The pope of Kingsbridge
Famously, in 1982, Mayor Ed Koch told an interviewer from Playboy: "‘Have you ever lived in the suburbs? ... It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life, and people do not wish to waste their lives once they’ve seen New York! ... This rural American thing — I’m telling you, it’s a joke."
Today, we can recognize all that for what it was: well-meaning bluster. New York City in 1982, despite the narrative we repeat now that has the city reaching its nadir in the 1970s and slowly clawing its way back out of destitution, depression and discord, did not feel like a city on the rise. At least it didn't to me and my family, not at the time.
1982 was the year my family finally said goodbye to the Bronx. In the ten years I'd lived to that point, I knew little outside the Kingsbridge section of the borough, stretching from Jerome Avenue at Kingsbridge Road at the eastern extremity to Broadway and Marble Hill to the West. Our building was not far from the Armory that has recently been the subject of controversial revitalization projects. (It still amazes me that a world-class ice palace is slated for the old neighborhood.) Riding the elevated IRT down from the Kingsbridge Road station we'd pass Burnside Avenue, and my young mind made the mistake of thinking the avenue had been named for all the blackened, burned-out buildings you could see from the 4 train.
My blinders pretty much obscured the possibility that there was a New York City in which people ate fancy dinners or went out to nightclubs or worked on amazing art projects or inventing hip hop or whatever, as I now know they were doing. To my mind, New York City was a trap. The lucky ones got out, and the unlucky ones got stuck.
Of course, I also loved my neighborhood. I think most kids do. I liked the pizza guys, and the guy behind the counter at the butcher. The old guy who ran the toy store helped me pick out a Matchbox car every Friday. I liked playing a version of baseball we invented that could be played in the narrow space between cars in a small parking lot around the corner. I liked the local playground, though no kids went there unsupervised, ever. And I liked school.
But I imagined without much intervention or explanation from my elders and betters that we were simply stuck. I had been the fourth generation of McGeverans to live in the neighborhood, and my immediate family was the last, by some two decades now. I did not have a single relation left in the city. To visit cousins in New Jersey on a Saturday morning, all six of us clambered aboard the seldom heated or air-conditioned Broadway Bus to the Washington Heights Port Authority terminal and took a 40-minute bus ride west. Past the wasteland immediately after the bridge were the run-down areas, the industrial parks and the giant malls, which slowly gave way to row houses, then detached houses on larger lots, and finally to the old-growth-tree laden boulevards and avenues of Bergen County. The whole time I was resting my upper jaw over the weird grip-shaped window opener, cool unaccustomed air-conditioner air shooting up into my gums, as I imagined an alternate universe in which my family lived in each of these houses we sped by.
This, I thought, is where people are meant to live. People weren't supposed to live like we did, crammed into a two-bedroom apartment in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood in the Bronx, where my family had already been robbed clean (they used a moving van and removed every stick of furniture, everything) and where me, my siblings and friends carried around five-dollar bills, a twisted form of "mad money" to satiate and deflect addicts and bullies who robbed kids to fund their habits or for thrills.
It's strange to me in retrospect that I had the experience as a young child of watching my brother go through books of mugshots with cops in our living room after one mugging. (They took his sneakers and a digital watch.) It's also strange to think of the time one of the nuns who lived in the convent attached to my school, Our Lady of Angels (now scheduled by the archdiocese for shuttering), was raped and murdered on the steps of the building, which was the center of our lives in the neighborhood.
On television sitcoms, the suburbs were where people lived that you identified with; the people who lived in places like mine were the subject of Norman Lear crusades, targets for condescension in the best of circumstances, or the butt of some giant, cosmic American joke in the worst. If the suburbs were a way to waste your life, life in the city must have been dirt cheap.
I'd like to say that, given it to do over again, my family would have stuck around. But we were caught in the dynamic I thought was the only thing that kept a population going in New York: No savings with which to buy a home or a car, no skills that were of use outside the commercial precincts of Manhattan. My mom had been a college professor but was at home with the four of us while my father worked as a reference editor, at first an editorial assistant at Columbia Encyclopedia and later for Colliers. So what, exactly, would have been the plan to relocate?
