Volume 78 - Number 36 / February 4 - 10 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Obituary

Evelyn Strouse, 92, feisty doyenne of Union Square

By Albert Amateau

Evelyn Strouse, the diminutive woman who exerted enormous influence on neighborhood preservation as a leader of the Union Square Community Coalition for 20 years, died on Jan. 15 in an assisted-living residence in Oakland, Cal. She was 92.

Fearlessly passionate about Union Square Park and neighborhood preservation, she became a friend and mentor to a generation of park advocates. Only 4 feet 8 inches tall and bent by osteoporosis, she nevertheless was a whirlwind of activity operating from her E. 16th St. apartment, where community leaders would meet and plan strategies.

A member of Community Board 5 from July 1992 to July 2002, she chaired the board’s Youth and Education Committee and served on the board’s Transportation and Environmental, Land Use and Zoning, and Parks committees. She was an early member of The Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District.

“She was very political in her own way,” recalled Carol Greitzer, who represented the Union Square district in the City Council in the 1980s. “She knew all the players and she knew how to bug people when she wanted something done.”
Joyce Matz, a Community Board 5 member, recalled Strouse as “a fellow radical” on the board. “She gave a lot to

the city,” Matz said. “Nothing stopped her from fighting for the right things; Evelyn struggled through pain to get to meetings and it wasn’t easy for her.”

“She brought people together,” said Robert W. Walsh, commissioner of the city Department of Small Business Services, who was executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District from 1989 to 1997. “Everyone went to her meetings and everyone read her Union Square Coalition news letter. If you were out of line, she’d scold you. But she was a dear friend and neighbor. Evelyn used to volunteer at Washington Irving High School. Students would wonder who that little old lady was, but eight or 10 minutes into a class she had them all in the palm of her hand reading them poetry,” Walsh recalled.

Her fellow U.S.C.C. members tried to guess last week where Evelyn Strouse would have stood on the controversy over the redesign of Union Square’s north end. Predictably, the supporters and dissenters claimed their diametrically opposing views would have been the same as hers. But all agreed that she was a devoted friend while never shying away from a fight.

David Gmach, a former director of the Union Square BID and now a Con Edison executive, said, “Whether she was your adversary or ally, Evelyn treated you with care and kindness. Her legacy will be not a big building or a major capital project; rather, it is the spirit of community and the role that activism plays in making a neighborhood vibrant.”

“She was a feisty lady and will be much missed,” said Jack Taylor, U.S.C.C. member and founder of The Drive to Protect Ladies’ Mile. The Ladies Mile group advocated for city landmark designation in 1989 of the district that includes 28 blocks with 400 buildings on Broadway, Fifth and Sixth Aves., between 15th and 24th Sts.

“She was a little lady with a big voice. Even though she was so tiny, you could spot her a mile away,” said Susan Kramer, a U.S.C.C. member. “She really cared about the playground [in Union Square Park] and the need to fix it.”
“Every year for my birthday, Evelyn would write me a poem,” recalled Gail Fox, another friend and U.S.C.C. associate. “One day, I wrote a poem back to her and she called me and said she wanted to see me right away. She went over my poem line by line and corrected it.”

Barry Benepe, a founder of both the Union Square Greenmarket and U.S.C.C., recalled meeting Evelyn in 1981 when she had just returned to the U.S. and New York after a seven-year stay in Jerusalem.

“She was a great joy for all of us who believed in preservation,” Benepe said.

Her daughter, Jane Ariel, a psychologist in Oakland, Cal., recalled growing up with her brothers and her mother and father, Albert Lowenstein, in Westchester.

“Our house was a very social place — lots of people in and out of it,” Ariel recalled. “We, her children, saw a different side of her, which could be critical and sometimes aggressively judgmental. In response, we all felt a lot of pressure to be the best at everything and we worked hard at it.”

Evelyn was born on St. Nicholas Ave. near 145th St. in Manhattan on March 27, 1916, to Evangeline Chevalier and Samuel Wartell on March 27, 1916, and by the time Evelyn was 2 her father left the family. When she was 9, she moved with her mother and stepfather, Allen Taylor, to Mt. Vernon, according to her daughter.

“Obviously very bright, she went to Smith College at the tender age of 16,” Ariel said. At Smith she became politically active and went to meetings of left-wing groups, which in 1932 seemed to promise a better way to distribute wealth, Ariel said, quoting her mother’s oral history.

Evelyn married Lowenstein in 1939, and the family lived on the Upper West Side for a while and then in Scarsdale, where she raised her children. Her husband died in 1960 at the age of 51, when their fourth child, Philip, was 1 year old. A short time later, she married again to Edward Strouse, but tragedy struck when Philip was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 5. He died three years later.

After her marriage to Strouse ended in divorce a short time later, Evelyn moved in 1974 to Israel, where her daughter was living with her young children.

“She lived on her own in a small apartment in Jerusalem, wrote book reviews for the Jerusalem Post and helped with the kids,” Ariel said.

In 1981 when Ariel returned to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate degree, Evelyn also returned and settled on E. 16th St. and began her career as the doyenne of Union Square.

Up until two years ago, she continued her lifelong enthusiasm for bridge and took part in a Grandmothers Against the War rally in Oakland.

Evelyn Strouse earned the Rudy Bruner Award for Excellence in the Urban Community in 1991 and the Concerned Citizen Award, in recognition of her U.S.C.C. service, in 1993. In 2002, the City Council recognized Evelyn Strouse as an outstanding citizen, and the Historic Districts Council gave her the first Mickey Murphy Award for service to community preservation. Community Board 5 recognized her 10 years of service to the board in 2002, and the Department of Parks and Recreation named her an honorary park warden for 2003.

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