02/04/2013 08:47 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Ed Koch and the Heart of New York

Like many New Yorkers, I was saddened by the death of Mayor Ed Koch. I didn't always agree with him, but I always looked forward to hearing what he had to say. While it is not true that he "saved New York City," he played a big role in bringing us back from the edge of ruin. It took a village to save the city, but he was the village crier and you had to love him for it.

While neither Ed Koch nor any of the mayors who followed him have been perfect, each played a key role in New York's remarkable comeback. In the days since his death, we have heard a great deal about Koch's ability to boost the city's morale and balance the city's budget. We've heard about his (excuse my pun) concrete accomplishments in affordable housing and in restoring the city's decaying parks. His administration was loaded with talent and creativity. The modern version of public-private partnership was born of necessity during his administration. Koch was a skilled and effective public manager and a dynamic, principled leader. While he started New York's revival, his successors must be acknowledged for continuing his work.

David Dinkins should be credited along with Council Speaker Peter Vallone for enacting the "Safe Streets, Safe Cities" Program that combined youth programs with an additional 10,000 police; starting the process of reducing New York's exploding rate of crime. While I admit I am a biased observer of my Columbia faculty colleague, I think Professor Dinkins was a much better mayor than he is given credit for.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the famous target of Koch's book Giuliani: Nasty Man, must be given credit for hiring Bill Bratton and figuring out a new way to deploy the police force that Dinkins rebuilt. The result was a dramatic reduction in crime that continues today. Rudy was also a magnificent leader in the wake of 9/11. From September 11, 2001 until the end of his term, Rudy was like Ed Koch on the Brooklyn Bridge during the transit strike -- calling on New Yorkers to draw on their inner reserves of resilience and strength to overcome the absolute horror of that still unspeakable crime.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg was able to build on the firm base left to him by his predecessors. His lasting legacy will be the city's post-9/11 revival, its celebration of tolerance, culture, education, entertainment and sustainability. Bloomberg's New York is the one that Koch imagined during the depth of the city's decline. No, New York City is not perfect, but as Ed Koch frequently reminded us -- it is the only place he ever wanted to live.

What is amazing about the outpouring of affection for Mayor Koch are the words we are hearing from many of his old enemies. Everyone from Al Sharpton to Andrew Cuomo remembers him with a certain fondness. Some of this is respect for the departed, but some of it is a sort of mellowing that reflects the city's comeback from the ravages of crime, crack, racial turmoil and terrorist attacks. Koch himself reflected this with his second thoughts about the closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, and his belated realization of the role the hospital played in overcoming barriers confronted by African American doctors. Koch and Sharpton worked together on the Second Chance Program, an effort to help non-violent drug offenders get a fresh chance at a better life.

Without minimizing the continued conflict we see between different visions of New York and the varied ways that people experience this city, the reaction to Koch's passing reflects another fact of New York that needs to be acknowledged. That is the diversity that is the defining characteristic of this place. But combined with diversity is an inability to hide from people who are different from you. The rich may live in glass towers and ride around town in limos, but to really experience this place, they've got to get out and walk the streets with the rest of us. There are poor neighborhoods in New York, but there is no "other side of the tracks." Public housing is not concentrated in one area, but scattered all over the city. Some of our buildings have doormen, but we have very few gated communities. Our public schools may be less integrated than we would like, but kids growing up in New York today have a less segregated experience than kids did when I was growing up here. New Yorkers don't drive by homeless children in their SUVs with tinted windows. You cannot live in New York without interacting with its people. That interaction leads to gradual and sometimes grudging acceptance, a modicum of empathy and understanding, and even friendship and love.

New Yorkers know that deep down, beneath the different clothing and customs, people want the same thing. They want safety and security, freedom, friendship and love, family and a sense of community. They want to be able to feed their children. New Yorkers know how much we have in common because they see it. They see the struggling single mom trying to keep her children in her sight on a crowded subway platform. They act on it when they help her carry her stroller up the subway steps. They see it in the eyes of joyful immigrant parents as they watch their children graduating from Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School, New York's top public high schools. This experience means that many of them come to see some part of themselves in people who come from different countries, and from different parts of American society.

Ed Koch knew the stakes were high when he struggled to bring New York back from the edge of destruction. His death reminds some of us how bad things were when he came into office and how much better this city is today. In his New York Times "Last Word" video, Koch gives Michael Bloomberg credit for the reduction in racial tension in New York City today. Mayor Bloomberg deserves credit for his efforts to lower the temperature after the gratuitous conflict of Rudy's mayoralty, but just as it took many people to save New York, it has taken many people to build a more tolerant city.

All of our mayors celebrate our diversity and work hard to encourage tolerance. Right after 9/11 and long before he became a xenophobic presidential candidate, Rudy visited mosques and made sure New Yorkers understood the difference between Islam and terrorism. David Dinkins referred to New York's diversity as a "gorgeous mosaic;" up close you could see the distinctions between races and cultures, but from a distance it simply appeared as a single beautiful image. The collaboration between Ed Koch and Al Sharpton was built on an appreciation of that mosaic and the importance of reaching across communities to find common ground.

Mayor Koch's death is a sad occasion because we will miss his distinctive and determined voice. A small part of the heart of New York is gone. But the rest of the heart remains. It remains in the city that he loved and in its people who returned that love to him.