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42nd Street: At the Crossroads

(Page 1: Ed Koch)

An excerpt from "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics
at the Crossroads of the World
by Marc Eliot

Book cover for Down 42nd Street How'm I doin'?"

It was one of those gorgeous January afternoons when the sidewalks of 42nd Street sparkle in the sunlight as if embedded with the dust of guaranteed genuine would-I-kid-you? diamonds. Edward Irving Koch had just embarked on a river-to-river victory walk, along the way asking passersby his signature campaign slogan, made to appear as if it were a real question by the high tone of his voice, the concerned shake of his head, the sheriff's squint in his eyes. Koch had become an expert at using exaggerated facial gestures to convey his concern for the public's welfare. That previous November he had been elected mayor of the city of New York.

He'd survived a long and difficult Democratic primary to beat no-nonsense (and no future) incumbent mayor Abe Beame and another Democrat he'd correctly perceived as his real threat, the fiery and popular favorite, Mario Cuomo. Things got more complicated when the mayoral election then unexpectedly turned into an old-fashioned four-man dog fight with Koch also finding himself up against relative unknown Republican Roy Goodman, who didn't stand a chance in the overwhelmingly Democratic city; Conservative Party talk show host Barry Farber—no way there either; and a still-unbowed Cuomo, who had somehow managed to wrest the Liberal Party nomination from both Koch and Beame to mount a ferocious, if losing, campaign in the general election.

Neither Koch, the self-proclaimed "reform Democrat" (for capital punishment, against municipal labor unions), nor Cuomo, the traditionalist (against capital punishment and for municipal labor unions), would soon forget this bitterly fought contest. Inevitably the politics of personality reduced the campaign to a single subjective-point-of-view issue: whether New Yorkers wanted to live in Koch's anything-goes, disco jam-till-dawn Joytown or Cuomo's joyless modern-day Jamestown. Koch won by convincing the voters they were better off trusting their future to his crinkled grin than Cuomo's furrowed brow. He reveled in victory, his Old World Yiddish-tinged hands held high, while his opponent smoldered with the Catholic-guilt humiliation of defeat.

A year later, Cuomo double-jumped Koch by snagging the governor's seat in Albany, a victory that resurrected his political career. The mayor appeared ready to publicly forgive if not privately forget any lingering bitterness toward the governor-elect, while Cuomo may have been willing to publicly forget, but those close to him knew he could never privately forgive the newly magnanimous mayor.

Before either left office, the simmering animosity between them would come to a boil over the single issue that most clearly represented the difference in their governing philosophies, the longstanding and problematic redemption of the west side of 42nd Street. By 1980, the city's fabled Manhattan crossroads had become ground zero for the manufacture, exhibition, and distribution of pornography, drug dealing, pedophilia, prostitution, and violent street crime. Like every major city and state politician before them, both Koch and Cuomo saw more than just urban blight on West 42nd Street. Each saw political opportunity in the ragged morality of the notorious boulevard. Each sensed the chance to create a higher national profile for himself as the moral savior of "the Deuce." And each wanted to be the star quarterback for this championship game of political football, scoring the winning touchdown while knocking the other guy's team onto the permanent sidelines.

THE PERSONAL FROST that coated the political relationship between Cuomo and Koch was not an unusual happenstance for either of these two politicians. Each had a tendency to overpersonalize his professional battles. Their styles more closely resembled two tough neighborhood boys duking it out in the school yard rather than a couple of budding suburban intellects debating in the classroom. From the earliest days of his career in public office, Koch especially had displayed a special knack for making long-term personal enemies out of political foes, broadly depicting them as bad guys and placing himself in the role of the public's defender as a way of endearing himself to the electorate. Koch's sheriff-versus-gunfighter scenario paid off in 1973 when as a party-line reformer he first came up against Mayor John Vliet Lindsay, the Republican who'd captured City Hall in 1966, a time of particularly hard racial and fiscal unrest in New York City. Lindsay had won by running on the Liberal ticket (after being soundly defeated in his own party's primaries by conservative John Marchi). Koch was still largely unknown when, after Lindsay's successful run for mayor, he won the right to temporarily represent Lindsay's so-called Silk Stocking District (which, because of the peculiar zoning of the city, included part of the elite Upper East Side of the city and much of Greenwich Village). Although Koch had supported Lindsay for mayor, Lindsay still supported the Republican nominee for permanent election to the congressional seat.

