Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel
Miriam Friedlander at home in the East Village.
Pulling together the memories of a progressive life
By JERRY TALLMER
Memories… memories… .
“Who was the mayor at that time?” she said. “I’m not very good at remembering names.”
Wasn’t it Koch, Ms. Friedlander?
“I think so. If you say so,” she said, her linked fingers trembling, her head cocked to one side like a little bird’s. A tiny bird in a tiny nest — a room and a half one flight up on a rundown yet busy East Village block.
“Well, whoever he was, they were trying to close the park. Push people out of the park who were living on benches. As far as I was concerned, since they” — the bench-sleepers — “had no other place to go, it was all right with me” if they stayed there.
“I was in my office, telling people what to do,” said the onetime hell-raising Lower East Side City Councilmember Miriam Friedlander. “I called some public meetings…
“Koch,” she said. “We had misery with him all the time.” And you can bet it was vice versa.
She stopped, thought — a long, long thought — and then, with a twisted half-smile, said: “Just the other day I was crossing some street when a man stopped me to say he remembered the days when at big meetings I would call for opening the park, and how pleased he was that I had stood up and done that.”
One thought bisected another. “There’s a guy who still owns a restaurant on the corner of Fifth St. — moved from one corner to the other corner. I recognized him and he recognized me from years and years ago.”
Years and years ago… .
The story starts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “on The Hill in Pittsburgh, opposite a big hospital, sometime in April of — 1915? — yep, 1915, 1914.”
The Internet gives 1914 for the birth of Miriam Sigel, daughter of David Sigel and Hannah Lipman Sigel, immigrants from Russia.
“I’m about 93, you know.” Back when she was 5, the Sigel family moved from Pittsburgh to New York City. No, not to the Lower East Side, that was later. To the Bronx “for a while,” where Miriam went to public school and then to Evander Childs High School.
When at last they did move to Manhattan, East Side, West Side — east or west of lower Second Avenue, that is — she still went to Evander Childs.
So you had to schlep up there on the subway?
Her father “worked with the Jewish community.” Her mother “was good at office work and used several languages, English, Russian, Jewish.” Both parents were “very politically conscious” — and then there was Miriam’s brother Paul, “one of the boys who went to Spain and never came back.”
Paul Sigel, killed in action at Fuentes del Ebro, Spain, in the summer of 1938.
“He had just graduated N.Y.U. Engineering School [in 1937], and then he went. As a matter of fact, I delayed him a little while, and then he went.” Her crossed hands squeezed a little tighter. “We were having a hard time finding him” — finding his place of death — “and then it turned out he’d been with a Canadian group.”
You can find some of his letters from Spain to his sister and mother in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at New York University’s Tamiment Library. Paul’s sister donated them there in 1992. She was also “very active,” she said, with Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, “and attended everything as long as my brother was in Spain…and after.
“I have a cup,” she said vaguely — “a cup” — and scurried to the bedroom to dig it out. But when she returned with it — a slender, vase-like pewter chalice — the well-worn faded inscription turns out to honor, not her brother, but her father, David Sigel, member of the Workmen’s Circle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
She herself went to N.Y.U. “as a young person, a very young person” who was “doing dance besides school,” as well as in school under Martha Hill, “who was particularly interested in something very new at the time called modern dance.”
Out of college, what did you do?
“That’s a good question.” Another long thought. “The timing is the thing I’m missing. … Dance became my area of work. That’s why I went to N.Y.U. Then I taught dance at what were called adult camps. A dance counselor. And then I was married… .”
To a Mr. Friedlander?
What was his first name?
Then: “Don’t tell me I lost it. I see his face. I see everything. But I can’t remember his name…. .” [It was Mark — Mark Friedlander.] “There was an adult camp, a progressive camp, the Unity. That’s where we met.”
Was he radical, like your brother?
“He was active… He loved dogs. He always had two dogs. Saint Bernards… And then we were separated. I lived upstairs and he lived downstairs. And many years later, he was working at a camp, and there was an accident, and he died. But that’s a whole different story. My goodness.
“And we had a child, a son. I have a son. Want to see him?” She pointed to a photograph. “We named him Paul, after my brother. And that son has a son named David, for my father.”
(Her son is Dr. Paul Friedlander, professor of music and director of the Music Industry Program, California State University at Chico.)
Miriam Friedlander was city councilwoman for the Second Council District (basically the Lower Est Side) from 1973 to 1991.
“There was always a group in the community that was politically conscious, and I was part of that. When it came time to putting candidates up, I was very active in that.”
Under what party?
She thought, thought, and then said: “I was particularly involved with women’s groups. Had a whole history. What kind of groups was Bella involved with? Those groups.”
(That would be Congresswoman Bella Abzug, 1920-1998, radical of radicals.)
“I’m trying to untangle something here,” the 93-year-old said. “Where did I get lost?”
Trying to get you into the City Council. Under what party?
“Oh yes. Was it the Democratic Party? Well, I ran for the City Council, and I won. I won against the usual councilmember here.”
Where did you campaign? On the streets?
“On the streets. In the parks. Organization meetings. Older people’s groups. Lunches.”
Whatever her party or politics then, only the names and faces have changed. On a small bulletin board on one wall, two campaign pins stand out: KERRY and OBAMA.
“She ran as a Democrat. You could say she represented the left wing of the V.I.D. [Village Independent Democrats],” said longtime political activist Ed Gold, who headed V.I.D. when, back in the 1950s, it upended Tammany chieftain Carmine DeSapio. “You could say she was conspicuous in her strong left-winging.”
It was the considerably more moderate — some would say the tamely gentrifying — Antonio Pagan who finally beat Miriam Friedlander in her own bailiwick.
All that is far away and long ago.
“I opposed all the Democratic mayors,” said Miriam Friedlander. “But back when I was in office, I also worked with them.”
Carve that into a bench in Tompkins Square Park.