Burning Down the House: On Ed Koch

Burning Down the House: On Ed Koch

Ed Koch rebuilt New York City by demolishing its long-running experiments in urban liberalism.


In Michael Bloomberg’s New York City, it has become fashionable to look back with fondness on the metropolis of the late 1970s and early ’80s, before chain stores and "broken windows" policing, when graffiti-spattered trains went all-city and loose joints could be had around every corner. Fat laces and Kangol hats; "token entry" and the last of the Automats; postpunk and hip-hop uptown and down. The city was more real then, the story goes, more free; the place still had soul. Several years ago no less an authority on Gotham lore than Luc Sante—the author of Low Life, a beguiling account of the city’s nineteenth-century "lures and snares"—lent literary credence to this current of nostalgia in an essay called "My Lost City." Sante summoned vivid memories of 1978, when he and some friends "drifted down from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side," enthralled by a locale that "felt depopulated even in daylight." They lived cheap, worked little and, suspended in that "stage of youth when…your moment is the only one on the clock," indulged in "a certain lassitude" that seemed suited to the surrounding desolation. Sante writes of the publication, that same year, of Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, with its heady celebration of the city’s utopian promise, its skyscraper soul "permanently set in the future." For Sante, though, living in "a ruin in the making," the book "seemed like an archaeological reverie, an evocation of the hubris and ambition of a dead city." His New York was no fantasy city of aerial walkways and dirigible mooring masts; he reveled and trembled in a dreamscape of vacant blocks and decadent glamour, whose ruins told a story of modernity derailed.

Further downtown the ruins spoke of dread. Ed Koch, taking office as mayor that winter, found a city in frightening disarray. Bridges and streets were crumbling. People feared the sidewalks and parks after dark. Thousands of apartment buildings stood abandoned, and night after night an epidemic of fires reduced more of their number to rubble and ash. Making matters worse, as historian Jonathan Soffer tells us in Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, the new mayor had scant resources at his disposal. In hock to the financiers and banks that had reluctantly rescued the city from bankruptcy several years earlier, New York couldn’t borrow money, and years of imposed fiscal austerity had taken their toll on government services. Employees were disillusioned and corrupt. Marred by leaks and water damage, municipal offices were, according to Koch’s transition director, of "third world quality." With city records a mess and computer databases outdated and unreliable, good information was scarce. Disorder reigned. Faith in the urban experiment—the idea that people from all walks of life, from everywhere, could live together in cities—was at its nadir.

Ironically, the shambles Koch inherited was partly the consequence of a misguided effort to bring order to city governance through technology and systems analysis. As Joe Flood explains in The Fires, Koch’s predecessor John Lindsay had hired a team of consultants from the RAND Corporation, the California think tank that would guide Robert McNamara’s war effort in Vietnam, to help modernize municipal service delivery. Applying their formulas and processing power to the New York City Fire Department, the RAND "whiz kids" recommended a thorough overhaul of station location strategy. Their advice would have tragic consequences. The city instituted service cuts and reallocations, but far from achieving the hoped-for efficiencies, the cuts created dangerously unprotected spots in the South Bronx, East New York and the Lower East Side, all poor, minority neighborhoods ravaged by housing abandonment. Mayor Lindsay’s experiment in systems analysis, Flood says, "burned down New York City."

Reading Flood alongside Soffer might lead one to think that the Democrat Koch’s well-known drift to the right was an unequivocal reaction to the failures of technocratic, can-do liberalism. If Lindsay and his successor Abe Beame had spent, analyzed and planned the city into fiscal and social crisis, then Koch turned to free-market "neoliberalism"—the Marxist term of art employed by Soffer—and cultivated alliances with social conservatives in the outer boroughs to rebuild a city in pieces and rejuvenate its ambition. Thankfully, Flood and Soffer don’t depend on but round out that well-worn, market-friendly narrative. Soffer places Koch’s notorious rightward swing in welcome historical and biographical context, while Flood anchors the story of RAND’s misadventures in a nuanced account of a city imperiled by forces more pervasive than the familiar right-wing boogeyman of big government.

