Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch died Friday of congestive heart failure. The 88-year-old often greeted constituents with the phrase “How’m I doin’?”—and in the two days since his death, a significant amount of kilobytes, ink and virtual chatter has been devoted to Koch’s legacy. The combative former three-term mayor has been generally credited with reversing the city’s “fiscal and infrastructure challenges” that dominated the 1970s. The former congressman served three terms until David Dinkins defeated him in the 1989 Democratic primary and became the city first—and so far, only—Black mayor.
But by the 1980s, Koch left a disturbing legacy on two key issues that have defined America: Race relations and HIV/AIDS.
“Ed Koch did a lot for the city. But his terms as mayor were marred by racial discord,” C. Virginia Fields told EBONY.com. Fields is president of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, formerly serving on the New York City Council and as Manhattan Borough President. “It started with the closure of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980.”
Sydenham was an under-used but historically important facility that was founded in 1892. It was “the first U.S. hospital to take both White and Negro physicians,” TIME magazine reported in November 1944. Koch ordered the closure despite the vocal objections of Black leadership in Harlem.
“That was a very emotional time for race relations in New York City. That set the tone for Koch’s Administration,” added Fields.
Koch “once called Blacks ‘basically anti-Semitic’ and attacked the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The former mayor “opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a city holiday because he said he was worried about the cost.”
Homelessness, crime, crack cocaine and HIV/AIDS dominated headlines across New York City and other urban areas in the 1980s. Koch presided over the earliest years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s largest city—and his legacy in that area is the most troubling. The New York Times was forced to revise its Friday obituary on Koch because “AIDS was mentioned exactly once, in a passing reference to ‘the scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS’,” reported the Huffington Post.
“Koch’s inaction during those early years was astonishing,” Raw Story’s Mike Rogers told EBONY.com. The investigative reporter is known for outing closeted anti-gay politicians such as former Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman and Sen. Larry Craig. Rogers’ work—and former Mayor Koch—was was profiled in the 2009 documentary Outrage by the Academy Award-nominated director Kirby Dick. “That’s because Ed Koch was a closeted gay man. Period. “
The mayor’s sexuality was perhaps the biggest “open secret” in New York politics during the 1980s—and The Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post , Salon and other outlets are finally acknowledging Koch’s sexuality and the impact it had on his policies. “There are so many sources on the record, there is no question,” said Rogers.
Koch’s “record on LGBT issues was mixed, and his response to AIDS, which was deplorable, has received notably short shrift,” reports Andy Humm at New York City’s Gay City News.
Not that an openly gay man “could” have been elected mayor of the nation’s largest city in 1977, said Rogers. “Just look at the ‘Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo’ signs that current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo” was accused of engineering on behalf of his father Mario Cuomo. “It’s that Koch worked against gays. Compare the [funding numbers] between New York City and San Francisco, it’s crazy.”
“By January 1984, New York City under Koch’s leadership had spent a total of just $24,500 on AIDS,” Richard Kim reported in The Nation. “That same year, San Francisco, a city one-tenth the size of New York, spent $4.3 million, a figure that grew to over $10 million annually by 1987.”
Koch was not alone in his failure to address the epidemic, as President Ronald Reagan also avoided the topic for quite some time. The HIV/AIDS virus was identified in 1982. Reagan first publicly mentioned the virus in 1985.
“The neglect of AIDS due to Ed Koch being in the closet helped us lose thousands and thousands of people at that time,” Mike Rogers told EBONY. “Koch will never be forgiven for that.”
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, and his writing has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, OUT.com, The Los Angeles Times and many others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom