Miriam Friedlander’s Good Fight


Miriam Friedlander, the spirited former councilwoman from the Lower East Side, died last week at 95, and we would count ourselves enormously lucky should her type come this way again.

She was a tiny spitfire, a true product of the American Left who once faced down then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy when his Justice Department demanded that she register as a communist subversive back in 1962. Nothing doing, shot back Friedlander, who was raised in the Bronx and whose brother Paul
was killed fighting with the International Brigades in Spain in 1938. She gave a similar Bronx cheer to the inquisitors from the House Un-American Activities Committee when they demanded to know what she was up to with a group she led called Citizens Committee for Constitutional Liberties. It was none of their business, she informed them.

She brought the same peppery, no-nonsense approach to the City Council when she was elected in 1973 to represent the old Second District, a swath of lower Manhattan running from Gramercy Park to Chinatown. She was one of only four female representatives and she wasted no time letting colleagues know that she insisted on respect. “Let’s get into the spirit of this,” she snapped at a male councilmember who couldn’t bring himself to use her title when addressing her. “Refer to me after this as Councilwoman Friedlander.”

She spent the next 20 years carrying her lance on behalf of her constituents, as well as championing broader concerns that were front and center on her agenda.

She championed housing for the poor and insisted that the scores of tenements then tumbling into city tax foreclosure in her district be used as a resource for affordable housing. She was as tough on local organizations that didn’t move fast enough to take advantage of the funding opportunities she won as she was on city bureaucrats who dawdled with their mission.

She was one of the earliest and most fervent backers of an issue that got little attention at the time on the orthodox Left: legislation to extend anti-discrimination coverage to homosexuals. “This is part of the whole fight for human rights and dignity,” she said while marching in an early gay rights rally.

She introduced the first city legislation on behalf of victims of domestic violence, demanding that city agencies assist them with shelter and advice. At hearings on her bill, she hammered at police officials who sheepishly acknowledged that cops were then under instructions not to make arrests when called to incidents. She pounced on a councilman from Brooklyn who questioned whether it was a good idea “to break up marriages just because a husband beats his wife.”

When the city’s former housing commissioner, Roger Starr, suggested in an infamous essay in the Times Sunday magazine that the proper municipal response to urban blight was a system of “planned shrinkage” in which basic services would be withdrawn from ailing neighborhoods in an effort to depopulate them, Friedlander stepped forward. Such miserly talk, she said, was “out of step with 200 years of legislative interpretation of the Constitution.”

Little wonder that when a then little-known organization called ACT UP wanted to confront a reluctant Koch administration about the growing AIDS epidemic, they turned to Friedlander for help. To get them the attention they needed, she invited several hundred of the budding activists to City Hall as her personal guests. “On a glorious late fall evening,” recalls Jim Eigo, a longtime constituent from Avenue A and member of the new group, “ACT UP –with a beaming Miriam in attendance — held its first gloriously noisy action on the steps of City Hall.”

When a homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park set neighbor against neighbor in the late ’80s, Friedlander misjudged the tolerance of those she’d represented for years. Surely, she said, if the park has to be cleared, then social services must be provided to the needy among those who are evicted. The issue became an easy weapon for opponents to use against her and she was narrowly defeated in 1991 by Antonio Pagan who ran decidedly to her right, challenging her on the park issue as well as the notion that AIDS housing deserved its place in the district.

She tried a comeback two years later, but was defeated by an old Tammany Hall tactic when a candidate with a name close to her own entered the race. Lucky for Rudy Giuliani, Friedlander was gone by the time he took over at City Hall. But she stayed in the neighborhood, living in her second floor walk-up on East 6th Street, available for advice to those still fighting the good fight, showing up for press conferences, demonstrations and rallies.

“She was there until the end,” said Frances Goldin, a co-founder of Cooper Square Committee which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. “She was always wise in her advice to me when I was in a quandary about a position to take. She never steered me wrong.”

And if she was a Red they should make more like her. Image via Our Campaigns.