* * *

Flood begins his story of technological hubris with a pointed bit of mythbusting. Histories of New York’s agonies in the 1970s have long relied on the idea that an epidemic of arson destroyed the city. And yet, Flood suggests, "for all its ubiquity, the arson story is ultimately fiction." Arson did become more prevalent during the ’70s, particularly in poorer neighborhoods like the South Bronx, but at its peak in the late ’70s arson accounted for less than 7 percent of fires in the five boroughs, and most of the deliberately set fires—whether the work of calculating landlords, disgruntled residents or antisocial miscreants—afflicted buildings that were already abandoned. It was in the early ’70s that the city was crippled by conflagration, as a wave of conventional fires "spread over the poorer quarters of the city like a contagion." The vast damage from these blazes was avoidable, but in the midst of the fire years Mayor Lindsay ordered the closing of thirty-four of the busiest engine-and-ladder companies in the city, leaving scarred neighborhoods helpless in the face of fires accidental and malicious.

Why would Lindsay order cuts in obviously imperiled areas? This question propels The Fires, and the absence of a simple answer gives the story its considerable drama. When Lindsay took office in 1966, he faced the first stirrings of the social tempest that would test Koch. Rising crime, overburdened infrastructure, racial tension and a general sense of ennui made New York City the most noteworthy representative of a larger "urban crisis" said to be engulfing the nation. In fact, Lindsay’s supporters at the New York Herald Tribune had eagerly promoted this story line with a prominent election-season series called "A City in Crisis," which all but anointed the Upper East Side Congressman and liberal Republican as Gotham’s savior. Upon taking office Lindsay resolved to restore confidence in urban governance.

Lindsay was what Flood calls a "moralizing crusader." He hoped to unseat the old Tammany political machine, which had kept Democrats in power with a finely calibrated exchange of favors and services for votes greased by pervasive graft, and which rewarded loyal white ethnics with patronage while paying lip service to the concerns of the low-income migrants arriving in ever greater numbers from the black American South and Puerto Rico. At the same time, Lindsay promised to master the chaos of the city by applying the technological marvels of computerization to city service delivery. Systems analysis, game theory, computer modeling: these RAND innovations in information management promised to give Lindsay’s administration a way to turn the constant stream of information coursing through city agencies into "easily defined variables." Perhaps most important, though, was Lindsay’s sense that RAND would give him an advantage over the Tammany machine. Flood ingeniously describes Tammany as an "information-gathering apparatus." As much pragmatic "intelligence network" as craven patronage machine, the system ran on the stories collected on the street and sent up the ladder from the ward boss to the Democratic Party clubhouse to City Hall. Reformers had often struggled to deliver on their promises of good government because they lacked the machine’s intelligence network. Lindsay counted on RAND to supply an equivalent information system that would shift the power base "from using narrative to using numbers." With total information awareness, the city could be turned "into an assemblage of numbers," a series of inputs and outputs that would easily surpass Tammany in the efficiency department. If Lindsay’s moral vision would be his political undoing—spurring the conservative backlash upon which Koch would later capitalize—his technocratic high-handedness, Flood argues, would be the city’s downfall.

* * *

RAND worked with several municipal agencies, but the planners found their most willing partner in Lindsay’s fire chief, John O’Hagan, who smoothed the way for them in a bureaucracy that was notoriously chilly to outsiders, particularly those who came bearing formulas and data. Firefighters were suspicious of the quest for "efficiency," which meant two things to them and their union: station closings and job cuts. O’Hagan, however, did not fear efficiency. An iconoclast in a culture that prized conformity, he had become the youngest chief in FDNY history by impressing Lindsay with his fondness for innovation. An expert in the emerging science of fighting skyscraper blazes, O’Hagan encouraged or developed a number of safety measures still in use by the FDNY today, such as infrared sensors for detecting fire behind walls, eye shields, lightweight air masks and an early version of the "jaws of life," a metal-cutting saw for extricating people from crashed cars. One of O’Hagan’s favorite writers was the management theorist Peter Drucker.

Pressed by Lindsay to find savings in a time of declining budgets, O’Hagan relished the chance to "do more with less." He was as determined as Lindsay to prove that systems analysis would save money and improve fire service. The RAND analysts dove into the problem, working to create computer models that showed where and how frequently fires happened and how quickly particular fire companies responded, data that would serve as a guide to the most efficient firefighting policy. Their calculations were based not on how busy companies were, or how many fires they fought, but instead on the variable of "response time," or how long it took for companies to get from the firehouse to a fire.

