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Former Mayor Ed Koch Dies at 88

By  Jill Colvin Trevor Kapp and Aidan Gardiner | February 1, 2013 6:44am | Updated on February 1, 2013 3:55pm

NEW YORK CITY — Ed Koch, the former mayor who helped rescue New York City from the financial brink, died Friday morning, hours after being admitted to intensive care. He was 88.

Koch, a three-term mayor from 1977 to 1989, whose time in City Hall was marked by promise but also marred by racial tension, scandal and the AIDS and crack epidemics, died at roughly 2 a.m. from congestive heart failure, his longtime spokesman, George Arzt, said.

Known for his signature "How'm I doin'?" catchphrase, Koch was a constant fixture in the city's political scene, and a symbol of the city itself. He went on to become an elder statesman, giving his no-nonsense commentary on everything from his successors' failures to the latest movie.

 August 21, 1978: Mayor Koch gives City Key to Dolly Parton on the steps of City Hall
August 21, 1978: Mayor Koch gives City Key to Dolly Parton on the steps of City Hall
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New York City Municipal Archives

The 59th Street Bridge was renamed in his honor in 2011.

"It's a workhorse bridge," Koch told the New York Times at the time. "And that's what I am, I'm a workhorse. Always have been. I feel very compatible with it."

Koch had been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks, and was admitted to New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center Monday to treat a fluid buildup in his lungs that was causing a shortness of breath. His condition worsened Thursday and he was moved to the intensive care unit.

His funeral will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side. There will be a shiva for him at Gracie Mansion the following day.

He has a sister and extended family in California.

The news sparked an outpouring of condolences from friends and officials across the city Friday.

“He was a civic savior for our city in desperate times,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday during an event commemorating Grand Central Terminal’s centennial. “When we were down, Ed Koch picked us up. When we were worried, he gave us confidence. When someone needed a good stick in the rear, he gave it to them. And you remember, he enjoyed it.

“He’s the caricature of what New Yorkers are supposed to be: loud and brash,” Bloomberg added.

The New York icon was born in the Bronx in 1924, but his family moved to Newark, where he spent most of his early years. Then in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army, where he served as a sergeant during World War II and in post-war Germany.

A Democrat, Koch began his political career as a City Councilman before becoming a Congressman in 1969, then mayor nine years later. He is credited with helping pull New York from the brink of economic collapse during his tenure at City Hall.

Koch governed New York City with a brash candor that often sparked controversy, but ultimately won him respect, even among his political adversaries.

"My first arrest was leading a sit-in on him about summer jobs for youth in 1978," said the Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement, adding that the two later put aside their differences to partner on a campaign to give fresh starts to non-violent offenders.

"He was never a phony or a hypocrite," Sharpton added. "He would not patronize or deceive you. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He fought for what he believed."

Koch threw himself into the crowded field of mayoral candidates in 1977, ultimately beating out contender Mario Cuomo after drawn-out and sometimes vicious campaign.

During his first term, Koch brought New York back from the brink of financial ruin by slashing spending, battled unions, and restoring the city’s credit rating, which helped secure him a second term.

His first term was more tumultuous, first rocked by a corruption scandal in the Parking Violations Bureau that involved several Koch allies

And as the then-mysterious AIDS epidemic began to claim the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, gay activists railed against Koch for his perceived inaction, igniting a grudge that he couldn’t shake until he died.

His third term was also marred by bitter racial tension that erupted in several high-profile crimes. In 1984, a white police officer enforcing a city-issued eviction order shot and killed Eleanor Bumpurs in her Bronx apartment. Two years later, a group of white men hurled racial slurs at Michael Griffith and chased him onto a roadway in Howard Beach, where he was struck by a car and killed.

And six weeks before the 1989 mayoral election, during which Koch was trying to fend off David Dinkins, a mob of white teenagers attacked Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, brutally beating him and eventually shooting him to death.

Dinkins routed Koch to become New York’s first, and so far only, black mayor. Many attributed Koch’s loss to Hawkins’ murder.

“I was defeated because of longevity, not because Yusef Hawkins was murdered six weeks before the election — although that was a factor,” Koch said in the 1998 New York Magazine story. “People get tired of you.”

After serving as mayor, Koch worked as a professor, lawyer, radio host and commentator. He appeared as a judge on "The People's Court" and even hosted an online movie review show. Until his recent illness, he appeared regularly on television as one of NY1's "Wiseguys" and continued to write movie reviews and political commentaries.

 Former New York Mayors Ed Koch (R) and David Dinkins look on before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivers his annual State of the City address at Morris High School Campus on January 12, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Education reform was a significant part of Bloomberg's address.
Former New York Mayors Ed Koch (R) and David Dinkins look on before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivers his annual State of the City address at Morris High School Campus on January 12, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Education reform was a significant part of Bloomberg's address.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

"No New Yorker has — or likely ever will — voice their love for New York City in such a passionate and outspoken manner than Ed Koch," Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, fought a bitter mayoral campaign against Koch in 1977, said in a statement.

"Many times in my life I have turned to Ed Koch for his advice and guidance," Cuomo added. "Just yesterday I spoke with the mayor to wish him courage and strength, and let him know he was on all of our thoughts and prayers."

Israel Abramov, 75, who lives in the same Greenwich Village apartment building as Koch, remembered his neighbor fondly.

''He was someone who was always willing to listen," Abramov said. "He was not aloof and not someone who thought he was better than the rest of the world.''

But Koch left some less-than complimentary words Cuomo's father, Mario, whose 1977 campaign was marred by a series of posters that told voters, "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo." Koch's sexuality has long been a source of speculation that Koch adamantly refused to address.

In a video interview with the New York Times, conducted in 2007 and released Friday, Koch said he was "shocked" by the incident, which soured their relationship until that day.

"We get along and we got along as mayor and governor. But I always held it against him. I also held it against his son, Andy Cuomo," he said. "Even though social relationships, when we meet in public are good, underneath, he knows I know what I'm really thinking: 'You prick.'"

In the video, Koch also had criticism for his successors. He said David Dinkins was a "nice man," but "not a good mayor," thanks to his handling of the Crown Heights Riot.

Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, "was a very good mayor. But he was not a very good person. He was mean-spirited," Koch said in the video. "Blacks and Hispanics felt he was a racist. And they would complain to me, 'He's a racist,' I said, absolutely not, Rudy is not a racist. He is mean to everybody."

The only one to escape the wrath was Bloomberg, whom he described as "superb."

"[He] was able to bring racial harmony to this town. There is no racial unrest in this town. None," he said.

Koch's life is the subject a new documentary, "Koch," which premiered Tuesday night at the Museum of Modern Art, attracting a who's-who of New York media and politics. He was unable to attend the screening.

The film is due for wide release Friday.

"And of course," Bloomberg joked at a Friday press event, "[Koch had the good sense] to exit the stage just in time to maximize interest and ticket sales in the new documentary about him."

Koch recalled that one of his favorite moments as mayor was when, during a 1980 transit strike, he encouraged commuters to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. 

“I began to yell, 'Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We're not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!' And people began to applaud,” he said during a 2012 forum, according to the Associated Press.

Koch will be buried at the nondenominational Trinity Church cemetery, the only operational cemetery in Manhattan, and his headstone is already there.

He told The New York Times he wanted to be buried there so he would never leave Manhattan.

"The idea of leaving Manhattan permanently irritates me," he told the paper.