Citizen Koch: An Autobiography by Edward I. Koch St. Martin's Press 281 pages $22.95
Native New Yorkers have one thing in common -- the old ethnic neighborhood.
In the City of New York, Poles, Jews, Hispanics, Orientals, Irish, Italians, and Germans blend with the cosmopolitan environment when working in Manhattan.
But when they return at day's end to the neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Jackson Heights, Flushing, Woodside, Bay Ridge, and Ridgewood, they return to a way of life consistent with their cultural heritage.
As youths in those neighborhoods, we were parochial and protective of a turf that was often nothing more than a piece of cement sidewalk or a stoop. There was stickball, punchball, boxball, and scooters made of wooden milk crates.
The most athletic would boast how many sewers they could punch their "Spalding" rubber ball (translation: sewer manhole covers are about 75 feet apart, so a ball hit two sewers traveled about 150 feet). Growing up in the neighborhood also meant being instilled with the virtues of family, education, discipline, hard work, and loyalty.
Regrettably, people from the Main Street towns of Ohio or Indiana or North Carolina, who emigrate to New York, can't grasp the significance of the ethnic neighborhood or how its citizenry operates. Many of them wrongly view it as a breeding ground for racism, narrow-mindedness, and rudeness.
They just don't get it. They don't understand that neighborhoods are self-contained life centers that promote an environment that protects traditional values and repulses state domination of human behavior.
If there's one man in New York who baffles these out-of-towners, it's Edward I. Koch. And his revealing new book "Citizen Koch: An Authobiography" will confound and enrage this crowd.
Ed Koch is truly a product of the old neighborhood, Born to Polish immigrants who escaped religious persecution, Mr. Koch summed up his Bronx youth these words: "As a boy ...everyone in the neighborhood was Jewish. The section of the park where we played was entirely Jewish ...It was more than a religion, it was a way of looking at the world. It invested me with an unshakable sense of who I was."
This world view was similar to that of most neighborhood kids who endured monetary poverty, but thanks to their surroundings, never acquired the behavioral traits that are evident in New York's underclass.
Koch's education at the "poor man's Harvard" -- City College of New York -- was interrupted by the Second World War. After seeing combat in Europe, Sergeant Koch entered New York University Law School, passed the bar exam on the second try, and took a $15-a-week job with a small firm on Park Row in Manhattan.
Bored with legal research and anxious to be a trial lawyer, Koch decided to fend for himself. He put up a shingle, moved into Manhattan, and became what urbanologist James Q. Wilson called an "Amateur Democrat" -- an active member of New York's reform movement.
In 1962 he took on the last tiger of Tammany Hall -- Carmine DeSapio. Boss DeSapio, whose home political base encompassed Little Italy and Greenwich Village, was in the 1950s romanced by respectable political leaders that included Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, and Robert Wagner. By the early 1960s, however, the machine's power was fading and Koch took the plunge.
His 41-vote victory was short-lived -- it was tossed out by the counts. In the rematch, Mr. Koch beat Mr. DeSapio by 164 votes. And in their third match, the old Tammany sachem finally threw in the towel when he lost by over 500 votes.
As district leader, Koch broke with his party in 1965 when he endorsed Republican liberal John Lindsay for mayor. (Yes, he later regretted the decision). In 1966, he was elected to a traditionally Republican city council spot, and in 1968 he took over Lindsay's old "Silk Stocking" congressional seat.
Representing one of the most left-wing districts in the city, Koch voted for his share of wacky federal programs. (Later realizing the error of his ways, he would refer to himself as "Mayor Culpa.") But he gained citywide exposure in 1971 when, defending the concept of the neighborhood, he opposed low-in-come housing projects in Forest Hills.
Looking back on the controversy, he writes, "I firmly believed that we should not destroy our middle-class communities, black or white, for any reason. They were all precious ... People work all their lives to get out of poverty and the problems that go with it. I don't think there was anything wrong, or contradictory, about my position."
By 1977, homesickness and his belief that he could save New York from bankruptcy pushed Koch to seek the mayoralty. Running with the slogan "After eight years of charisma [John Lindsay] and four years of the clubhouse [Abe Beame], why not try competence," Koch took on the establishment, Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug, and won the first of three terms.
In his first inaugural address, Mayor Koch echoed the view of millions who grew up in our neighborhoods: "New York is a stroke of genius. From its early days this has been a lifeboat for the homeless, a larder for the hungry, a living library for the intellectually starved, a refuge not only for the oppressed, but also for the creative. New York is, and has been, the most open in the world. That is its greatness. And that is why, in large part, it faces monumental problems today."
Mr. Koch's great success in turning around the city's finances is detailed in his previous books "Mayor" and "Politics." As in those earlier volumes, the mayor is not shy about sharing his thoughts on prominent individuals.
About John Lindsay, he says, "After I became mayor, I tortured him at every opportunity. He deserved it."
Mario Cuomo -- "Hearing him is like listening to a Japanese haiku: inexplicable, sounds wonderful, and yet without substance."
Dan Quayle -- "I maintain [he's] certainly better qualified for the vice presidential nod than Ferraro ever was. I like Quayle, and I think he's gotten a bum rap from the press."
Donald Trump -- "What a supreme egotistical light weight!"
Rudolph Giuliani -- "Inspector Javert ... He's the man for whom the end always justifies the means."
Ed Koch's most revealing reflections concern the Donald Manes-Parking Violations Bureau scandal that almost wrecked his third term. Queens Borough President Manes, Bronx boss Stanley Friedman, and Cuomo crony Michael Dowd scammed the city into awarding valuable collection contracts to their asset-less company, Citisource.
The media, smelling blood, unjustly ravaged the mayor. Since the crimes were committed during his tenure, Mr. Koch accepted full political responsibility. But this was not enough for his vicious critics. They wanted him to grovel and resign. Mr. Koch was truly shook up, he even contemplated suicide.
"My integrity was the most important thing to me," he writes. "My good name meant more to me than anything else I had, I couldn't stand the thought that the people of New York City had turned on me, that when I stepped out into a crowd there would be those who thought I was a crook. It was unbearable. I never minded if people disliked me for the positions I took or for the things I said, but I simply could not accept that people might think I was dishonest."
In the end, Manes killed himself, Dowd turned state's evidence, and Friedman went to jail. And according to the U.S. attorney's office, there was never "a single shred of evidence or suggestion that Mayor Koch knew of crimes that were being committed by several of the Democratic leaders and the borough presidents."
Koch fought valiantly for a fourth term, but he could not stop the onslaught of the liberal and media establishment. On Sept. 12, 1989, David Dinkins beat Ed Koch in the Democratic primary by 50% to 42%.
During his 12 years as mayor, Ed Koch never lost the instincts of the neighborhood kid. Like many native New Yorkers, he was sometimes outrageous, brash, and outspoken, but he was always frightfully honest.
Edward I. Koch is the quintessential New Yorker, and one can only hope that in his new career as a radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and television news commentator, he continues to cajole the city he loves.