But response time, Flood demonstrates, is a faulty guide to the real practice of firefighting. A more accurate and complex measure is the time that elapses between leaving the station house and starting to fight a fire. The only advantage to studying response time is that it can be easily quantified. And so RAND gave fire lieutenants stopwatches and asked them to record their travel time. But RAND, pressed to deliver results to Lindsay quickly, handed out watches to just fifteen companies, only one of which was in the fire-ravaged Bronx. Compounding the problem of small sample size was a rash of sabotage the planners should have expected, given the resistance they had already faced. Some suspicious firefighters fudged data, "lost" the watches or "accidentally" drove over them with their rigs. Worst of all, Flood argues, the supposedly hardheaded analysts let political considerations infect their models. Knowing that stable, well-connected neighborhoods—with lower fire rates, of course—would not stand for service cuts, RAND planners skewed their process to ensure that their recommendations would not unduly affect those areas. The final result was a perfect storm of error: analysts enamored of their models and officials desperate to trim expenses at all costs endorsed a program of closings and reshufflings that unduly affected hard-pressed poor neighborhoods and left them vulnerable to the mounting surge of blazes.

Flood overreaches a bit with his conclusion that New York was pillaged by "the paternalistic liberalism of can-do interventionism," with its top-down, technocratic rage for "order and stability." After all, the "war years" of the early and late 1970s would likely have tested the best-prepared fire department. To his credit, though, Flood grounds the story of RAND, Lindsay and O’Hagan in a wealth of urban history, showing how a century of moralistic reform, urban renewal, redlining, suburbanization and deindustrialization—all of which resulted, at least in part, from similar high-handed efforts at planning the fate of cities—left neighborhoods like the South Bronx filled with deteriorating, overcrowded buildings that were tinder for the fires to come.

Flood is right to note that liberals like Lindsay had grown perilously detached from the day-to-day life of their most important constituents, working-class city dwellers. Conventional wisdom suggests that liberalism’s top-down impulses led not only to New York’s death by fire but its fiscal immolation as well. The "tax-and-spend liberalism of activist civil service unions and no-questions-asked welfare" was said to have pushed the city into bankruptcy. However, as Flood demonstrates, postwar liberalism also channeled public resources to private capital, not just "big government." Building on recent scholarship, Flood shows how New York’s fiscal crisis had multiple sources. If debts accrued by social welfare programs and corrupt municipal budgets dominated the headlines, a longer history of corporate welfare—in the form of real estate tax exemptions for office construction, subsidy programs for upscale developer-built housing and white-collar urban renewal—had fatally undermined the city’s industrial economy and its long-term tax base.

Would Flood’s subtle and telling account of liberalism’s impact on New York and its less heralded role in the fiscal crisis have benefited Ed Koch when he took office? Jonathan Soffer reminds us early on in Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City that "no mayor could solve the larger problems" of the era—particularly "the naturalization of a so-called free-market regime that was designed to camouflage the enrichment of the rich at everyone else’s expense." But Koch never sought to contest that "naturalization." Understandably, perhaps, given the economic disaster he had inherited, the mayor chose to harness free-market ideology and make it the vehicle of the city’s recovery. He spent the majority of his first two terms struggling to claw a way back from the fiscal crisis. He succeeded, but within the terms of "the new laissez-faire order" emerging all around him; the recovery was largely a solidification of the ongoing "shift in New York City’s political economy, away from a manufacturing center with a welfare-state orientation to one dominated by neoliberalism," Soffer writes. Koch presided over, and even came to personify, a sea change in New York life. During his three terms he "convinced most New Yorkers of the legitimacy of a new neoliberal order that subsidized Manhattan business development, particularly in the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors." In this light, a better title for Soffer’s book would have been Ed Koch and the Transformation of New York City.

The problem, for both Koch and the city, was that, as Soffer aptly puts it, "neoliberalism has mainly concentrated rather than created wealth." The inequality that Koch’s policies perpetuated and deepened would undermine his mayoralty. The austerity measures he implemented did end up balancing the books and restoring the city’s credit in the bond markets, but by his third term they had bred homelessness, crime, public disorder, inequality, racial upheaval, infrastructure distress, crack violence and AIDS-related public-health unrest. The mayor hoped that by righting the city’s fiscal ship and underwriting a white-collar corporate office boom, he would earn enough leverage to pursue more traditional liberal social goals. He was mistaken. As Soffer puts it, "Koch’s procorporate policies made the rich richer, even though he tried (though with less success) to avoid making the poor poorer." New York under Ed Koch came back to life, but as a different city, one where private entities like the Central Park Conservancy made decisions over public parks, real estate developers enjoyed a raft of government entitlements and Wall Street ascended to the symbolic perch from which it has only lately been dislodged.