But I wasn't too old before we were getting dragged on endless treks to other neighborhoods, looking for something, anything, we might be able to afford. We wandered around Riverdale and Inwood and Co-op City and who knows where else. We looked at an apartment in a two-family house that we could afford, but the landlord said we wouldn't be allowed to have other kids over so it was a no. We very nearly bought a shell of a seven-bedroom house that was so cheap just because it was on my block where there were no houses and nobody wanted to buy; the idea was that at least we could build equity if we were going to live here, and improve our chances of making it out later.
While we stayed, we witnessed white flight firsthand. One by one, the Irish kids in my Catholic grammar school were picking up and moving off, following a migration path that had been opened up for them by others in the neighborhood, mostly it seemed to the town of Pearl River. Rent control had the odd effect in my neighborhood of creating de facto segregation in the neighborhood, one building to the next. Nobody wanted to leave their cheap apartments behind, but in one building a few apartments would turn over to younger Puerto Rican families, many of whom became my friends at O.L.A., and soon the rest of the white folks in the building would scatter away. My building was a holdout, dominated by old Jewish couples and younger Irish and Irish-American and other white ethnic families, and stayed that way for almost all of my time in the Bronx. It was an anomaly, and it stood out in the neighborhood by the end.
The household deities of our apartment at 2685 University Avenue, by 1982, were Ed Koch, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. None of them were loved unconditionally, but in a harsh culture household deities are heeded, closely watched and propitiated; not loved.
In my parish, you could feel however you wanted about church doctrine or Nicaragua or oil, but the situation for us in New York City was the immediate one, the one that mattered, and so Ed Koch was the chief god of the three. Without an effective policy on crime and policing, on housing and transportation, on homelessness and poverty, our day-to-day lives weren't tenable.
We'd had our fourth mugging when word came to us that we'd been accepted off a wait list to move to a four-bedroom apartment on Roosevelt Island, and we moved on July 1, 1982. I remember everyone coming out of the building to wave us off, Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. O'Connor in tears as the van drove away.
The new neighborhood was a completely different New York. That first summer there were free tennis lessons, on clay courts. We were given bicycles, and allowed out of the house to ride them wherever we wanted. We swam in an Olympic-regulation indoor pool, with free instruction that allowed me to develop strokes that would earn me real money as a lifeguard in high school. We made friends in the school, from every continent, every socioeconomic background, every weirdness you could imagine. None of these things cost us money really; they were simply the advantages of living someplace else, someplace better served, someplace that was well-represented, that wasn't being forgotten.
It was around this time that, according to his own assessment, Koch was beginning to succeed in the underlying mission, to give New Yorkers back their self-respect. I suppose I stopped being jealous of the suburbs. I was 10 now anyway, and the city's attractions were starting to make sense to me in a way they hadn't before. I wonder now if that really did happen in Kingsbridge, after we left. I know we became die-hard New Yorkers. But we had to get a piece of what Koch was talking about, and that took years, and persistence, and a bunch of luck.
I try to remember that now, and use it to temper my immediate negative reaction to so many of the "improvements" wrought in the intervening years of prosperity in New York: more tourists, Times Square, gentrification, the ascendancy of national chains in the city, new stadiums. But I also try to temper my enthusiasm for the projects I do love, like the High Line and the smoking laws and the improvement in coffee quality and for the city in general, by reminding myself that whether the city's going up or down, the goods and the bads are never doled out evenly. For everyone who finds life in New York City to be some kind of wonderland, there are ten who are living moment to moment, broke, or scared, or angry, or hungry, or bored to death.
Ed Koch might have been the former representative of the Silk Stocking district, a Greenwich Village liberal who once strummed folksy guitar melodies in Washington Square Park, but that was an interlude. He was from the Bronx, as he liked to remind us. His family suffered setbacks—they were forced to move in with an uncle when he was a kid—before his family found enough money to move into nicer accommodations in Brooklyn. The war allowed the college dropout to make good, as it had so many others of his generation.
