Volume 79, Number 19 | Oct 14 - 20, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photo by Al Schwartz
Bella Abzug, center, campaigning with Miriam Friedlander, right, on E. 14th St., possibly during Abzug’s congressional race circa 1970.

Miriam Friedlander, councilmember who helped voiceless, 95

By Lincoln Anderson

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, Fried-lander’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.”

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.

Brother killed in Spain

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. 

“I heard there was an exchange of letters,” Bradlow said.

Paul Friedlander took great offense at Koch’s characterizations of his mother as a communist.

“She was known to have an affinity for democracy,” Paul said. “She felt for the people who were underrepresented. 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. Bradlow said Friedlander had called her after she was profiled in The Villager last year, wanting to make sure the things she had said were accurate.

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.


The Village and politics

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.


‘She was everywhere’

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 took 2,000 votes.

“We lost that one because some of the Hispanic community was confused by ‘Friedman’ and ‘Friedlander,’ ” Bradlow said. “If Sylvia hadn’t run, Miriam would have won — because the community had started to realize what this guy [Pagan] was about.”

When The Villager 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.


Mendez carries torch

Today, the Second Council District is represented by Rosie Mendez. At Mendez’s inauguration in 2006, her predecessor, former Councilmember Margarita Lopez, swore her in in Spanish, while Friedlander did the honors in English.

Mendez, who grew up in Williamsburg, said her activism naturally drew her to the East Village, where she formed alliances with the likes of Lopez and Friedlander. Mendez marveled at Friedlander’s energy, even when the former councilmember was into her 90s.

“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 said Council Speaker Christine Quinn made sure Friedlander was seated up front with the other councilmembers during the ceremony. Mendez, who is openly 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. 

“It was nice that she was there,” Mendez said of the ceremony.

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. And hopefully we can all learn from that, but also emulate her example.”

Scott Stringer, Manhattan borough president, said in a statement: “Former City Councilmember Miriam Friedlander was a tireless advocate for her constituents in the East Village and Lower East Side, and a stalwart Democrat who spent nearly two decades in service to the members of her district. A great believer in social justice, Friedlander was one of the first elected officials to take the lead on issues relating to gay and lesbian rights, AIDS advocacy and domestic-violence prevention. Even her former political opponents praise her commitment and dedication to the causes that were most important to her, including tenants’ rights.”


‘Living legend’ at V.I.D.

Friedlander was involved in two Downtown political organizations, CoDA and Village Independent Democrats. Chad Marlow, a past V.I.D. president, said while Friedlander didn’t come to every one of their meetings, “She was a regular presence. You’d expect to see her several times a year.

“We had a lot of past and present politicians — and mayoral, Senate and gubernatorial candidates — coming through V.I.D.,” Marlow said. “But really, no one was revered quite the way Miriam Friedlander was. She was probably the only one who came in who had something of a ‘living legend’ status. V.I.D. is a very opinionated group and someone always has something to say. But when Miriam Friedlander was speaking, you could hear a pin drop. When Miriam spoke it was like E.F. Hutton. The last thing you wanted to do as a V.I.D. member when you were pushing something, was have Miriam Friedlander disagree with you — people took her opinion very seriously.”

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. Nevertheless, the incident highlighted Friedlander’s evenhanded approach to problems.

“Miriam tried to bring people together,” Penley said.


‘You saw her in the ’hood’

“I think Miriam was the best councilperson, because after she was elected you saw her in the neighborhood,” the activist continued. “She would go around talking to anybody and everybody. She wasn’t really judgmental. She’d talk to the Tent City guys and try to find out their problems.

“She would sit right near the front of the park on Seventh St.,” Penley recalled. “I can’t remember any other councilmember other than Miriam sitting in Tompkins Square Park.”

Elsa Rensaa, an artist and photographer, spoke of a memorable moment when she and her husband, Lower East Side documentarian Clayton Patterson, witnessed Friedlander in action during a tense standoff over the Umbrella House squat on Avenue C.

“We were on the roof of a building looking down on her and she was yelling, ‘Leave this building alone!’ It was 6 a.m. — I mean, 6 a.m.!” she said, awe in her voice that a councilmember would even deign to get up that early. “They were thinking of moving on it,” Rensaa said of plans to evict the squatters.

“Miriam Friedlander was a person,” she said with a soft but firm nod. “She was the real deal.”

Similarly, Friedlander’s critics still have harsh words for her policies.

Howard Hemsley, a main early backer of Antonio Pagan’s rise to power, said, “I thought that she was a worthy opponent and stayed true to her principles. Yes, we disagreed about the issues — but it wasn’t personal.”


‘End of an era’

“But she marked, certainly, the end of an era,” Hemsley continued. “With regard to her policies, I think they were rooted in the ’50s and ’60s and didn’t change with the times. I saw her anointing herself as champion of the minorities and the oppressed — without consulting and working with them as an equal, and empowering them, as opposed to empowering yourself. It was the typical white attitude that, ‘We know best.’

“She was wrong on the park,” declared Hemsley, who is black. “I said publicly, I was shocked by the attitude of white liberals who would die to allow black men to sleep in the park, but weren’t willing to find them housing.” Of Pagan, on the other hand, he stressed, “He built housing.”

Hemsley also faulted Friedlander on how social-service facilities were sited in the neighborhood during her tenure, noting, “A poorly sited social-service facility does a disservice to the community it’s purported to serve.”

But Bradlow defended Friedlander on her lenient stance on the homeless in the park, noting, “If they had somewhere else to go — they would have gone there. She was very strong on the issue of civil treatment.”

Paul Friedlander said his mother had interests that not everyone knew about, including music and art, travel and sports. Before she died, she had just re-upped her subscription to Carnegie Hall, he noted. During her time in the Council, taking trips to far-flung, exotic places like the Amazon and Antarctica was her way to unwind, he said. They also visited baseball stadiums together along the East Coast, he recalled.

“My parents were avid Brooklyn Dodgers fans,” he said. “Both were physical.”

Music runs in the family, and Friedlander’s grandson, David, a freshman at the University of Oregon, was in one of the most popular high school bands in Chico, his father proudly noted.

Bradlow noted Friedlander was a lifelong supporter of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and that this was the first year she missed the group’s annual dinner. Paul Friedlander recalled his mother had “a lengthy relationship with a brigade veteran.”


‘The ideal of a politician’

“My years in her campaign were truly a labor of love and a devotion,” Bradlow reflected. “I drew like $250 a month in the years I coordinated her campaign, to cover my transportation and food bills.

“I did this because she was the closest to the ideal I had of a politician.”

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 at the corner of Ninth St. and Avenue B. Afterward, she joined the festivities at La Plaza Cultural down the block.

As salsa music played and people danced, ate and schmoozed in the chilly air in the 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.”

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