Conventional wisdom on the left has long had it that Koch as mayor was a lapsed progressive, bewitched by the Gordon Gekko spirit of the 1980s. He had risen through the ranks of the reformist, anti-boss Village Independent Democrats and marched "down South" for civil rights. How could he betray such a legacy? Soffer, however, contends that Koch’s pragmatic liberalism owed more to an abiding skepticism of radicalism than to immediate political expediency or lust for power. Raised in the Bronx, Newark and Brooklyn, the son of a lower-middle-class striver in the fur industry, Koch learned early on to distrust what he would later call the "radical far left." He saw himself as "democratic left"—anticommunist and antifascist, pro–civil rights and civil liberties, hawkish on foreign policy, resolute in support of Israel, comfortable with capitalism. It was, Soffer rightly argues, "not a surprising attitude for someone in his class position, scion of a hardworking liberal Jewish family grasping at the lower rung of the middle class, headed by a small boss outside the self-assured solidarity of the communist-led furriers’ union." Koch, Soffer insists, "never transformed into a conservative upon becoming mayor…. His liberalism and its limits were both remarkably consistent."

The biographical point is well-taken, but it obscures the wily political animal that Soffer elsewhere sees in Koch. Perhaps the mayor did have a consistent worldview, but he was a "liberal" who found a way to support Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and endorse George W. Bush over John Kerry. Koch might argue that it wasn’t he who had changed; it was other liberals. His "moderation" and "pragmatism" were especially useful in instances where he needed to align himself with those in power and against those whose underdog status he refused to respect. Koch would play the maverick card when he needed to look tough standing up to communism or terrorism, but would assume the "liberal with sanity" role if it helped him look more reasonable than rivals from his own side, like Jesse Jackson and Bella Abzug, his fellow New York Congressional delegate in the early 1970s. Koch’s talent seems to have been to direct his longstanding suspicion of radicalism into the political channels that would best serve his aspirations.

* * *

Koch used the "reformer" label to secure a foothold in city politics in the 1960s, but courted Democratic bosses when his ambitions had outgrown the Village. He marched for civil rights but catered to the white ethnic outer-borough backlash when it was clear that railing against the welfare state was the path to citywide power. These moves made political sense, but they also led to the blowback that sank his final term. His rapprochement with outer-borough party leaders led to a series of corruption scandals, including a scourge of kickbacks, bribery and extortion in the city’s Parking Violations Bureau, whose chief was a functionary installed by Koch at the bosses’ request. The scandals jeopardized Koch’s reputation for restoring good government to City Hall, but it was his appeals to conservative white voters that left him powerless to defuse the racial strife of the 1980s.

The new mayor telegraphed his priorities in his first inaugural address. In a speech that Soffer labels "more subtle than brilliant," Koch stressed only two specific goals. Of all the issues that dogged New York in the winter of 1978—fiscal crisis, crime, drugs, housing abandonment, arson—Koch chose to call for the reform of poverty programs and the gentrification of the city’s neighborhoods. Here was the mayor’s agenda in black and white, literally. "In the past," he declared, "programs that were meant to help the needy ended up as bonanzas for the greedy." Under Koch, the community-based agencies that served working-class and poor African-Americans and Latinos would face direct mayoral control of their aid programs, while a new generation of what Koch hailed as "urban pioneers" would enjoy incentives and tax abatements to underwrite their efforts to rehabilitate run-down housing stock. This was a thinly veiled message to the outer-borough voters he had previously courted, assuring them that he would work to circumscribe perceived minority threats to their hard-won and precarious station.

In the long run, however, it was not only white, middle-class gentrifiers who enjoyed the administration’s favor. One of the few bright spots of Koch’s third term was his affordable-housing program, which used city subsidies to open the private housing market to low-income homebuyers. Community-based organizations willing to abandon the blueprint of the War on Poverty and embrace market-friendly policies received funding to rebuild stretches of burned-out neighborhoods. In the South Bronx, groups like the African-American-led Banana Kelly Improvement Association and the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes used city money to rehabilitate apartments and build new homes on blocks charred by fires a decade earlier. Despite these achievements, Koch was never able to convince blacks and Latinos that he had their best interests at heart.

