The myths of Mayor Ed Koch



Ed Koch
  • PATRICK J. CASHIN/Wikimedia Commons
  • Ed Koch
I'm not going to pretend that I was a big fan of the way Mayor Ed Koch ran New York City during his reign from 1977 to 1989.

But I've got to admit—that guy mesmerized me. I found him exceedingly fun to watch, even from afar.

In some ways, he reminded me of a New York version of our own Harold Washington.

He was a bombastic, combative, in-your-face, tell-you-what-he-thinks kind of mayor. Also, funny and articulate. Very much so.

"I'm the sort of person who will never get ulcers," he once told reporters. "Why? Because I say exactly what I think. I'm the sort of person who might give other people ulcers."

His press conferences were entertaining. He'd go off script to counterattack reporters when they asked tough questions. Like Mayor Washington or both Mayor Daleys with Chicago, he truly did represent the city he came from.

"I'm just this little Jewish kid from the Bronx," he said more than once.

As for how he used his power . . .

His official legacy is that he was the larger-than-life mayor who cleaned up New York City's finances. That's the myth he leaves behind—almost 24 years after he left office.

Well, I don't know. I've never studied New York City's finances. But after 30-odd years of dissecting the official myths coming out of Chicago, I've learned to be suspicious about the legacies of larger-than-life mayors.

As I recall, there was a period throughout the 90s when people heralded Mayor Daley as the fiduciary wizard who put Chicago's finances in order.

Now our schools and government are hundreds of millions in debt and we have billions of dollars of unfunded pension liabilities. And as far as many Chicagoans are concerned, Mayor Daley's greatest financial legacy is that parking meter deal.

Not exactly a myth worth remembering.

The other official myth of Mayor Daley—the one that exists to this day— is that he cleaned up Chicago. Not in terms of corruption. I don't think even Daley's most fervent supporters would say that.

It's more like he made sure that the streets and alleys were kept clean—'cause he cared so much about Chicago.

Chicagoans used to tell me this all the time. They'd be like . . .

OK, Ben, you may have a point about that TIF stuff—but, c'mon, look how clean the streets are.

Well, you might have seen nothing but relatively clean streets if you limited your view to a handful of economically flourishing neighborhoods and ignored the vacant lots growing high with weeds in, say, West Englewood.

It makes me wonder what official myths Mayor Emanuel will leave behind when he leaves town to run for president. Or whatever.

But, what the heck, if people love their mayor, they'll believe the myths. It doesn't matter if they're true.

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