Shaken, Not Stirred

Humorous Essays and Other Stuff
FEBRUARY 1, 2013 5:20PM

If It's Yellow, Let it Mellow....

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.....If it's Brown, Flush it Down

This is the famous advice on how New Yorkers could save water by selective flushing offered by Mayor Edward Koch during the drought crisis of 1989.

It was typical from him: direct, honest, and easy to understand.

Mayor Koch died today at the age of 88 from congestive heart failure.

His legacy and that time in New York, the late seventies and eighties, will be endlessly parsed in coming days, but this a tale of my brief encounters with the man and his world.

In the mid-1980's, I was the executive director of a New York City based trade association whose member companies consisted mainly of necktie and accessory manufacturers and suppliers. Ties were a big business in those days with annual sales of over one billion dollars annually and a score of manufacturers located in Manhattan and Long Island City.

It was not an easy time in New York: the crack plague was in full swing and the city was dangerous place. It was also still scratching and clawing its way back from the brink of insolvency,

One day, I got a call from one of Mayor Koch's deputies inviting me to join something called the Mayor's Apparel Industry Advisory Council. Apparel Manufacturing was a huge business in New York and the city was eager to hang on to it, as the flight south and to the far east was already well underway. The other members of the committee were trade association executives and the heads of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and the International Lady's Garment Workers Union. The industry was a big employer in the city at that time and the union heads were big players politically.

We met at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence for NYC, and after the work sessions there would be a reception where the mayor would occasionally make  a few remarks and circulate.

As he worked the room, my first impression of him was he was a large man, well over six feet tall. This surprised me because he didn't play that way on television.

In my few minutes with him he would ask how business was, how much he loved ties, what did our people need from him, etc. He was very approachable and personable and seemed without affectations, unless of course that was an affectation.

After one of these receptions, he invited us for a tour of the family residence of Gracie Mansion led by his deputy mayor.

Gracie Mansion is located on the Upper East Side in a place called Carl Schurz Park. It was built in the early 19th century as a farmhouse at a time when this part of the island was still under cultivation. While it was the home of a prosperous farmer, to call it a mansion was a stretch. However, it is a great piece of real estate and the front lawn sweeps right down to the East River. 

The modesty of the dwelling and humble size of its rooms became apparent as soon as we entered the private quarters. To enter where the mayor of one of the greatest cities in the world lived was like walking into your grandmother's house.

My memory is of overstuffed furniture in bright floral patterns and peeling wallpaper. It wouldn't be accurate to call it shabby, but it definitely looked neglected. As I said, the city was struggling and obviously this particular mayor did not make his residence a priority. Also, he maintained an apartment in Greenwich Village. We were shown the mayor's favorite place to read: a slouchy armchair which if it didn't actually have a doily on it, might certainly have been improved by one. The place looked like Mr. and Mrs. Abe Beame still lived there.

I don't remember too much about the rest of the tour except the impression of a very small, cramped space. I don't think there were anymore that two or three bedrooms.
 
In fact, the mayor complained that when the Israeli Prime Minister stayed his personal guard had to sleep in the hall and Koch tripped over him on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

The most memorable feature of the house was the huge wraparound front porch that looked out over the lawn which, because the FDR drive ran under it, had an unobstructed river view. The mayor took his breakfast there every morning in the nice weather and the Circle Line tour boats would stop in front to take pictures.

I don't recall that much came out of the committee meetings except talk about rent concessions, wage concessions, etc. to keep the industry competitive.
 
It didn't matter anyway because within a decade the manufacturing aspect of the apparel industry had left in succession the city, the country, and the continent.

In those years though, any cross town street adjoining Seventh Avenue between 34th and 42nd street was crowded with hand trucks loaded with merchandise - dresses, suits, shirts, blouses - on their way from one loft manufacturing operation to another. Every store front was occupied by trimming suppliers, button makers, fabrics provenders selling everything the industry needed to sustain itself.

Today, while you occasionally see a hand truck in the area it is a rarity. Most of the lofts have gone residential condo or house offices and showrooms. 

The fashion industry is still important to New York but the manufacturing is gone. That era ended in the 90's. 
 
Another ended today when Mayor Koch passed.





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I used to go to NYC every three months from 1975-1997 to bug fabric, clothing you name it and there was nothing like walking through the garment industry and feeling the greatness of it all. Showrooms cutting rooms you name it and the trolleys of fabric parading down the street. I will remember it always and the description of Koch's home I will too. Everything needs doilies..:)
HUGGGGGGGGG
Wow Interesting memories. I love that advice too. He was a down to earth fellow. It is fun to hear the legacy he left. Great post Thanks.
There's some interesting history here. I remember being disappointed walking through the garment district and not seeing all those hand trucks. It sounds like I might be a little disappointed in Gracie Mansion too. Although breakfast on the porch sounds good.
Thank you for that inside glimpse at a powerful man. I left the city just as he took office. Btw, this post should get an EP. R
What a fascinating encounter. Thanks for sharing these memories! And RIP former Mayor Koch.
excellent piece. a great way to remember Ed Koch.