His problem was personal and political. Koch never felt the need to reach out to black leaders the way he did to party regulars. Many blacks saw his attacks on poverty programs and his turn to neoliberalism as biased, concerted efforts to undermine institutions that, however corrupt or mismanaged, were their best hope for rising from the ghetto into the middle class. Most of Koch’s housing and community development policies did not bear fruit until late in his third term or after he had left Gracie Mansion, so the mayor was judged mostly on his insensitivity to the ways in which racism and segregation had limited possibilities for people of color. Like many liberals of his generation, he failed to appreciate the deeper structural inequalities still faced by blacks and Latinos after civil rights. As Soffer puts it, Koch "assumed the difficulties African Americans faced in ascending to the middle class in the 1970s and 1980s were the same difficulties that Jews had faced in the 1950s and 1960s; he discounted the considerable government assistance that he had received; and he assumed that legal changes had effectively wiped out the problem of discrimination."

These failures and blind spots left Koch ill equipped to handle the spate of racial incidents that tore apart New York in the 1980s. The mayor began the decade on the wrong foot by closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, despite its symbolic importance to the black community as the first private integrated hospital in the United States. A rash of police brutality cases—particularly the deaths of Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs—further strained frayed relations between blacks and the NYPD. Then, in 1984, a white straphanger named Bernhard Goetz opened fire with a revolver on four black teenagers who had approached him and demanded five dollars. Koch was initially outraged, announcing that "vigilantism will not be tolerated in this city," but he aggravated an inflamed situation by appearing to reverse himself, praising the grand jury’s decision to indict Goetz on gun charges rather than attempted homicide. This stab at courting white outer-borough voters in an election year made Koch vulnerable to charges that he had helped to create an atmosphere in which racist violence would be tolerated. That impression only deepened in the turbulent late 1980s, when a series of heinous events—a group of "wilding" black kids were falsely accused of raping a white woman who came to be known as the "Central Park jogger"; a young black girl in the city’s suburbs, Tawana Brawley, falsely claimed to have been raped by a group of white men; and gangs of whites attacked and brutalized blacks in Howard Beach, Queens, and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—rattled the city and reinforced the sense that New York, for all its civil rights gains and its rebound from the fiscal and urban crises of the 1970s, was fatally riven by race, inequality and resentment.

Given the tumult of the era, Soffer’s dedication to evenhandedness is remarkable, even if it sometimes leaves his account a touch bloodless. This is in part because Soffer has to confront the very same dilemma that faces the modern public executive. His narrative tacks between dutiful accounts of the details of municipal management—budgets, staffing upheaval, bureaucratic skirmishes—and the dogged tracking of each media event. Koch himself had to manage the intricate details of reviving the city while also weathering the more insistent and recurrent short-term crises kicked up by the accelerating pace of electronic press coverage. But as most New Yorkers beyond a certain age remember, Koch was never shy about inserting his boisterous ego and grinning mug into public life. He eagerly chased the news cycle and thrilled at seeing his name in the papers; he lived and died by the performances he gave at his frequent press conferences, and alternately charmed and outraged New Yorkers by mouthing off whenever the spirit took him. The "Mayatollah’s" fondness for ersatz borough-bred kitsch—his ubiquitous "How’m I doin’?" for instance—gets its due here, but Soffer is sometimes hard-pressed to bring the same verve to the page that his subject brought to the mayoralty.

Soffer rightly describes Koch as a precursor to Bill Clinton–style "third way" moderation, a pioneer of the "Democratic party version of neoliberalism." Both Soffer and Flood make it plain that New York’s tribulations in the 1970s and ’80s set the political course of the nation. Flood ends his book with a tribute to the ordinary people who survived the "war years" in the South Bronx, name-checking not only Banana Kelly but also Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. But while New York’s nightmares may have been among the irritants and enigmas that provoked the cultural revolution of hip-hop, they also suggested, however simply or incompletely, that New York’s experiment in urban liberalism was hopeless. Ed Koch internalized that lesson, and put it to work in governing New York City, ultimately legitimizing neoliberalism as a new road back to power for liberals burned by fire and fiscal crisis.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy