Today we note the passing of Edward I. Koch, Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989 and former Greenwich Village Congressman, City Councilmember, and Democratic District leader. A resident of Greenwich Village since the 1950’s, for the last several decades Koch lived in an apartment overlooking Washington Square Park at No. 2 Fifth Avenue. Mayor Koch had previously lived at 81 Bedford Street, 72 Barrow Street, and 14 Washington Place, and famously refused to give up his Greenwich Village residence when elected Mayor to move into Gracie Mansion.
Koch had an outsized impact upon New York history, helming the city through some of its most challenging periods including the 1970’s fiscal crisis, a transit strike, the AIDS crisis, rising racial tensions in the 1980’s, and several damaging corruption scandals towards the end of his tenure. One of only three New Yorkers to serve three full terms as Mayor of the five boroughs (interestingly, one of the other two, Fiorello LaGuardia, was also a Greenwich Villager), Koch’s legacy will no doubt be as hotly debated after his death as it was before. Beyond question, however, was the role the Village played in launching his career, and the depth to which his impact can still be felt here today.
According to a contribution he generously made to a forthcoming GVSHP book of personal remembrances entitled “My Greenwich Village,” one of Koch’s earliest public political activities was campaigning nightly on a soapbox in Sheridan Square for Adlai Stevenson during his 1956 run for President. About the famously left-leaning and intellectual Presidential candidate, he told us “Stevenson’s speeches have never been equaled in style or substance…they were thrilling.”
According to his remembrance, Koch got his start in politics with Citizens for Stevenson, which he called the predecessor to today’s Villager Independent Democrats (V.I.D.) club. VID and Koch each rose to prominence by defeating and ultimately ending the power of the Tammany Hall machine, specifically with Koch’s defeat of its leader, Carmine DeSapio, in contests for Democratic District leader in the Village in 1963 and again in 1965.
In his role as Democratic District leader, Koch endeared himself to Village constituents with his strong opposition to “police brutality, air pollution, sidewalk narrowing, the bulldozer approach to urban renewal, the invasion of the Village by New York University, and the invasion of downtown by the Lower Manhattan Expressway” (you can read more about Koch’s early positions, and his announcement of his run for City Council, HERE).
Koch’s female Democratic District co-leader was Carol Greitzer, today a member of the GVSHP Board of Advisors. In 1967, Koch was elected to the New York City Council representing Greenwich Village, and in 1969, he was elected to Congress, with Greitzer succeeding him in the City Council until 1991.
In these positions Koch earned a reputation as an outspoken liberal, opposing the Vietnam War, marching for civil rights in the South, and supporting the decriminalization of marijuana, introducing a federal bill to that effect with New York’s Republican Senator Jacob Javits. Koch’s outspoken left-wing political views at this time were considered threatening enough by some that it was revealed in Senate hearings that he had been placed under surveillance by one of the Watergate conspirators.
In spite of this, Koch began what many would describe as a rightward drift, at least on some issues, towards the end of his congressional career and accelerating once he ran for and became New York City’s mayor. This movement away from his progressive origins left one of Koch’s deepest and most lasting impressions upon the Village’s political scene. In 1982, when Koch ran (unsuccessfully) for Governor, his home club VID endorsed Mario Cuomo over him based upon what was seen as Cuomo’s more progressive record. However, the endorsement battle was so bitter that disaffected club members who supported Koch split off from VID to form their own new club, the Village Reform Democratic Club (VRDC). Though the Koch-Cuomo conflict is now but a distant memory, the two clubs remain separate to this day.
In 1989, VRDC refused to endorse Koch for re-election. Koch’s characteristically from-the-gut response to being spurned by the two Village Democratic clubs whose origins were so intertwined with his own: “For the most part, I got elected without their help…Who needs either of them?”
Similarly, in 1986, the Village-based Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats club (the country’s first gay democratic club, founded in 1974 around the historic candidacy of Jim Owles as New York City’s first openly-gay candidate for elected office — Koch’s old City Council seat) suffered a split between pro- and anti-Koch factions. While Koch had been a strong advocate for gay rights from the 1970’s, signing the city’s gay rights bill in 1986, many in the gay community criticized Koch for what they saw as his insufficient response to the AIDS crisis, and more generally for what they saw as his failings in dealing with race-relations and political corruption in the city and his administration. Following the election of Koch-critic (and later Greenwich Village State Assemblymember from 1991 to the present) Deborah Glick as GLID President that year, pro-Koch forces in the club split off to form the pro-Koch Stonewall Democratic Club. These two clubs also remain separate to this day.
Koch’s imprint upon the Village, and the city as a whole, is without a doubt too extensive to adequately catalogue here. Suffice it to say his outspoken nature, his deep engagement with politics, and his thorough involvement with the life of the city made him right at home in the Village, even if in his later years many of his political views did not always.