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The New York Sun


Teddy Kollek, City Builder

January 04, 2007

By Edward Glaeser

Jerusalem's longtime mayor, Teddy Kollek, died on Tuesday. Kollek began his term in 1965, when John Lindsay was first elected mayor of New York, and was ousted by Ehud Olmert 28 years later. Prominent Israelis are inevitably seen through the prism of foreign affairs, and Kollek's moderate Zionism shapes much of his image. Even his final defeat was seen by some as a referendum on the agreement between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. But Kollek should not be seen solely as an Israeli leader. As Mayor Koch of New York recently said, Kollek was the "mayor of all mayors." His successful generation-long stewardship of a difficult city provides lessons for mayors and cities everywhere.

A great mayor can improve his citizens' quality of life more than any national leader, and Kollek did just that.

Six months before Kollek's election, the New York Times described him as "a combination of Grover Whalen, Robert Moses and Mister Fixit." There could be no better description of an ideal mayor, who must be a public impresario like Whalen, New York's official greeter during the La Guardia years, a master builder like Moses, and an obsessive manager of basic city services.

Kollek's skills as a Mr. Fixit distinguished him from Lindsay, his far less successful contemporary. Lindsay had charisma and vision, but the trains certainly didn't run on time, especially during the transit and sanitation strikes. Kollek never forgot that his first job was to run the city's services. He built a sewage system in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem residents would call his publicly listed telephone number to demand and get prompt service for broken sidewalks. Kollek assiduously protected the flowers he planted, screaming at anyone who trod on them, from distinguished journalists to Israel's Black Panthers.

Kollek has also been called Jerusalem's greatest builder since Herod the Great. He built roads, parks, housing, shopping centers, and a stadium that bears his name. His greatest projects were cultural, like the Israel Museum and the park around the walls of the Old City. Kollek understood that cities are increasingly centers of consumption as well as production and he made Jerusalem beautiful and exciting.

Kollek, like Robert Moses, was vilified by those who thought that his building went too far. Pro-Palestinian commentators still deride Kollek for moving Arab families to create the Western Wall plaza in the old Jewish quarter. It is always difficult to balance a city's need for new infrastructure with the wishes of a neighborhood that does not wish to be disturbed, but Kollek was not willing to end growth to avoid trouble. As Mayor Bloomberg works to grow New York, he would do well to look at Kollek's successes.

To Americans, Kollek will always be remembered most in his Grover Whalen incarnation as the public face of Jerusalem. He was the city's best booster who showcased Jerusalem's magic. Jerusalem's splendor is an asset not just to its residents but also for the whole world. Kollek made people understand that and reach into their wallets to make that splendor possible.

Kollek served simultaneously as mayor of Jerusalem and head of the Jerusalem Foundation, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the city. Today, most major cities rely on partnerships between private civic organizations and government. Kollek was a pioneer who understood that cities work best with private and public leadership.

Kollek's greatest achievement was, of course, keeping the peace in a fractured city—between Arabs and Israelis, between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox, and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. There was always the possibility for Jerusalem to become Belfast on Mount Scopus. A more unscrupulous leader, like many of America's worst mayors, might have seen electoral gains in ethnic conflict. Kollek minimized strife by sticking to the basics of urban government. Like Messrs. Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg, he made his people understand that everyone benefits from a well-run city and that he was the one to keep the water clean and the sidewalks paved.

Kollek's legacy of competence and tolerance represents not only the best of big city leadership, but also the best of cities themselves. Great cities, like New York or the Vienna of Kollek's youth, thrive because they allow different people to connect and exchange goods and ideas. Ethnic and religious conflict destroys those connections and turns cities from a marketplace to a war zone. Kollek was a great mayor who understood that his job was to create both physical and social infrastructure that can support the magic of urban interactions.

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