News & Politics

Miriam Friedlander’s Good Fight

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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.

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