I wrote here about Ed Koch on the day he died. That was also the day that the documentary film about him by Neil Barsky was released in theaters. I missed it there, but caught it in DVD. You should consider seeing it too, and not only if you are interested in Koch. In capturing Koch–which the film does well–Barsky also captures something of the City in that important period from the late 1970s to late 198os, a decade in which the City turned numerous corners.
Like the City he served, Koch contained multitudes. As Barsky points out in the notes to the DVD release:
He was funny and he could be a bully; he was charming and also narcissistic. He had a much-speculated-upon private life which he didn’t mind being asked about as long as you didn’t mind being told it was none of your business. He was a man continually surrounded by friends and admirers, and he was a man who for his entire adult life went home alone.
These contradictions are all on display in the film. Granted, Koch was such an exhibitionist that it probably doesn’t take that much to capture his oddities on film. You can do that by turning on the camera, for the most part. But Barsky, despite his admitted rookie status as a director, does a nice job at highlighting the distinctive Koch schtick. And he does it quite gracefully, an approach that I liked. Sometimes equanimity is the right response to its opposite number.
At one point, he asks the gay question nicely but directly, and indeed Koch answers it directly, too, nonplussed and in-your-face at the same time: “none of your business”, delivered with a broad smile.
Barsky also follows Koch to an election party for Andrew Cuomo, the newly elected governor and a long-time nemesis. There he mixes it up with relish, as he loved to do. But at the end of the evening, the camera follows him walking home alone. Andrew’s victory speech is in the audio track, and we hear him delivering a loving tribute to his father–family has always been the Cuomo trademark. Meanwhile, as the tribute to family goes on in the audio track, we see the frail Koch hobbling by himself down a nondescript hall to his small apartment, where he disappears behind the door. It’s as poignant a moment as you are likely to get in a film about Ed Koch.
If you get the DVD, be sure to see the accompanying feature entitled Witnesses NYC. In it, Barsky intersperses interviews with a number of New Yorkers recalling the 1970s and 1980s with film scenes of the era. Barsky interviews a graffiti artist discussing the serious, big-time tagging of subway cars. He talks to a drug dealer remembering the good old days of lax enforcement and easy money. He hears from a Wall Streeter what life was like during the 1987 crash, and a firefighter about what it was like to see the South Bronx burn. And so forth.
It is an amazing set of tales. We are used to books like Lost New York or websites like Forgotten New York that tend to focus on how the city has changed physically. And a lot of these physical changes took place quite some time ago, imparting a black-and-white photograph feel to such nostalgic exercises. Yet here, in Barsky’s short documentary, we are faced with the fact that while New York’s physical face has not changed all that dramatically since the late 1980s–the Lower East Side is still made up of the original tenement structures–the social, political and cultural changes have been enormous. It is strange to have a tale of a lost world recounted to you by people in their forties and fifties.
I lived in New York over most of this period. I was a yuppie wannabe with a tiny place on Columbus and 69th. This was the era where every week on the Upper West Side a Chinese laundry closed and a Japanese restaurant opened. I lived above a Japanese restaurant, and could literally have thrown a brick through the windows of two others from the window of my place. The neighborhood storefronts were changing like so many dominos.
Several decades on, I find myself riding my Citibike through the Lower East Side, reflecting on what’s been gained and what’s been lost in living every decade. I keep trying to put my finger on what I am feeling as I tootle around on streets that used to be crammed with the poor looking for cheap clothes, and that are now crammed with young artists, would-be artists, professionals and would-be professionals. It’s amazing how safe it all feels now. Or is it?
Then I remembered my response to Woodstock, when I was at the festival. I remember thinking that there was nothing at all special about a half a million people getting along. After all, I thought, most of the kids here are just like me: nice, middle-class kids from good families, trained to be polite and cooperative. Why would they not get along?
Lower Manhattan has been Woodstocked by a younger generation of good kids. Such is progress. See Witnesses NYC for a sense of how it was different just blink of an eye ago.