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The New York of the Koch years is often romanticized, for understandable reasons. It was a bit like the Wild West of a century earlier, a seemingly lawless locale where just about anything could happen—and often did. From the East Village and the Lower East Side to Times Square and the Bronx, vast swaths of the city wallowed in near-abandonment. This created a kind of clear space for an up-from-the-streets vitality that resulted in the flowering of gay culture, hip-hop and punk. But the city Mayor Koch inherited from his predecessor, Abe Beame, was also an insolvent wreck, one whose decline Koch resolved to reverse. Although it took years after Koch’s final term for his policies to bear fruit, his administration laid the foundation for the safe, gleaming metropolis that is Gotham today.
Two nights of rioting ensued, due mainly to the cops' harsh response to protestors who had turned out to express solidarity with the squatters being evicted from the park.
Race was another flash point during the Koch years, thanks in part to the headline-grabbing deaths of several African-Americans. In 1983, a graffiti artist named Michael Stewart died in custody after being arrested by New York City Transit Police for spray-painting in the subway. A year later, a woman named Eleanor Bumpurs was killed by the police as they tried to enforce an eviction notice on her apartment. Two years after that, Michael Griffith, a young man who got into an auto accident in the all-white section of Howard Beach, Queens, was chased by a neighborhood mob onto a nearby highway, where he was struck and killed by a car. Griffith's death sparked marches like this one.
The most notorious racially-charged case of the time involved Bernhard Goetz, a white electrical engineer who shot four young black men attempting to mug him on the subway on December 22, 1984. Dubbed “the Subway Vigilante” by the press, Goetz became a symbol for some New Yorkers’ frustrations with high crime. His arrest and subsequent trial became the focus of national attention and another symbol of the city’s racial divide.
AIDS was another issue subject to the mayor’s indifference. The lack of response to the epidemic on both local and federal levels sparked the creation of such gay-activist organizations as the GMHC and ACT UP.
Courtesy of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.Hidden from public view, the West Side Piers—those rotting old structures along the Hudson River—became an assignation point for many gay men.
Smallish establishments such as Downtown Beirut, 8 B.C., the Limbo Lounge, the Cat Club and the Pyramid Club—along with larger or more established venues like the Mudd Club, Danceteria and Area—formed downtown’s cultural backbone, providing places to drink, dance and be seen.
Middle left: James White and the Blacks record cover, 1978, cover photo by Jimmy de Sana. Left top and bottom: logos from various New York City nightclubs. Top right and bottom: record cover featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus, design by J. Gorton; Lisa Rosen models in design by Edit deAk.
In the East Village, a gallery district—consisting of some 75 venues at its height—sprang into existence around 1982 to showcase the cutting-edge art of the time. It just as quickly disappeared some six years later.
New York during the Koch years wasn’t just a magnet for crazies and artists. It also attracted earnest young students and professionals. Some of them stayed, eventually remaking the city in their own image, while others moved on to bigger things.
NYC: The Koch years, 1978–1989
In memory of hizzoner, TONY looks back at the grit and glamour, decay and divisions of the city he ran.