Koch is said to have left his radicalism behind him when he ran for City Council. He says he never was a radical. It's as much as anything else a question of semantics and labels and personal style. But it's unsurprising to me that the constituency of striving ethnic middle-class whites from the boroughs was his base. These were the people who were being cheated out of their lives by the downward-spiralling city, but had enough hope and sense of entitlement left to be angry about it. I don't think everyone else in my Bronx neighborhood felt that way. We were susceptible to hope—both my parents had been to college and taken academic degrees in graduate school after all—and therefore to extreme class anger. How could we have been forgotten like this?
In 1990, just after Koch had lost the election, I was a senior in high school and we were allowed to give up classes for the last four months to volunteer at an approved service organization full time. I and a couple of my friends went to work for the Coalition for the Homeless. There were direct services the organization provided at that time, and we were involved also in a project that allowed New Yorkers to donate their penny jars to worthy charities, which showed early success and became much bigger later.
But the place was also an activist organization. Above my boss' desk was a giant picture of Cardinal John O'Connor, with some kind of epithet on it, I'm not sure I remember what. I was asked by a boss how many kids were in my family, and when I said "four," was asked if my parents intended to keep going. The three Catholic high school boys that we were sort of navigated our way gingerly around all this. I think this is an encapsulation of the gulf between style and substance in politics: I'm quite sure all three of us, especially at that age, were latent radicals if not left-wing liberals. If you want to get something done, you can't haggle over these things. But we did know that this was somehow not our bunch.
One day, we were asked to accompany some of the staffers to a protest at City Hall, against Mayor David Dinkins. It's popularly believed that Dinkins got in because Koch's inaction on AIDS and mounting racial tension had finally overtaken his reputation for being a conciliator and pep-rally leader, but that's probably too reductive an explanation; there was a lot going wrong for Koch by his third term, and the Democratic Party was ready for someone new.
We were in the gallery while a budget proposal was to be discussed by the Council. We were seated there in the gallery, and I remember being dumbfounded when testimony began; behind the rows of seats occupied by the council members, two double doors opened, and the smell of coffee wafted out, a table of donuts visible inside from my angle, as I remember it. Most of the members quietly filed back into that room as the testimony continued.
We were just about to unfurl our hidden banner—"DINKINS CUTS MEAN PENNIES FOR THE HOMELESS"—and in perhaps the most risky part of the maneuver, we were meant to hurl pennies at the Council. But it didn't happen: One of our superiors whispered to us that it wasn't gonna happen. There'd been a mess-up: ACT UP was here, and they were about to unfurl their own flash protest. There had been a calendar mix-up.
As one by one the ACT UP people began standing up to testify, pandemonium broke out briefly as police began escorting them out. With nothing to lose, we unfurled our banner and tried to shout above the fray, but were led out too. It was a pretty brief intervention.
I remember thinking even at the time, wasn't Dinkins supposed to be the guy we liked? Hadn't Koch been the problem?
I suppose I am a part of the elitist media now, a coastal liberal. I don't live like I used to any more than Koch lived his recent days like the son of an immigrant in Brooklyn. That world is gone, for me, as it was for him. But his death is an occasion to remember it just a little more clearly.
In truth, I think, the mayor probably isn't much more than a hand on the steering wheel. And the most hardened advocates, even if they were happy to see Koch go, were not trained by his mayoralty to view the next guy as one very likely to give us what we were asking for. Koch may never have been a cynic, but I'm not sure it's right to credit him with reversing the cynicism of the public about the merits of their government.
Not to say that was a failing, exactly. There are great mayors, sure, but the great churning ocean meeting the captain at the prow—war, banking policy, union squabbles, immigration, the changing workplace, the changing value system—is very, very strong. I think it's possible that the fact that I'm still here, after grumbling through three mayoralties after Koch's, and that my parents and two of my siblings and their families still live here, might be proof that something worked, for us, at least. I'll grumble through the next one too.
The first step in loving New York City is, after all, saying you do. You hope it comes true, someday. The great politicians aren't just the ones who say it over and over, but the ones who do something to make it so. That, at least, Koch did try—very hard, I think—to do.