Born in the borough he helped rebuild after the fires and destruction of the Seventies, former Mayor Ed Koch was remembered last week by a number of leading Bronxites after his passing.
“Mayor Koch was always proud of his Bronx roots. During his administration he helped rebuild the South Bronx, creating a task force that helped restore burned-out buildings while creating new, thriving communities-work that still resonates to this day,” said Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
Diaz also called him “a man of wit and wisdom, a leader who helped lift our city out of the brink of bankruptcy, raising our spirits along the way and securing New York’s place as the capital of the world.”
During the city’s war on a blighted Bronx, Koch enlisted the help of Fr. Louis Gigante, longtime head of the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO). The two had plans to redevelop a stretch of burned-out apartment portion of the borough.
Getting the pair to work together was an easy setup.
Koch, who had heard about SEBCO’s other housing restoration projects, stopped by Gigante’s office – and was impressed, Gigante recalled, that SEBCO’s office was devoid of graffiti when it was “rampant in the city.”
After a quick tour Koch told Gigante “I want to work with you.”
The two teamed up to restore fourteen buildings within Hunts Point-Longwood, the epicenter of the urban decay that engulfed the borough.
“He gave me the money, the opportunity, the program so we can build it,” Gigante said of the $5.4 billion federal housing restoration program.
But Gigante believes Koch simply didn’t want to help a borough with a housing problem. “The Bronx was the most needed neighborhood for housing.”
The program eventually led to the revitalization of the neighborhood, restoring hundreds of units by the early 80s.
“I regard him as one of the best mayors we ever had,” declared Gigante, adding Koch was not the type to “sit behind a desk.”
While Ruben Diaz was a youngster in those years, former Borough President Freddy Ferrer vividly remembers working with Koch, who laid out a massive $4 billion, 10-year rebuilding plan for the south Bronx and other decimated neighborhoods around the city.
“It took his administration eight to nine years to get his housing program together, starting back in 1986-87, but that collaboration that began when I became borough president was extraordinary,” said Ferrer, now acting chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Ferrer recalled the last time he was with Koch was on NY1 cable-TV’s “Wiseguys” news panel with Koch and former U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, “and he ended up agreeing with me against D’Amato – which is extraordinary!”
Asked the three greatest things that could be said of Koch, Ferrer responded: “Great in-your-face sense of humor, a memory like an elephant and real charm and wit that we’ll not likely see for a long time.”
And for trivia fans, Koch’s Bronx roots began in a now long gone apartment building at 1680 Crotona Park E. before his parents moved to New Jersey.
Woodlawn resident Brian Andersson, former Commissioner of City Records, and executive director of the Ellis Island Restoration Commission at the time, recalled presenting Koch with a 1939 tax photo of his boyhood home.
“He was really touched,” said Andersson. “It brought back a lot of memories for him.”