Volume 22, Number 23 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 16 - 22, 2009
Photo by Marlis Momber
Miriam Friedlander, in a contemplative moment during a re-election campaign in the mid-1980s, on a rooftop in her City Council district.
Friedlander, 95, councilmember who fought for the less powerful, dies
Miriam Friedlander, the outspoken, firebrand Democrat who represented the East Village and Lower East Side in the City Council during some of the area’s most turbulent years, from 1974 to 1991, died at New York University Medical Center on Sun., Oct. 4. She was 95.
A political figure who evoked passionate reactions from her admirers and detractors alike, Friedlander is best remembered for advocating on behalf of gay and lesbian issues, women, tenants and the homeless.
Frieda Bradlow, Friedlander’s longtime campaign manager and close friend, said the former councilmember had been living on her own independently in her second-floor, rent-controlled, walk-up apartment at 314 E. Sixth St. until six months ago, when a home healthcare attendant started visiting her. Friedlander had declined opportunities to move to assisted-living facilities in the past.
On Oct. 4, Friedlander’s breathing became labored, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she died that afternoon, Bradlow said.
Bradlow spoke to Friedlander daily, visited her at least once a week and also helped take care of her.
“She insisted on staying in her apartment — which was up a flight of very steep stairs,” Bradlow said. “She was in Tompkins Square Park talking recently — in August. She had a park bench she held court on where people would chat with her. If you walked out in the neighborhood with her, everyone knew her. ...
“Her last act was to vote for public advocate and comptroller” in the runoff elections, Bradlow noted. Friedlander — who voted by absentee ballot the Monday before the election — supported John Liu and Mark Green, said Bradlow, who personally walked Friedlander’s ballot into the Board of Elections. Bill de Blasio, who won for advocate, “was much more of an insider — and that bothered Miriam and me,” Bradlow noted, adding, “Initially, in the primary, we went for Norman Siegel.”
Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor — 1978 to 1989 — overlapped with much of Friedlander’s time in the City Council.
“Miriam Friedlander and I were respectful of one another but rarely agreed on anything — but on occasion, we did,” Koch said. “But one of the things we did agree on — which I want to give her credit for — was leading the fight to get shelters for women and children who were abused by their husbands and partners.
“My problem with her is that I’m a middle-class person who believes in democracy,” Koch explained, “and she was a communist — quite proud of it, public, and was on the board of the Bronx Communist Party. She was a supporter of the Soviet Union — I don’t know whether she was a Stalinist or not, but she remained supportive of the Soviet Union after Stalin was exposed — unacceptable.
“But I am also a believer in the hereafter, and I believe she’ll ultimately end up in a place in heaven — especially for her protection of the women and children who were abused by the women’s paramours.”
Paul Friedlander, Miriam’s only son, is a music professor at California State University, Chico. He was named after Friedlander’s younger brother, who died in the Spanish Civil War while serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. According to Bradlow, Friedlander may also have had a fiancé who was killed in the Spanish Civil War.
Paul Friedlander took great offense at Koch’s characterizations of his mother as a communist.
“She felt for the people who were underrepresented,” Paul said. “If that is communist — so be it.” However, he added, “If anyone had evidence that she was a member of the Communist Party, it would have been brought forward a long time ago. ... Her life’s work was to create a democracy — a real democracy. She was a populist and a progressive.”
“Koch hated Miriam,” Bradlow noted. “He called her ‘the thorn in my side.’ ”
Philip VanAver, a friend active in Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA), one of the political organizations Friedlander belonged to, got close to her over the past several years in the park, where he would share her bench and chat with her.
“She was very tight-lipped about her past,” he said. “She did admit to going to hear Vito Mark Antonio speak in Brooklyn — he was considered to be the farthest left in Congress.”
Bradlow and VanAver said Friedlander’s mind was still sharp toward the end, though she was bad about names and losing things.
Friedlander was cremated last week. A memorial is planned for mid-November in the East Village, with details to be announced.
“Plans will be made to have her rest somewhere on the Lower East Side,” her son said.
Miriam Siegel was born in 1914 in Pittsburgh. Her parents were refugees from Ukraine and Russia. Her father was an insurance salesman, and her mother, a housewife who — fluent in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and English — also did translation. When Miriam was a girl, they moved to the Bronx.
Miriam attended New York University, majoring in physical education and dance. In her early 20s she married Mark Friedlander, an engineer. They lived in Sunnyside, Queens, but divorced when their son was in his teens. Miriam taught fifth grade on the Upper West Side, according to VanAver.
