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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Koch examines a New York City mayor's controversial legacy
Big Apple blight
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Koch made as many enemies as friends.
Koch made as many enemies as friends.

A prominent political leader dies. Some people mark the occasion by celebrating the achievements. Others curse the memory.

Do I mean Margaret Thatcher? Nope, Ed Koch. I learned that the former New York City mayor passed away in February when a friend posted an incensed meme on Facebook. Next to Koch's photo was a caption that spoofed his famous catchphrase: "10,000 New York City AIDS deaths - How'm I doin'?"

Like any big-city mayor, Koch was controversial. That is made clear by director Neil Barsky's Koch, a compelling, thoughtful documentary that hits high and low points of the mayor's tenure. Koch, who served from 1978 to 1989, struggled with urban poverty, racial politics and organized labor, even as New York teetered on chaos. The city had verged on bankruptcy. The subway cars were covered in graffiti, and Times Square was a red-light district.

Barsky draws on vintage footage and contemporary interviews - including talks with Koch himself, who was funny and combative in his late 80s. We also follow Koch around as he hits 2010 campaign events, visits with his extended family and relaxes at home in his surprisingly modest bachelor apartment.

We see that Koch is still provoking anger when the city council discusses whether to rename the Queensboro Bridge in his honor. Some members praise him, but one furiously recalls Koch's testy relations with the city's African American community.

Barsky shows us some of that history, as when Koch riled black New Yorkers by shutting down Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Decades later, he acknowledges that the closing was a mistake.

The film also documents the events of the summer of 1989, when black teenager Yusef Hawkins was killed in a clash with a white mob, sparking anguish and protests. Koch is heard saying that protestors shouldn't march in the neighborhood where the killing took place. This may make First Amendment fans uneasy.

It's one of several wrongheaded statements Koch makes. Another relates to homosexuality. As my friend reminded me on Facebook, gay activists believed Koch didn't do enough to combat AIDS, which took a horrific toll on New York's gay community in the 1980s.

There were rumors that Koch was gay. Talking to Barsky, Koch addresses the issue by saying: None of your business. He argues that politicians shouldn't have to say whether they're gay. He's right about that, but it's a shortsighted position. The broader point is that it shouldn't matter whether politicians are gay, and we reach that state of affairs as a result of people living openly and honestly. It actually is everyone's business.

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