Volume 74, Number 2 | June 1- 7, 2005


Villager photo by Annie Shaver-Crandell

Keith Crandell at home on Bond St.

Keith Crandell, 77, Noho activist for social justice

By Albert Amateau

Keith Crandell, whose commitment to justice, peace and the environment was reflected in three decades of community activism, died at the age of 77 in his Bond St. loft in Noho on May 28 surrounded by his family and friends.

Crandell, whose columns in The Villager won prizes from the New York State Press Association for 1999 and 2001, was diagnosed with lung cancer this year but died of heart failure, according to his wife, Annie Shaver-Crandell. For the past year and a half he got around in his motorized wheelchair, and just two weeks ago joined the May 21 Rites of Spring parade to East Village community gardens.

A champion of bicycling who rode his bike everywhere until a stroke in 1999 stopped him, he combined his commitments to civil liberties and cycling when he wrote the Community Board 2 resolution this spring on the New York City Police Department’s response to the Critical Mass bicycle demonstrations, calling it “overzealous.”

Crandell was a member of the Greenwich Village community board since 1981 and its chairperson from July 1991 to June 1993, but he looked back with most pride on his leadership of the board’s Social Services and Health Committee in the early 1980s when AIDS, crack and homelessness were raging. Keith also worked for several years as a writer and fundraiser for Visiting Neighbors, a volunteer group that serves shut-ins.

In a Villager profile earlier this year, when Crandell was asked, “How did you get to be this radical-type fellow?” he replied, “I consider myself to be a moderate.”

But many of his associates considered him to be a hero.

“He disregarded personal comfort and safety to be there on the great public issues of our day,” said Jim Smith, chairperson of Community Board 2. “Until the very end he strove to be heard and to make a difference in the causes he believed, whether it was keeping his neighborhood a good place to live or advancing the cause of peace in the world in any way he could. He was lionhearted,” Smith said.

Steve Stollman, who worked with Crandell on transportation and civil liberties issues over the past 20 years, recalled that Crandell was always ready to fight for justice wherever it was abused. “It was often a David vs. Goliath situation. He was a hero,” said Stollman.

Ann Arlen, a former chairperson of the C.B. 2 Environment Committee, recalled working with Crandell in a campaign that began in 1989 against a Transit Authority proposal to build an electric power substation at Houston St. and Broadway. “It was a place where people lived, and we finally won in 1994,” she said. Arlen paid tribute to Crandell’s “irreplaceable spirit and his unique writing voice.”

His writing in The Villager on the plight of James Davis, whom Crandell believed was unjustly sent to prison, might have helped to win parole for Davis a year ago. “My oldest friend, Frank Irwin, a commercial artist, cartoonist and voice-over actor, had sent every one of my pieces about Davis to the parole board,” Crandell told The Villager last January.

Charles King, a founder of Housing Works, which provides housing for people with AIDS, recalled that Crandell had championed the organization’s project since its founding in 1990. “We’re committed to housing people no other organization wants, people with AIDS who are active drug users and mentally ill. It took a lot of courage on Keith’s part to stand up against NIMBY [Not In My Back Yardism] and say he wanted to accept us. He was a prince of activism,” King said.

Tony Hoffman, a former Democratic district leader, recalled that Crandell served as Democratic state committeeman for two years in 1989-1990. “He had passionately held principals — peace, social justice, the environment — and never let himself be corrupted by the political process. He was pure, the most decent human being I’ve ever known,” said Hoffman, who narrowly beat out Crandell by six votes for Village Independent Democrats’ endorsement for Democratic district leader in the 1980s.

Andrew Berman, head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said he spoke to Crandell last Wednesday to tell him G.V.S.H.P. planned planned to name him one of the recipients of their annual Village Awards this month.

“He told me he had taken a turn for the worse over the weekend, possibly due to spending much of the weekend at a march and that we might have to give him the award posthumously,” Berman said. “I think I’ll always think of him as the model of a community activist.”

Crandell’s activism landed him in jail three times, once after taking part in a squatters demonstration in Manhattan, once in Washington, D.C., in a protest against President Reagan’s policy in Central America and once at City Hall during a protest five years ago against the police killing in the Bronx of Amadou Diallo.

Although he wasn’t known by the title during his life, his wife said they realized that, if anyone, Crandell certainly qualified to be called the Mayor of Noho. It was a neighborhood he loved and fought for. A few years ago, Crandell waged a losing battle to keep the last of Noho’s workingmen’s diners, the Jones Diner, from being demolished.

He was also a committed protector of gardens and received an award from the Green Guerillas for his columns warning about a developer’s plan to bisect Liz Christy Garden on E. Houston St. as part of a new residential building.

Other columns of his that resonated with readers included ones on his experiences at the recent peace marches against the Iraq war.

The oldest of three children, Keith Crandell was born in New York City on Oct. 7, 1927, a son of Richard F. Crandell, photo editor of the New York Herald Tribune and teacher at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and Katherine Keith, of Missoula, Mont. Keith’s parents had met when his father attended the University of Montana at Missoula. Keith went to high school in White Plains and, like his father, to Missoula where as an undergraduate he worked as a reporter on the local daily newspaper. He became a reporter for the Havre, Mont., paper after graduation and then worked for General Electric in Schenectady and Syracuse, N.Y., as a writer in the public relations department, following in the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut. He eventually came to G.E. corporate headquarters in Manhattan but left to work as a freelance writer.

He was an expert in the use of Basic English, developed in Britain in 1930 by Charles K. Ogden and I.A. Richards with a vocabulary of about 850 words capable of expressing 90 percent of the ideas that can be expressed using the 25,000-word vocabulary of the Oxford Pocket Dictionary.

He loved to read, his wife said. “He went on a Dickens binge when somebody left a volume in the elevator,” she recalled. “He loved music and listened to Eddie Cantor musical comedies in the weeks before he died. He loved jazz and made tapes for his friends to give them a lift when they were down,” she added.

Never a churchgoer, Crandell became active in St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1990 when his son by a previous marriage, Nathaniel, came from Houston, Tex., to live with him after being severely injured in an auto accident. “Nathaniel wanted to go to church and Katherine Volpe, a fellow member of V.I.D., suggested her church, St. Mark’s,” recalled Annie. Nathaniel was too impaired to go by himself, so Keith had to take him. Nathaniel, who died in 1998 of tuberculosis associated with his injuries, went back to Houston, but Crandell stayed with St. Mark’s.

Annie recalled that shortly before Keith’s death, the associate pastor of St. Mark’s, Reverend Michael Relyea, gave him last rites of the Episcopal Church and asked him for some last words. “Keith said, ‘Love thy neighbor,’” Annie recalled. “I never knew if he was an atheist or an agnostic,” she added.

He left his body to New York College of Medicine in Valhalla, N.Y.

In addition to his wife Annie, a daughter, Louise Crandell, of New York, two sons, Benjamin Crandell of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Zachary Crandell of Los Angeles, a bother Richard, of Eugene, Oregon, and two grandchildren Haley Crandell of Bellaire, Tex., and Nicholas Crandell, of Ft. Lauderdale, also survive.

A jazz memorial will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 13 at St. Mark’s.

Contributions may be made in his memory to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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