A vengeful Koch waited for the right opportunity and then made the most of it when he came out against Lindsay in the last year of his second term. He vilified the mayor over the Forest Hills Project, a low-income ("scatter site") housing development, which would have moved mostly poor black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers into a solidly middle-class, white section of Queens. Lindsay's controversial plan managed to pull back the rock from the hitherto-hidden racist anthill that existed in the upper-middle-class outer boroughs of New York in the seventies. Supporters of the plan called their opponents racists, while those who fought against it claimed it would seriously depress property values. When the long-term, mostly Jewish residents of Forest Hills formally organized in angry protest against what they labeled "slum housing," Koch stepped in as their unofficial spokesman and used the subsequent media flurry to raise his own profile among the city's prominent Jewish population (and lower the patrician Lindsay's) by accusing the mayor of pandering to the black liberal vote in the upcoming elections. By doing so, Koch created a campaign issue to position himself for his first, unsuccessful, run for City Hall. For his part, Lindsay chose a mediator to try to settle the Forest Hills situation, a little-known Queens-born-and-bred community lawyer by the name of Mario Cuomo. Cuomo was able to get everyone to agree to a modified plan that would turn one half of the projects into public housing and the other half into luxury cooperative apartments. And, although Koch's campaign lasted a total of forty-five days before he was forced to drop out for lack of funds, he still felt a measure of victory when Lindsay, due at least in part to his clumsy handling of the Queens housing controversy, lost his bid for a third term to old-line Democrat Abe Beame.

In 1974 a defeated but vindicated Koch returned to his duties as a congressman. Two years later he found his next front-page cause, the campaign to save 42nd Street's Grand Central Terminal from being torn down by real estate developers who wanted to replace it with a skyscraper. His participation in that battle, during which he was often photographed with one of the city's most revered and unassailable citizens, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, returned his name to the newspaper headlines and the lead story of the local news telecasts, making his peculiar facial expression—the one that made him look as if he were smiling and frowning at the same time—instantly recognizable to every New Yorker. This time he used his exposure to buy a first-class ticket on the express train to City Hall.

KOCH HAD THE SPRINGY STEP of success in his feet, the rhythmic stride of a winner, as he briskly walked river-to-river across the two and a half miles of 42nd Street. He began his one-man march in front of the United Nations Secretariat Building, jogged the steps up to the oddly aloof residential outpost of Tudor City, then continued west past the Chrysler, Chanin, Lincoln, and Daily News Buildings, to the majestic facade of the great Grand Central Terminal. Here on the East Side of 42nd Street, it was business as usual. The sidewalks were filled with executives wearing open overcoats, carrying attaché cases and going somewhere too fast; salesgirls wearing boots, chewing gum, and window-shopping on their lunch hour; vendors, in need of a shave and a clean shirt, hawking hot dogs with ingredients of suspicious origin; green corner kiosks selling newspapers, magazines, and panty hose; and a honking herd of cabs, cars, buses, and bikes moving slower than the pedestrians. Jammed nine to five, every night and all weekend long, like a special-effects shot from some end-of-mankind movie, this nonresidential stretch of city street would become eerily deserted.

Immediately to the west of the venerable Times Square everything changed. Whereas on the East Side, big business seemed sexy on 42nd Street, to the west, seamy sex was big business. This was where the air stank, a turgid waft of human sweat and canned Lysol that hung tough around the nostrils. Civilians' eyes on West 42nd bugged out like those on the heads of deep-fried fish, the "bookstores" sold "dirty" movies and magazines, and the peeps offered "stars" having live sex with each other "eight times a day!" Young boys, young girls, grown men dressed as women, old men dressed as young boys—all openly hustled themselves out on street corners, while drug dealers sold nickel bags and instant skin-pops in doorways without any apparent fear of a police force nowhere to be seen.

West of Seventh, Koch passed under an isosceles marquee whose flashing daytime lights and alternating horizontal tubes of blue, red, and yellow neon offered "TODAY ONLY" a triple-feature XXX movie marathon and a "NAKED AND HOT" live show. A thick blue wood arrow pointed "Right This Way" to a staircase next to the tiny glass-enclosed box office. Across the street a hooker in wedding-gown drag with a bright yellow wig and bloodred lips smiled, waved, and called out in a pleasant southern accent, "How y'all doin' there, Mr. Mayah?" Koch tucked his upper lip into his thrust jaw and looked the other way. He was nothing if not media savvy, and he slow-burned until he was sure the cameraman who'd been filming him had caught his full facial reaction. Koch knew his moral consternation transferred well to the small screen. It was his money shot, a look he could produce on cue.

"Forty-second Street and the Statue of Liberty are what tourists want to see when they come to New York City," he said as he stared with watery eyes directly into the TV camera. One reporter asked what his immigrant parents would have thought about his campaign promise to save the street, and Koch's face wrinkled into a silent billboard of distressed melancholia. His micro-veined cheeks became rounded and pale, his face a rough approximation of a plate of matzo balls as he recalled his dear mother's words. "'Sonny,'" he murmured, deliberately wistful, or wistfully deliberate, as he gazed through the camera's portable spot lamps in the direction of the past to an imagined apartment up in the Bronx where he'd lived some fifty years ago, "'that was very smart of you to save 42nd Street!'" Smothered in and dripping with tasty if greasy self-aggrandizement, this last line was not unlike a city street-corner Sabrett's with relish, mustard, and onions. It was full of fat, filler, and flavor, if notably lacking in actual food for thought. In other words, for the mayor it was the way it had always been in city politics for the last hundred years. Business as usual.

Copyright © 2001 by Rebel Road, Inc. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of

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