By Sydney H. Schanberg
First published in Newsday, April 22, 1988
The mind grew so heavy from the darkness of the primary campaign that it pined for something optimistic or at least diverting to write about.
When you live in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic city where the mayor plays with racial and ethnic matches, you sorely need a break in the clouds. So yesterday, when Donald Trump, the entrepreneur, offered to renovate the falling-down Williamsburg Bridge, it was something to seize upon.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump has his own self-serving reasons for making the offer. He loves being the king of the hill, the master builder, gambling potentate of Atlantic City, the solver of problems that daunt all other mortals, the cover boy on every glossy magazine.
But in this case, I decided, so what.
The bridge was in such calamitous shape that it had to be shut down completely last week. And when it was, thereby imposing hardship on the 240,000 people who used it every day, Mayor Edward Koch announced that it was in no way his fault because although he has been in office more than 10 years, the crumbling started before that. It was the mayor’s familiar Teflon speech.
If one’s elected chief executive not only sets uncivilized behavior as the desired standard but also disclaims responsibility for every new deterioration in municipal services and the quality of life, it becomes pragmatically necessary to welcome help from unorthodox sources. In parlous times, one cannot be took picky about one’s benefactors.
I have no illusions about Donald Trump, but this city needs all the help it can get. I have in fact over the years poked and jabbed at the foibles and tall stories of this impresario of tall buildings and money and glitz. I have prodded him to take a little time off from building castles for the rich to create modest abodes for the homeless and working poor. He has disdained all such suggestions, for they are without glamour or gain.
Thus, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Donald Trump likely does not regard me as a contributor to the image he prefers. And yet, all that notwithstanding, I am happy to have him around today, happy to put my disappointments aside for the moment and to welcome his offer to make the Williamsburg Bridge whole again. We need the bridge. We need to keep the city from falling apart.
We mustn’t let it distract us that Donald Trump is doing this in some measure to show up his old nemesis, Edward Koch. He has upstaged the mayor before, you will recall. Two years ago, he stepped in to put Central Park’s Wollman Skating Rink in working order again, after the city had wasted $12 million and six years in a futile effort to do it. Trump did it in a few months for under $3 million.
Koch simmered and stewed over that humiliation as Trump posed for pictures in the winner’s circle. Now the mayor is looking at a mortification of much greater proportions. The skating rink was a country cottage, the bridge is a pyramid. And bridges have always excited the imagination like no other construction project.
On more than one level, the mayor invited this erosion of his rule. First, he let the city run down — taking credit for balancing the budget but refusing credit for the service slashes that made the balance possible. And second, in his earlier jousting with Trump, he dared the developer to do more things for the city.
Although Koch was talking about housing for the homeless when he issued the dare, the words he used when he threw down this gauntlet must be haunting him now. He said tauntingly: “Why don’t you come in, Donald, and show us how good you are.” And now Donald has come in and asked the mayor to hold his cashmere coat while he converts the Williamsburg Bridge from a slum dwelling into, if not a luxury condominium, at least a renewed high-rise.
Koch, of course, could snarl and refuse Trump’s offer, but he knows that by doing so, he would run the risk of alienating the ordinary people who rely on the bridge and have come not to rely on the mayor’s ability to keep the city’s infrastructure functioning. And the mayor knows he cannot afford to lose any more of his waning popularity.
What all of this signals — Koch’s unacceptable behavior in the primary, his failures as a manager, the widening awareness among voters of his weaknesses — is that, along with new bridges and roads and housing, we need a new mayor.
That’s what the people often referred to as the shakers and movers have been talking about in New York City this week. Some who have been quiet before are now saying of Koch that enough is enough. The questions that cannot as yet be answered is whether this disaffection will take root and solidify, or whether the mayor will song-and-dance his way through it once more, as he had for three terms. The clamorous and tricky process of finding a consensus candidate — many will offer themselves — has only just begun.
Meanwhile, we will have the temporary fun of watching the giant egos of Koch and Trump bang into each other. The last time they went at it, the mayor christened the developer as “Piggy, Piggy, Piggy,” and Trump called him a “moron” and “a disaster [who] can’t hack it anymore.”
Anyway, it might take our minds off the primary, for which we have to be thankful. Not to mention the relief we’ll get from seeing the bridge repaired.