That's how New York was commonly described when Edward I. Koch became mayor in 1978. The blackout riots and Son of Sam killings were fresh memories, Times Square was a crossroads of porn and prostitution, and graffiti-scrawled subway trains crawled through crime-afflicted neighborhoods, if those trains weren't breaking down.
Koch decided that what the city needed was a leader with an active will and gigantic personality. Specifically, his.
You'd see him everywhere: On TV and at community meetings, astride the Brooklyn Bridge with the commuting masses during a transit strike and throwing out the first ball at Shea Stadium, to mingled cheers and boos. His nasal hectoring and pressed-forward posture became the sound and style of the city during the 12 years of his three terms in office. On his watch, the budgetary bleeding was stanched and the municipal books were balanced. And New York City began to show faint glimmers of recovery.
It describes Koch himself--at least his political persona. Whereas many elected officials exude blandness to avoid offending voters, Koch enjoyed telling people off. When asked at a mayoral press conference whether the city had a moral obligation to build housing for the homeless, Koch first disputed the benefit to be gained from the cost of such a commitment. Then he couldn't resist adding, "It boggles my mind that people can say these idiotic things. It's idiotic. IDIOTIC."
A gaffe to almost any other politician was his normal way of speaking.
In his most famous saying, Koch seemed to elide the city and himself: "How'm I doin'?!" He'd shout it at people walking down the street, as if inviting them to cheer for him, the city and themselves. Most obliged by laughing and calling back something positive. A few flipped him off, but they were outnumbered, probably, by those who flashed thumbs up.
A Bronx Boy
Koch was born in the Bronx in 1924 and grew up in Newark during The Great Depression. He saw combat as an infantryman in World War II. In 1963, he was a member of the Greenwich Village Independent Democrats when he took on power broker Carmine DeSapio in a long-shot race for district leader--and won.
A natural campaigner, Koch won a seat in Congress in 1969. He served four terms and then beat Mario Cuomo in the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary before winning Gracie Mansion.
He surprised those who thought it impossible that a downtown liberal could connect with outer borough conservatives. Koch did it by stressing law and order, as in these remarks at a swearing-in of a new police academy class in the 1980s: "I think you, the cops, you are the salt of the earth. You are the people who make it possible for civilization to continue. This is a sick society, there are a lot of lunatics out there, there are people bent on killing all of us and you're the ones who stop it."
Throw Him Off The Bridge
Lunatics, addicts and arsonists: They defined large parts of Koch's New York. The mayor battled them, and others, with gusto and aggression. Tempers flared, in particular, during the 11-day transit strike of 1980. The mayor famously walked across the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour and took sides against the Transport Workers Union. That didn't sit well with one subway worker. "The people of New York, when they find out the facts, I hope and I pray, they will turn around, pick him up bodily and throw him off the bridge," the worker told a WNYC reporter.
Koch's third term, from 1986 to 1989, was marked by scandal. His friend and ally, Queens borough president Donald Manes, was accused of extortion in arranging contracts with the city’s Parking Violations Bureau. Manes committed suicide by stabbing himself in the heart as the federal government prepared to have him indicted.
More bribery and conspiracy cases followed. Koch tried to downplay the problems at a 1986 press conference. "There's corruption," he told reporters. "There's been corruption, as I've said on so many occasions, since Adam and Eve and the two gorillas who came before them." He paused to let his display of moral reasoning sink in, before blurting, "Some of you may be corrupt!"
The mayor wasn't implicated in selling favors for personal gain, but the train of criminal charges took a toll on his administration. So did stubborn social ills like homelessness, AIDS and police brutality, especially during the Tompkins Square police riot of 1988.
At the same time, Ed Koch presided over an economic comeback while embodying a newly confident New York. Newspaper columnist Pete Hamill described him as "a combination of a Lindy's waiter, a Coney Island barker, a Catskill comedian, an irritated school principal and an eccentric uncle."
From Off-Broadway to Queensboro Bridge
Koch lost to David Dinkins in the Democratic mayoral primary of 1989. Out of office, he published, Mayor!, a best-selling book that became an Off-Broadway play, reviewed movies and even served as a judge on "The People's Court."
He never married, and often responded to questions about his presumed homosexuality with profane refusals to comment. And he never stopped politicking. At 85, Koch launched a crusade to shame Albany politicians who didn't agree to tighten ethics rules. He traveled the state urging voters to throw out the "bums" who opposed his reforms. The campaign drew widespread media coverage but fell short of Koch's goals.
In 2010, the city announced it would put Edward I. Koch's name on the Queensboro Bridge. That pleased the former mayor. “There are other bridges that are more beautiful, like the GW or the Verrazano, but this more suits my personality cause it’s a workhorse bridge," he told WNYC. "I mean, it’s always busy. It ain’t beautiful but it is durable.”
The last word on Koch goes to Koch himself, who had the foresight to write his own epitaph: "He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith, he fiercely loved the people of the city of New York and he fiercely defended the city of New York."