Volume 79, Number 24 | November 18 - 24, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Memorial

Villager photo by George Cohen

Paul Friedlander speaking at the memorial for his mother, Miriam Friedlander, at City Hall last week. The back of the head in the foreground belongs to former state Senator Catherine Abate, one of the many past and present politicians who attended.

Friedlander’s fighting spirit continues to inspire

By Lincoln Anderson

From her crusading efforts on behalf of women and the underrepresented, to her dedication to the community, to the “pithy pointers” she doled out to her many political protégées, former City Councilmember Miriam Friedlander was remembered in all her many facets at a City Hall memorial last week.

A progressive crowd of friends and politicians packed the City Council Chamber last Thursday to remember Friedlander — and also to recommit themselves to the principles that she embodied. Outside, in front of City Hall, the flag flew at half-mast.

Friedlander, who died Oct. 4 at age 95, was a councilmember from 1974 to 1991. For most of her tenure, she represented the East Village and Lower East Side as well as all of Manhattan south of Houston St.

Gazing at the impressive turnout, Assemblymember Deborah Glick remarked, “It’s a great tribute for someone who’s been out of office many years. If you look around here, you see community activists who’ve been in every fight... .”

Like other politicians and activists who spoke at the memorial, the assemblymember viewed Friedlander as a role model.

“She was an intensely loyal person,” Glick said. “I was enamored of her steadfastness and her steady core, and wanted to emulate that.”

Glick recalled once when she took a position that was making waves, Friedlander advised her not to worry, instead telling her, “You should gauge how well you’re doing by the level of anger directed at you.” 

So for those wondering at her feisty “M.O.,” Glick said, “I have Miriam sitting on my shoulder.”

On Friedlander’s words of advice, the politicians who today represent parts of her former district fondly remembered the zinger-like suggestions she dispensed.

‘Get a blue suit’
Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who represents the Second District (East Village and a sliver of the Lower East Side) organized and emceed the memorial. She recalled what Friedlander told her when she first ran for district leader: “Get a blue suit.” 

And, indeed, Mendez wore a blue suit last Thursday.

Margaret Chin, the councilmember-elect in the First District (Lower Manhattan, Lower East Side, Chinatown, Soho, Washington Square), had her own Friedlander story:

“She told me, ‘You gotta watch for that nervous laugh you have.’ I didn’t expect her to say that. ... Maybe I do!” she said to the audience’s laughter.

Chin said Friedlander always supported her former organization, Asian Americans for Equality, in its efforts to build affordable housing in the neighborhood. She vowed to try to carry on Friedlander’s work in the City Council, by standing up for poor people and advocating for low-income housing.

“She will always be in our heart and she will be there for me, guiding me in the City Council,” Chin said.

Carlos “Chino” Garcia, director of CHARAS — which formerly ran the longtime cultural and community center at the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. — recalled something Friedlander championed in the Council that is still sorely needed today.

“The one issue that I remember — that she tried — it was commercial rent control,” Garcia said, garnering applause from the crowd. “If we are paying more than 75 cents for a cup of coffee in our neighborhood now...they should have listened to Miriam Friedlander.”

Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, recalled Friedlander’s vigor and selflessness.

“Everyone talks about Miriam being a strong woman, because she was the strongest when women weren’t in power,” she said. “But she was still a star at 87 and 89 — she had so much energy.

“People remember her being very direct, but I remember her being very thoughtful,” Stetzer said. “Even at 95, Miriam never complained. She never talked about herself. She never had a problem. She always wanted to know what was going on in the neighborhood. She always asked about the other person.”

Carol Feinman, an administrative law judge and former Community Board 2 chairperson, recalled how, as a young woman in the 1960s dressing casually and wearing jeans, she, too, got the famous Friedlander directive: “Get a nice blue suit.”

“I grew up in the Hillman Houses on Grand St., so the things I heard about Miriam Friedlander were not very positive,” Feinman noted. “But, of course, this was coming from people who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972.

