Ed Koch’s Biggest Mistake

Question: What is your biggest regret as mayor?

Ed Koch: Well, I would say every Mayor before me, and myself included was told by all the experts that a hospital located in Harlem which did not provide very good medical care should be closed, that it was not possible to remedy it for a number of reasons, one of which was that the doctors there did not want to rotate through a teaching hospital because they wanted to keep their jurisdictions. That Hospital, called Sydenham had been opened during a period when black doctors were not welcome at many white-dominated hospitals and so they opened their own hospital, but not providing very good care for a whole host of reasons.

Every Mayor before me had backed off because of threats of rioting and citizen anger. I said, no, I'm going to do what is right for the people of Harlem and every other district in this city and provide good medical care where I can. We're going to close it and put in clinics; and we closed it.

I think we saved $9 million. It was the highest cost hospital with the worst outcomes according to the Budget Director at the time. And the people were very angry. And on reflection, even though I was praised for being courageous about it and doing the right thing. It was the wrong thing. We saved $9 million. So what. In those days, even $9 million was relatively small sum in terms of government expenditures. I didn't recognize the psychological impact of closing Sydenham, the pain. And so, I've told people when they've asked me questions similar to yours, that I regret having closed that. But it's done.

Question: Was it a mistake to run for a fourth term?

Ed Koch: Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that I now believe three terms is adequate and should be the max. I think after that your energy is drained.

No, in that I would have done a very good job even with that caveat and as I said, after I lost to David Dinkins won and then people came through in regret of having thrown me out I said, part jokily and part seriously. When people said, "Oh, Mayor, you must run again." I said, "No, people threw me out and now the people must be punished." So, those are my feelings.

Though Ed Koch served terms as mayor and has been celebrated as the "quintessential New Yorker" ever since, his decision to close down a Harlem hospital is still a source of regret.

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