Ed Koch's New York in Film

From The Warriors to Wall Street and No Wave to new money, the film-buff mayor oversaw a city transformed.


Ed Koch's New York is the New York City of my youth. I arrived in Manhattan from Southern Mexico in 1978, his first year at City Hall, and ping-ponged between that central borough and other parts of the country until my family finally resettled full-time in the city in 1988. You can read about the city Koch inherited and tried to bully into shape in an array of wonderfully detailed obituaries on the occasion of his passing. But his New York belonged to millions of others, too, and it's worth seeing also how the people of the city that never sleeps saw it and sought to represent it themselves during his three terms in office. One way to do that is to look at the movies by and about New Yorkers made when he was mayor, something the cinemaphile Koch -- a onetime Atlantic movie reviewer -- might have appreciated.

"New Yorkers were particularly proud of Mayor Koch because he was so proud of New York. Every atom in his body lived, breathed, spoke, and exuded the city. He helped save the city and, perhaps most important of all, gave it confidence when it was beginning to doubt itself, which helped pave the way for the growth and prosperity we're still experiencing today," Senator Chuck Schumer said in a statement Friday. "Every New Yorker will miss Ed Koch, and his towering presence."

Well, probably not every New Yorker. But there's no question that the narrative arc of the city was one of transformation under Mayor Koch, and that that arc is reflected in the cinema of his day. The great themes of movies about New York in the Koch era were power and the underground, art and finance, poverty and the new prosperity.

The New York of the 1970s that Koch sought to manage after his 1977 victory is the subject of some extraordinary and extraordinarily weird films, all gritty as the city itself in the era of bankruptcy, racial strife, and economic decline. If you want to know why he was hailed, you need to know what the city looked like before him. It is the subject and the backdrop of all these films -- fictions, to be sure, but not fantasies -- in which crime and corruption and the breakdown of the social order are all on display.

* 1972: Across 110th Street, a thriller about a corrupt cop and his honest deputy in drug-infested Harlem, starring a young Yaphet Kotto. Shocking to a contemporary viewer for its casual racism, the film is an of-its-era sketch of a neighborhood and its myths, which were revisited in 2008 in American Gangster.
* 1973: Serpico -- one of the great Al Pacino films, about whistle-blowing cop Frank Serpico.
* 1974: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, about a hostage crisis aboard a New York City subway train hijacked by four madmen.
* 1975: Dog Day Afternoon, another Al Pacino classic, about a failed bank heist and how a stand-off between the would-be robber and the police turned into a media sensation.
* 1976: Taxi Driver, featuring Robert DeNiro as a vigilante cab driver disgusted by crime and sleaze and a star turn by a very young Jodie Foster.

New York being New York, its fictions took many forms, some of them more experimental and less commercial than others. The best recent film I saw on the city in this period was the documentary Blank City, about No Wave film and the Cinema of Transgression in the East Village and Tribeca in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- the front-end of the Koch era. The trailer gives you a sense of the urban backdrop of the day, as well as some marvelous images of Blondie before she was a singer. It's very much worth seeing:

Koch's first term also saw The Warriors (1979), a fantasia about a gang from Coney Island trying to make it home from the Bronx after a gangland convention went awry and the rest of the city's thugs -- and police -- went on a manhunt for them.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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