Former Mayor Edward I. Koch visited NYU Wagner on October 14, 2010, for an informative and engaging hour of discussion about his eventful years at City Hall -- years that generated a remarkable turnaround in the condition and character of New York City, visible to this day. Joining Koch was Jonathan Soffer, NYU Polytechnic Institute associate professor of history and author of the critically acclaimed new biography Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City (Columbia University Press, 2010),
More than 150 people, including many former senior officials of the Koch administration, listened as the distinguished public leader described several watershed moments involving his dealings with fiscal policy, striking unions, the private sector, HIV/AIDS, and the homeless.
Has the city been left too dependent on its finance, real estate and insurance industries, asked moderator Rob Polner, public affairs director at Wagner? No, Koch replied emphatically. He noted, as did Soffer, that while he actively encouraged private development in real estate, and makes no apologies for it, he also took advantage of growth in the city's tax base to provide social services.
"Private sector money doesn't build housing for poor people - it doesn't pay," Koch said. "That's the job of government and, regrettably, city government, because the federal government got out of the business of doing it."
One of the most prominent examples of Koch's enduring imprint on urban America was his administration's construction of 252,000 affordable housing units in the arson- and poverty-devastated South Bronx. The monumental, successful project was financed solely through the sale of previously shunned New York City general-obligation bonds.
In part because of such programs, Soffer said he views Mayor Koch not as a conservative -- as some have sought to characterize him -- but as a liberal leader, as "he basically believes in using government for public purposes." Piped up Koch: "I am a liberal -- with sanity!"
"Now when you say, 'Oh, you don't want to depend on development' -- well, that's what New York City's all about!" Koch declared. "In Pittsburgh it was steel. In some other town, it's coal -- whatever it is they have that's available. With us [New York], it's because everyone wants to live here."
Koch said a career devoted to public service is beyond compare -- something that he and hundreds of his former appointees have found true. Most have gone on to senior-level positions, representing all sectors.
"Public service," Koch said, "is the noblest of professions if it's done honorably, if it's done right...It's an aphrodisiac, in a way. Once you've done it, there's nothing comparable."
The former mayor was welcomed by Wagner dean Ellen Schall, and Dianne Rekow, Polytechnic Institute provost and NYU senior vice provost for science and technology.