"How'm I doin'?" he used to shout, cocksure that the crowds would reply on cue with the adulation he felt he deserved. Ed Koch was more than merely the mayor of New York City; he was the embodiment of the shining Big Apple: volatile and voluble, fast with a quip or a put-down, an ebullient practitioner of dukes-up chutzpah who liked to march at the head of every parade.
Koch rarely asks that question anymore. Midway through the third term he won in 1985 with a 76% landslide, the mayor appears battered and snappish as he struggles to maintain his uncertain hold on a turbulent and troubled city. Like Ronald Reagan, Koch is a master showman who finds that he can no longer dazzle his audience. His woes are such that when he was asked to lead a delegation this month to observe progress toward peace in Nicaragua, it offered a pleasant change from New York City.
Until recently New York was a showpiece of urban success, and Koch was credited with leading the city back from the brink of bankruptcy in the mid- 1970s to new heights of prosperity. The jobs created during his ten years as mayor led to a record 3.6 million workers in the city. Manhattan reasserted itself as the dazzling hub of finance and the arts. Even Pope John Paul II gee-whizzed that New York was the "capital of the world."
So what if critics complained that the city was increasingly crowded, dirty, overbuilt and unworkable? Koch could ignore them -- until two years ago, when disclosures of widespread corruption revealed that his administration was beset by the same complacency and cronyism that the mayor had denounced in his predecessors. Other problems festered. Black residents grew outraged at the New York City police, accusing them of the unwarranted shooting of blacks, including a 66-year-old woman killed as she was being evicted from her apartment. When three blacks were brutally assaulted by a gang of whites in Howard Beach, Queens, last December, the case became a symbol of New York's mounting racial troubles.
Then on Oct. 19 came the worst blow of all. The stock market collapsed, threatening to turn the city's golden economy to dross. Koch's miracle recovery had been built on the financial and business-service industries. Samuel Ehrenhalt, regional commissioner of labor statistics, puts the number of new jobs in the Koch era at 400,000. Openings on Wall Street more than doubled, while New York's traditional manufacturing base was allowed to fade. Now if Wall Street has caught cold, the city may come down with pneumonia. Economist Matthew Drennan of New York University's Graduate School of Public Administration projects that without a market turnaround, 28,000 jobs will be lost in the securities industry and 7,000 in banking, wiping out an equal number, 35,000, in restaurants, retailing, real estate, hotels and support services.
Koch reacted instantly to the crash by freezing the planned hiring of 5,200 new workers and postponing raises for 4,000 management jobs. As a result of his reassuring actions, the city's bond rating was upgraded last week to its highest level since the 1975 financial crisis. Investment Banker Felix Rohatyn, head of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which oversees the city's finances, praised the belt tightening as a "good first step," but warned that "New York faces the potential of a very difficult period."