Photo by Richard McCaffery
Ross Graham was honored earlier this year for her contributions to Hudson River Park.
Age Is A State Of Mind
Through politics, activism, swimming & friends, 82-year old Ross Graham stays young
By Janel Bladow
Next time you drive along the West Side Highway or walk along the Hudson River and see the beautiful greenway stretching between the waterfront and the roadway, think of Ross Graham, an 82-years young Chelsea resident who helped make Hudson River Park a reality.
“It’s a wonderful sixth career,” Ms. Graham laughed one sunny afternoon in her comfortable living room. “Skeptics couldn’t believe that a road and a community could coincide.”
As the citizen advocate for Friends of Hudson River Park, Ms. Graham was involved in the project from its grassroots. In 1999, she joined with community activists and a coalition of environmental, civic and neighborhood groups to found the organization. Before that, she was appointed in 1992 to the board of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, a predecessor to the Friends organization, by then-Borough President Ruth Messinger.
“Hudson River Park is the result of opposition to Westway (a proposed federally funded highway running along the west side of Manhattan). I became involved in fighting for the park in the seventies when they were pushing a recycling plant on Gansevoort. Key was to find a way to marry the road and what we wanted – community access to the waterfront,” she told Thrive.
Today, she has her dream, with the opening this spring of the Chelsea section of the 5-mile park.
Ms. Graham began dabbling in politics in 1960 as a way to make friends. She joined a democratic club in Chelsea. “The club president recognized that I wasn’t just going to sit around and put me to work,” she laughs.
She wrote a white paper on civil rights and civil liberties that was sent to Congressman Bill Ryan. She actively campaigned for State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein.
“Mr. Ohrenstein and I became good friends right away and volunteered for him for four years. In 1965 Democrats were in power and he hired me for $7000 a year.”
She worked for the state senator for 20 years, becoming his Chief of Staff. “It was a wonderful time. While I worked in Albany, they abolished capital punishment, legalized abortion, and championed welfare and civil rights reform.”
When Ms. Graham talks about her colorful and spirited life, her eyes twinkle. Her parents who met as camp counselors, both taught swimming “so since I was six months old, I’ve been in water.” You can find her these days, still doing dozens of laps at Chelsea Piers.
Raised in Pennsylvania, she graduated with a degree in English and Drama from Tufts University in 1949 – “I wanted to go away from home and my parents were smart people who knew I had to go” – then returned home. “It was the worst year since the Depression for job hunting.”
Yet she landed as a feature reporter at Reading Times eventually becoming the woman’s page editor. While there she made friends with a copyboy who left a note on her typewriter that he liked one of her stories. A few days later, John Updike was off to Harvard.
”I didn’t keep that note,” she says with a tiny bit of disappointment. “But I did see him in Albany years later and he politely didn’t remember me.”
Three years of woman’s news and she desperately wanted out of the job. A friend told her about a position as press agent for a community theater in Rochester, NY. “Because I was the only one with a driver’s license, I became the driver too.”
She moved to New York City in the early 1950s, into a small apartment on the Upper West Side with a tub in the kitchen. To supplement her small salary, she and a friend baked and sold fruitcakes.
Wanderlust soon got the better of her and she took off for Europe for a year and a half, first living in Paris. She rented a car and drove everywhere, picking up hitchhikers. “It was a fine life, until I ran out of money. But I was not ready to go home.”
She headed to London where she got a work permit and a job at the BBC. “Rationing just stopped in London when I got there in 1957,” she remembers, but soon she was flying back to New York City. “I was glad to be home, to be in New York where the sun shone most of the time.”
She still has close friends from those heady days and is off to visit London this fall. But at heart, she’s a New Yorker.
“I have a lot of friends of various ages. Many I met in political clubs and the community board. I have a brunch bunch – a group of five women – all younger than I am – 38 to 59 – and we met because of Community Board 4. We love to get together and talk politics, theater.”
She never married and says she would have like to have children. “The young ones are my great joy and I love spending time with them.”
But her heart belongs to Manhattan.
“New York City is great for old people – I don’t like being called a senior citizen. New York is wonderful to walk. It’s a series of neighborhoods and you can go almost anywhere. It’s great for single people like me. A walker’s city.”
Her advice to New Yorkers, young and old?
“Get out and expand your horizons.”