‘She spoke to you’
“When she spoke to you, she was speaking to you,” Feinman said. “She gave you her full attention. She didn’t look over your shoulder seeing if someone more interesting or a well-to-do person was coming in the room.”

Tommy Loeb, a former district leader, told of accompanying Friedlander at election time as she tirelessly knocked on doors, hitting virtually every building in the district.

“Miriam tried to meet and talk with every person in the district and hear their concerns,” he said. 

Of her dedication to her constituents, Loeb said, “You never had to worry that Miriam was going to do something that benefited herself. There was only one person as far as Miriam was concerned — what was best for the community.

“Miriam — although she was tough — she knew how to negotiate,” he continued. “If she could get half a loaf or get her foot in the door, she’d do it, without abandoning her principles. Former Mayor Ed Koch — who was probably Miriam’s greatest archnemesis and political opponent — realized that if she was fighting for a position, it was because she felt it was good for the community.”

‘Call me councilwoman’
Loeb also noted that it was Friedlander who got the City Council to start recognizing its female members as “councilwoman.” At first, the name plate on her desk in the Council Chamber said “councilman,” she would be addressed as “councilman” by her male colleagues, and that was what her official stationery also said. But each time her colleagues addressed her using the male title, she would retort, “I’m City Councilwoman Miriam Friedlander.” It took several years, Loeb said, but eventually the change was made.

Friedlander notably chaired a subcommittee on women’s issues.

On a humorous note, Loeb said Friedlander was a demanding boss.

“You had to know how to stuff and seal 10 envelopes in a single motion,” he recalled. “She would stand over you until you could do it.”

Of her legendary reputation of “being all over the district,” Loeb quipped that, early on, she got a car, “which allowed her to get to 25 meetings in a day.” 

The flip side, he said, was that every day, Friedlander would tell them about her latest fender bender.

Councilmember Gale Brewer also praised Friedlander as being among the City Council’s women pioneers.

“I remember there were three — Carol Greitzer, Ruth Messinger and Miriam Friedlander,” she said. “She really was a feminist in the City Council, who cared about women’s issues and never gave up on it.”

Among other politicians past and present at the memorial were former state Senator Catherine Abate and former Councilmember Margarita Lopez — who both gave remarks — former Councilmembers Carol Greitzer and Kathryn Freed, Councilmember Alan Gerson, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and District Leaders Keen Berger, Brad Hoylman, Jean Grillo and Paul Newell. 

Her son, Paul Friedlander, flew in for the memorial from Chico, Cal., where he is a music professor. He is named for Miriam’s brother, Paul Sigel, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War fighting with the International Brigades against Franco’s fascist forces.

“Nobody can stand in her footsteps,” Paul Friedlander said. “She had two things: the fire that burned inside, and a true handle on the sense of justice. When you combine this fire in the belly with this passion for social justice, it really defines her life through the years.”

Never left the community
Right up almost to the end, Friedlander lived without any assistance in her second-floor apartment in an E. Sixth St. walk-up. Paul said she steadfastly refused to leave the neighborhood she loved.

“I’d say, ‘Mom, come out here and live with us in California,’” he recalled, to which she would respond: “‘Oh no, I couldn’t leave the city. I still have meetings to go to. What would they do without me?’”

As for climbing the flight of stairs, he said she’d remind him she was a dancer (she majored in dance at New York University), and not to worry.

“I’m sure her last words were, ‘Don’t mourn — work for peace,’” Paul said. 

Mendez added that she’s working with the Parks Department to have the bench where Friedlander used to sit at Seventh St. and Avenue A in Tompkins Square Park named for her. She said she’s also proposing that Sixth St. between First and Second Aves. get an honorary street co-naming sign for Friedlander. 

Under Community Board 3 rules, 75 percent of the residents and merchants on the block must sign on to the street co-naming effort, Mendez noted. 

She asked Paul Friedlander if he preferred “Miriam Friedlander Place” or “Miriam Friedlander Way.” In a response that surely would have pleased his mom, he said, “It’s up to the community.”

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