During one of the first scenes in the film “Koch,” directed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Neil Barsky, an animated debate erupts between City Council members as they consider a proposal to rename the Queensboro Bridge after former Mayor Ed Koch.
While some members praise his achievements in affordable housing and balancing the city budget, others counterpointed that he was out of touch with minorities, unsympathetic and hard-headed.
In a way, the argument accurately sums up the feelings New Yorkers had about Koch, a man whose unequivocal tenacity would work for and against him throughout his three terms.
At the Central Y in Forest Hills, a special screening of the movie was shown before scores of residents as part of the Hevesi Jewish Heritage Library’s Spring Series. Many of the attendees were old enough to have remembered the Koch era and responded throughout the film with chuckles, gasps and groans.
“Koch” is by no means lenient on the man who once said that the city “belongs to me.” Exploring every peak and valley of his political career, Barsky’s film shows that whether you loved him or hated him, the man put his all into the city.
“You have to get the attention of the public,” Koch says in the film. “You have to get them to follow you and the only way to do that is to be bigger than life.”
That “bigger than life” attitude that Koch emitted got him three terms as mayor but also got him in trouble when it came to minority welfare and healthcare, most especially during the AIDS epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
With many speculating the mayor to be racist and even a closeted homosexual — to which he responds “it’s none of your [expletive] business,” activist groups would often protest at Koch events.
“Do I think Koch is racist?” Rev. Calvin Butts, who worked in Harlem during Koch’s mayorship, asked, mulling over the question before concluding, “No, I don’t think he is racist. I think he’s an opportunist, which is worse.”
Koch made the most of the negative events that occurred during what could arguably be described as the most chaotic era in New York City. He was unapologetic and, as he pointed out to black protesters who were screaming and chanting at a press event, “It doesn’t move me and it doesn’t change me.”
All the while, footage of Koch schmoozing and hobnobbing in 2010 with political titans such as current Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama and New York Gov. Cuomo — whom Koch called a schmuck for not agreeing to meet with him before his governor acceptance speech — is laced in throughout the film, showing everyone that he was just as brash and feisty as ever.
Barsky, who answered questions after the screening, said the genesis for “Koch” came to him after a special drive he took with his daughter.
“When my daughter told me she wanted to go to school to become a social worker, I said ‘Alright, if you want to be a social worker, come take a ride with me,’ and I drove her to the South Bronx,” he said. “I was driving and driving and driving, looking for the vacant buildings with the decals on them but I didn’t see any. When I grew up, cities always got worse and here, it was getting better. I wanted to know how New York City got this way.”
The vacant buildings Barsky referred to were most prominent in the 1970s when dozens of apartment buildings were abandoned or even set ablaze. Koch spearheaded a major initiative to revamp the area by turning the buildings into subsidized or affordable housing buildings.
This revamp became one of Koch’s legacies and what some suggest planted the seeds for the Giuliani administration’s aggressive approach to crime prevention.
The film was released in 100 theaters across the country in February and on the morning of the New York premiere, Koch died of heart failure.
Overall, the film was well received by the Central Y audience and critics around the country and while it may not portray the former mayor as a saint, it certainly will help viewers answer Koch’s signature catch-phrase: “How am I doin’?”
“Koch” will be available on iTunes and streamed on demand. A television release date is in the works.
The Central Y library will continue the spring series through June. Information on the series, the Hevesi Jewish Heritage Library and the Central Y is available at cqy.org.