Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How am I Doing?

On Tuesday, October 26 we hosted a Tenement Talk unlike any other. Historian Jonathan Soffer discussed his research—the Former Mayor Ed Koch—with his research subject himself. Introduced by New York Times journalist and writer Sam Roberts, the mayor and his biographer reflected on Koch’s entire political career in less than two hours.

The charismatic mayor told the audience that he had loved “belonging” to New York City and believed being its mayor was the greatest job imaginable. He told us what he thought of as his triumphs, including restoring NYC’s credit and bringing to life an economy long in decline. Koch felt that his ability to brush off failures, his willingness to put aside politics to assemble a talented staff, his respect of others rights—including his critics—and a sense of humor which saved him from harping on failures to the point of debilitating disappointment were all at the root of his success.

But with a critical historian face to face with a controversial and tell-it-like-it-is New York icon, the conversation predictably moved on to the negative aspects of Koch’s career. More than 20 years after his mayoral term came to an end, Koch tried to justify to the Tenement Talk crowd the decisions that led some to believe he was apathetic to the plight of the poor and people of minority, choosing instead to use available resources to privilege the rich and white.

Impassioned, he insisted that an audit of the numbers shows that the majority of the budget in the 1980s was channeled towards programs that overwhelmingly existed for the poor, the elderly, or people of color. But in a quieter tone, Koch confessed to Soffer and the Tenement Talk audience that although Sydenham hospital in Harlem was offering a degraded level of care in 1980, he regretted his decision to close it down because, in the end, the amount of money the city saved can not compare to the symbolic value of the hospital that was the first to admit black physicians.

At the heart of the talk was the question of what Koch meant to New York, for better or for worse. Here at the Tenement Museum, we are constantly trying to trace the lines between past and present New York, asking ourselves how the experience of New Yorkers, especially immigrants, through the years have changed. I was born only a year before Koch’s last in the Mayor seat and can’t imagine the dirtier, more chaotic, and less functioning New York of the 1970s that Soffer, Roberts, and Koch described, but many people in the room knew it first hand. Whether you believe that Koch revived the “greatest city in the world” or that he entrenched a socially unjust status quo, to what degree do you think today’s New York was molded by the brazen forces of the Koch era?

- Posted by Julia

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