Edward Koch’s upset victory in the 1977 mayoral race in New York was the desperate act of a city whose progressive dreams had been mauled by near bankruptcy, a chaotic blackout and a high murder rate. Despite 35 years of subsequent success, for which Koch deserves some credit, the city should not take for granted the tough, sensible centrism that Koch brought to City Hall.
New York rose at the start of the 19th century as America’s greatest port and for more than a century, the city’s economy was strong enough to withstand mayoral mediocrity and even the kleptocracy of the Tweed Ring. In 1929, the city’s manufacturing workers were 72 percent more productive than the national average.
Before the coming of the car, mobility was limited; companies and the wealthy remained tethered to the urban core.
After World War II, suburbanization and the move to Sunbelt sprawl sent many older, colder cities into a tailspin, but New York initially seemed immune. A legacy of entrepreneurship and the allure of an urban playground enabled New York to keep growing from 1950 to 1970, when almost every other large Northeastern city lost population.
A sense of almost unlimited resources enabled Mayor John Lindsay to respond to social distress and labor unrest with generous social spending, forgiving justice and fat contracts.
By the mid-1970s, the city’s luck had run out. Its once-mighty manufacturing base had vanished. The number of murders in New York more than quintupled from 1955 to 1975. New York could no longer pay its bills, and its finances were humiliatingly put under the control of the externally appointed Municipal Assistance Corporation, led by Felix Rohatyn.
The liberal lion Bella Abzug was the early front-runner in the 1977 election, with the endorsement of public-sector unions and prominent celebrities. Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, Percy Sutton and Herman Badillo were also in the mix. But while Abzug leaned left, offering an end to age-old injustices, Koch tacked right. Koch had been a conventionally liberal congressman, most famous for defeating Carmine DeSapio, Tammany Hall’s last great powerbroker, in a 1963 battle for the Democratic leadership of Greenwich Village.
But in 1977, Koch promised to fight crime with tough policing and the death penalty, rather than social programs. His message resonated as the city was terrorized by the Son of Sam killings and the looting and arson that made the 1977 blackout so much worse than its 1965 predecessor. Koch’s message resonated, and he won the first round of the primary with slightly less than one-fifth of registered voters.
I was 10 at the time, and remember the shock of a close family member who initially voted for Cuomo, despite preferring Koch, because she thought Koch’s chances so slim. Koch then beat Cuomo in the primary runoff and the general election, and served New York for 12 years.
In many ways, Koch kept up New York's liberal legacy. He worked to maintain social services despite the city’s fiscal straitjacket. He was enormously proud of his commitment to public housing. He signed the city’s first gay-rights ordinance.
Yet with 35 years of hindsight, Koch’s three terms seem like a watershed, a break with the progressive past that foreshadowed the Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg decades. From 1977 to 1981, city spending dropped by 30 percent in real terms.
Murder rates fell during the early 1980s, before rising again during the crack epidemic. He fought with public-sector unions, most notably during the 1980 transit strike, when he cheered on the New Yorkers, such as me, who were walking to work and school.
Most important, Koch was an almost Churchillian figure of ebullient tenacity. His hard work, passion, integrity and joy helped New Yorkers of the time believe that the city was more than a decaying relic.
Koch’s personal appeal only explains part of his three successful mayoral elections. He was re-elected twice because he presided over the boom years of the 1980s, when the city’s population rose by more than 250,000. Much of the city’s post-1977 economic success reflected the resurgence of financial services, which eventually delivered more than 40 percent of the payroll on the island of Manhattan.
Wall Street, another legacy of the port, remained a presence even during the darkest days of the 1970s, but during the 1980s, finance expanded dramatically. The information edge that New York gave bankers and traders became even more important.
There is no industry where knowledge is more valuable than in finance. Trading floors lack walls because the advantages of seeing and hearing the action trumps the pleasures of privacy and space. These floors are the modern city in miniature -- they represent the triumph of information over inconvenience. During the 1980s, an increasingly global and complicated financial world made knowledge more important, and that made it even more valuable to be in the thick of the action, despite the downsides of urban life.
Koch’s third term was marred by scandal, racial conflict and rising crime rates. He lost to David Dinkins (disclosure: Dinkins serves on the advisory board of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, which I direct), who seemed to offer a more conciliatory, less confrontational city. Yet murder rates remained stubbornly high during Dinkins’s one term, and New Yorkers ousted him in 1993 in favor of Giuliani who ran, as Koch had in 1977, promising to get tough on crime. Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg delivered on that promise far more effectively than Koch, and the city has enjoyed 20 years of safety and relative stability.
As New York chooses its next mayor, the city should remember the conditions when Koch took office 35 years ago. No city is guaranteed success, and ambitious attempts to right social wrongs at the local level often go awry. It is just too easy for wealthy individuals and productive companies to flee high tax rates, as they did during the 1970s.
Koch’s victory represented a move toward managerial mayors, more focused on the basics of city government, such as freeing streets from dog manure and squeegee men. That model may be less inspiring than the visionary rhetoric of John Lindsay -- but it does more for urban success.
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