A neighborhood preservationist, she had significant victories as a protester, provocateur and voice for lost causes.
By Sam Roberts
May 18, 2020
Reprinted from The New York Times
Frances Goldin, a lifelong firebrand who won her first street brawl when she was 11 and as a grown-up never stopped fighting to safeguard her beloved Lower East Side from upscale developers, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 95.
Her death, in the same rent-controlled apartment on East 11th Street where she lived for 40 years, was confirmed by her daughter Sally.
An unreconstructed socialist, Ms. Goldin was an advocate for affordable housing and a staunch defender of the poor.
Her activism extended over two careers. In one, she was a civic leader in a vintage neighborhood that was being gussied up with fancy names (“as soon as they said ‘East Village,’ they tripled the rent,” she told The New York Times in 1984) and studded with asymmetrical buildings girdled in glass.
In the other, from 1977, she was a literary agent who represented progressive authors, including Susan Brownmiller, Martin Duberman, Juan Gonzalez, Robert Meeropol, Frances Fox Piven and the New York City historian Mike Wallace. The novelist Barbara Kingsolver chose Ms. Goldin on the basis of her advertisement that read, “I do not represent any material that is sexist, ageist or gratuitously violent.”
A founder of both the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the Cooper Square Committee, Ms. Goldin was a fixture at the annual Gay Pride Parade in New York. (Her signature sign read, “I Adore My Lesbian Daughters — Keep Them Safe.”) She was also a member of her neighborhood’s Community Planning Board and the Joint Planning Council of the Lower East Side, to which she moved 75 years ago.
And while she was most visible as a protester, provocateur and spokeswoman for various lost causes, her stubbornness, forbearance and ultimately her backstage bargaining produced substantive victories.
The Cooper Square Committee, which describes itself as the “oldest anti-displacement organization” in the nation, blocked Robert Moses’ wholesale slum clearance plan for the Lower East Side and Chinatown in the late 1950s and instead established a mutual housing association, which helped rehabilitate buildings and add amenities to them.
“She was an unsung hero who started or led the Cooper Square Committee’s fight against a Moses urban renewal plan and then created affordable housing that still survives,” Roberta Brandes Gratz, the author and urban critic, said.
Ms. Goldin also persevered in a prolonged dispute over the Seward Park urban renewal area, a wasteland cleared of slums in the 1960s. Some 1,800 families, most of them Puerto Rican, lost their tenement apartments to make way for new housing on the south side of Delancey Street, near the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge.
But the lot remained vacant for 50 years because Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, and William Rapfogel, who headed the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Housing, vetoed the proposed housing; it would have altered the Jewish voter advantage in the district by inviting an influx of Hispanic and Chinese newcomers.
“They would rather have the vacant lots and rats than have minority people there,” Ms. Goldin told The Times in 1994.
In 2012, she helped negotiate the construction of Essex Crossing, a complex on the site that includes 1,100 apartments, more than half of which are reserved for low- and middle-income tenants. In one 14-story building, named the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments, all of the apartments are deemed affordable.
The families displaced in the 1960s were promised preference in applying for the new apartments, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the buildings were completed and the first of the former neighborhood residents could return.
“This may come as close as we can now get, in a political system obeisant to private enterprise, to balancing equity with gentrification,” Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for The Times, wrote.
Frances Axler was born on June 22, 1924, in Queens, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her mother, Sophie (Saslowsky) Axler, was a seamstress who worked in the Asch Building on Washington Place but was dismissed for union activity two weeks before the Triangle Waist Co. fire there killed 146 workers in 1911. Her father, Michael, was a mechanic for the IRT and helped develop windshield wipers for subway cars.
She grew up in Springfield Gardens where, she said, she was bullied and the family was subjected to anti-Semitism that resulted in street brawls, including one with a girl from a German family next door. Afterward, Ms. Goldin asked her father tearfully how he could have let her beat the girl. He replied, she recalled: “You had to have this fight. And I want to assure you you’ll never have to fight again.” Not with her classmates, anyway.
She graduated as the valedictorian at Andrew Jackson High School. The principal recommended that she apply to college, but, prodded by her mother to become a secretary, she taught herself to type instead.
“To this day, I regret my lack of education,” she said in a 2014 interview with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
Ms. Goldin did clerical work for, among others, W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist and civil rights activist, and the government’s War Shipping Administration. There she met Morris Goldin, whom she married in 1944. (The marriage ended in divorced in 1971.) She then supported the family as a secretary when he was blacklisted as a Communist. She joined the party, too, in the mid-1940s and quit about a decade later.
In addition to their daughter Sally, Ms. Goldin is survived by another daughter, Reeni Goldin; and a grandson.
When the couple moved to the Lower East Side, she said, “I found nirvana” and a bond with her neighbors.
“What bound us all was poverty,” she said. “And there’s something about poverty that unites people. They might not know what your language is or your color is; they know you’re poor.”
In 1950, she ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate as the candidate of the American Labor Party, which was being dogged by accusations of Communist infiltration. (Mr. Du Bois ran, also unsuccessfully, for United States senator from New York on the same American Labor Party ticket.)
When she was nearing 90, Ms. Goldin said she had had three goals. One was to preserve and improve Lower East Side housing, which she helped accomplish. The second was to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former radio reporter convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. A client of her literary agency, he was spared the death penalty but is still serving a life sentence.
The third was to publish “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA,” which she edited with Debby Smith and Michael Smith. The book was, in fact, published in 2014 after Ms. Goldin reminded HarperCollins how much it had profited from “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny,” two books by Margaret Wise Brown, whose estate was represented by the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, which still operates.
“Capitalism can’t work,” Ms. Goldin told The Indypendent, a New York monthly newspaper, in 2014. “It’s a system where you can never have enough.”
“The nature of the system is to expand,” she added. “It’s why we are an empire. In time, all empires disappear. I just want it to happen faster.”