to Congress, serving from 1969-77 as representative for the “Silk Stocking” district that was then known for its millionaire Park Avenue constituency.
The liberal Koch was the first Democrat to represent the district in 31 years. But his politics edged to the center of the political spectrum during his years in Congress and pulled to the right on a number of issues after becoming mayor.
His answer to the war on drugs? Send convicted drug dealers to concentration camps in the desert. Decaying buildings? Paint phony windows, complete with cheery flowerpots, on brick facades. Overcrowded city jails? Stick inmates on floating prison barges.
Koch defeated incumbent Beame and future Gov. Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary to win his first term in City Hall. Like his hero Fiorello LaGuardia, the fiery fusion party mayor who ran the city from 1933 to 1945, he ran on the Republican and Conservative party lines in the 1981 mayoral election.
He breezed to re-election in both 1981 and 1985, winning an unprecedented three-quarters of the votes cast. At the time, he was only the third mayor in city history to be elected to three terms.
While mayor, he wrote three books including the best-seller “Mayor,” ”Politics” and “His Eminence and Hizzoner,” written with Cardinal John O’Connor. He wrote seven other nonfiction books, four mystery novels and three children’s books after leaving office.
Early in his second term, Koch flip-flopped on his pledge to remain at City Hall and decided to run for governor against then-Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo. But his 1982 gubernatorial bid blew up after Koch mouthed off about life outside his hometown.
“Have you ever lived in the suburbs?” Koch told an interviewer who asked about a possible move to Albany. “It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”
It cost him the race, but it convinced many of the 8 million city residents that Koch belonged in New York. Meanwhile, Cuomo went on to serve three terms as governor.
Koch’s third term was beset by corruption scandals. Queens Borough President Donald Manes — a close ally — committed suicide in March 1986, after having resigned over kickback and patronage allegations. Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman and three others were also tarred. Koch’s commissioner of cultural affairs, former Miss America Bess Myerson, stepped down in the wake of a scandal involving her boyfriend and a judge overseeing a legal case concerning him.
As the pressure grew, Koch suffered a minor stroke in 1987.
The administration was also beset by racial unrest, first after the 1986 death of a black youth at the hands of a white gang in Howard Beach and three years later after a black teen was shot to death in Brooklyn’s tough Bensonhurst neighborhood by a group of whites.
Six weeks after the second slaying, Koch lost the Democratic primary to the city’s eventual first black mayor, David Dinkins. Koch later said the simmering racial tensions didn’t lead to his defeat.
“I was defeated because of longevity,” Koch said. “People get tired of you. So they decided to throw me out.”
The man who bragged that he would always get a better job, but New Yorkers would never get a better mayor, left his City Hall office for the last time on Dec. 31, 1989.
Looking back, Koch said in a 1997 interview: “All I could think of was, “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I’m free at last.”
He was finished with public office, but he would never be through with the city. At age 83, Koch paid $20,000 for a burial plot at Trinity Church Cemetery, at the time the only graveyard in Manhattan that still had space.
“I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone,” Koch told The Associated Press. “This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”
Not long after buying the plot, he had his tombstone inscribed and installed. The marker features the last words of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
It also includes a Jewish prayer and the epitaph he wrote after his stroke:
“He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”