Telling New York's Story Through the Legendary Ed Koch

A new documentary by Neil Barsky about the contentious legacy of the former New York mayor has its international debut at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week.

AP

In the opening scene of "Koch," a new feature-length documentary, a fierce debate erupts in City Hall over whether to rename the bridge that connects Manhattan and Queens after the legendary, and then still very much alive, former mayor.

Calling him “a consummate New Yorker,” a Brooklyn city council member rattles off Ed Koch’s merits: “He tells it the way it is, he calls it the way he sees it, and he knows a wacko when he sees one.”

To which another retorts: “This is a tale of two cities. Maybe that’s how he was for the white part of the city, but for the blacks, Ed Koch was our nemesis.”

More than 20 years after he left public office, there is still little consensus over the legacy of one of America’s most colorful politicians. To some, Koch was the mayor who rescued New York from near bankruptcy and turned it into the greatest city on earth. To others, he was an attention-obsessed bigot who surrounded himself with corrupt officials.

The new film by Neil Barsky will have its international debut this week at the Jerusalem Film Festival, with a sold-out screening on Friday, to be followed by another on Sunday. In an ironic twist, it opened in theaters in the United States on February 1, the day that the three-time New York City mayor died at age 88.

The film is Barsky’s first, and it grew out of his desire, he says, to chronicle the history of New York City. “I have two sons – a 22-year-old and an 18-year-old – who grew up in the city but have no idea what it was like here 25 years ago,” he explained this week while on a trip to Israel to present the film. “I decided the best way to tell the story of New York City was through a compelling figure like Koch.”

A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Daily News, Barsky, 55, had been watching Koch from the sidelines for years, but never had a chance to get to know him on the job. In 1993, he left journalism to run a hedge fund, and in 2009, retired from that career as well with the intention of moving back into journalism – fully aware, though, that the profession wasn’t what it used to be.

“I realized that the one form of journalism whose impact had increased over the years was documentary filmmaking,” he says, explaining his decision to bring his story-telling skills to this new platform.

Five minutes into their first conversation, he recounts, Koch told him “let’s do it” with no conditions attached. “That is very unusual, for a person not to make any stipulations like that, especially a public figure,” notes Barsky, who financed the film out of his own pocket.

The film relies on interviews with Koch, his former aides, political adversaries, friends, family members, and journalists who covered his tenure at City Hall. It also incorporates lots of footage of New York from its grimy, graffiti-stricken days, clearly intended to strike a contrast with its new, sleeker image. The final product is a well-balanced, superbly edited profile of a man described in the film by one of his longtime adversaries, the Reverend Calvin Butts, as “a guy who really represented the rough and tumble of New York, and he was just haunted and damned by one helluva personality.”

Koch, who served as New York City mayor from 1978 to 1989, lived long enough to attend the world premiere of the film at the Hamptons International Film Festival. It has since played at more than 100 theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

What struck him after spending all that time with his subject, says Barsky, was that "here was a man who had led the most public life imaginable, but at the end of each day, he went home alone.”

That was not the only contradiction he embodied. Considered quite hawkish on foreign affairs and social issues, Koch began his New York life in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s among a group of radical reformers. The man who would later be seen as the bane of New York’s black community – primarily for closing down the main hospital in Harlem, a decision he said he later regretted – took three trips down to Mississippi in the early 1960s, as the film reveals, to help mobilize black voters. No less confounding, this ferociously proud Jew and supporter of Israel would later insist on being buried in a Protestant cemetery.

Rudolph "Rudy" Giuliani is the mayor most often credited with cleaning up New York and turning it into a much safer city. But in Barsky’s view, that’s not really fair, and part of his mission in this film is to set the record straight. “The seeds were planted with Koch,” he notes. “He put $5 billion into rebuilding the Bronx.”

Koch lost his fourth election in 1989 to David Dinkins, who would become New York City’s first black mayor. The defeat came not long after a black teen was killed by a white mob. In Barsky’s mind, it was Koch’s inability to express empathy after incidents such as these that eventually led to his downfall. “He couldn’t really connect with the suffering of others,” he muses. “He was like many of those old immigrants who’d say, ‘We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps – why can’t you?’”

Koch wasn’t particularly beloved among gays either, many of whom were convinced he could have done more to help them during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and many of whom believed he didn’t because he was a closet homosexual trying to distance himself from them.

To his last dying day, Koch remained mum on the subject of his sexual orientation – something that has intrigued his fellow New Yorkers for decades. When Barsky comes right out and pops the question, the former mayor once again declines to comment. And what does the filmmaker think after spending all that time with him? “I do not know definitely one way or another,” he says. “But there’s a high probability that he was.”

Eric Etheridge