She moved to E. Sixth St. in 1967, at which point she was directing a civil-rights organization, Bradlow said. Six years later, at age 59, she ran for Council and won.
“By the way, she was opposed by seven men in the first election,” Bradlow noted, “including Shelly Silver and Paul Crotty, and she won that election by 42 votes.”
Silver went on to win a seat in the Assembly, which he today leads as the long-serving speaker; Crotty became New York City’s corporation counsel, or top attorney.
In a statement, her former campaign opponent Silver said, “Whether we agreed or disagreed on a particular issue, it was always clear that Miriam had the best interests of her community at heart. She was the definition of a community activist, devoting herself to making the Lower East Side and the East Village a better place to live.”
When Friedlander first won the district, it included all of Manhattan below Houston St. from river to river, and north of Houston on the East Side up to around Stuyvesant Town, according to Bradlow. After redistricting in 1990, her district lost the Lower West Side but picked up more of the East Side, including Gramercy and up to the E. 30s.
In 1985, Friedlander fended off a challenge by Virginia Kee, a candidate from Chinatown.
“The Chinese press supported Miriam, because she worked very hard for the Chinese people,” Bradlow said, recalling how often when she would stop by Friedlander’s district office, there would be “30 or 40 Chinese people” there meeting with her.
As a councilmember, Friedlander had a reputation for being all over the district.
“I remember Tony Dapolito said, if there was a meeting of three people, she would be the fourth person there,” Bradlow recalled of the late Community Board 2 chairperson. “She went to precinct community council meetings, block association meetings — she was everywhere.”
After being passed over for some time, Friedlander, having built up seniority, eventually got her own committee to chair on the Council, one of her own design: the Women’s Committee, focusing on women’s issues.
“Pay equity was her invention in the Council,” Bradlow noted. Among other legislation she passed, Friedlander was also the primary sponsor of a bill on pet owners’ rights that gave people the right to have companion pets in their homes.
She was finally unseated in 1991 by Antonio Pagan, a more centrist Democrat who championed clearing the homeless out of Tompkins Square Park while opposing squatters and the siting of AIDS residences in the neighborhood. Pagan died this January at age 50.
Friedlander tried to regain her seat a few years later in the next primary, but lost to Pagan in a three-way race that also included Sylvia Friedman, who got 2,000 votes.
When Downtown Express called Friedlander for comment after Pagan’s death, she didn’t go out of her way to criticize him, but noted they didn’t see eye to eye and that Pagan had gotten “loud” on some issues.
“I’m still here,” she said bluntly.
At Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s inauguration in 2006, her predecessor, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, swore her in in Spanish, while Friedlander did the honors in English.
“She would just hop on the train and get places,” Mendez said. “I remember we had the 20th anniversary of the gay rights bill, and there’s Miriam. And I said, ‘How’d you get here?’ She said, ‘Oh, the train.’ That was in 2006 [when Friedlander was 92].”
Mendez, a lesbian, said a video was shown from 20 years ago with Friedlander “shouting down a homophobe” who was trying to disrupt the hearings on the bill.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the first openly gay or lesbian member elected to the New York State Legislature, said of Friedlander, “She lived a wonderful, long life — and she was an inspiration to many of us as an activist and someone who challenged the powers that be. And she was incredibly forceful and very determined. And I think many of us saw her as a role model. There weren’t a lot of women in office — she was there and she had a great fighting spirit..”
Time has only served to increase the reverence with which many of her former constituents view Friedlander.
John Penley, a longtime East Village activist, remembered a highly volatile meeting at Community Board 3 in the early 1990s and how Friedlander had tried to defuse things respectfully.
“It was not too long after squatters had rolled tires into a meeting and threatened to ‘necklace’ community board members,” Penley recalled. “It was a big showdown over [the homeless] Tompkins Square Park ‘Tent City.’ The walls were lined with riot cops, and all these people marched in with banners, and a big confrontation developed. What I remember about Miriam is she didn’t immediately have all the protesters arrested, which the other councilpersons would have done. She wanted people to talk — rather than using the police to shut up one side, and then let the other people talk among themselves.
“But then Laurie Rizzo and a community board member had a fistfight over the microphone, and somebody burned the American flag,” and police made arrests, Penley said, with a nostalgic chuckle.
Three years ago, the then-92-year-old Friedlander attended the unveiling ceremony for an honorary street sign for the late District Leader Armando Perez.
As salsa music played and people danced, ate and schmoozed in the chilly air in a nearby community garden, Friedlander — bundled up in her coat and beret — took the mic.
“I have faith,” she said as the revelry swirled around her. “I always have had faith. And here I am… . Are you helping make other people active? That is the important thing.”