BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Wed., July 15, 2 p.m.: Ellen Peterson-Lewis, a staunch environmentalist and a longtime stalwart of the Village Independent Democrats, died on June 27 at Gouverneur Hospital on the Lower East Side. She was 83. The cause of death was metastatic cancer.
According to Zella Jones, a friend and fellow V.I.D. member, Ellen had been hospitalized for several days after a fall, when it was discovered that her lung cancer had spread throughout her body. Her final care was well-managed, so she was not in pain; Ellen passed quickly.
Ellen Peterson was born on Sept. 20, 1936, in Oak Park, Illinois, the middle daughter of three girls of Curtis and Doris Peterson. Her father was a tanner. Her mother (née Schuler) was a homemaker.
Ellen’s sister Carole Carter said the family moved frequently due to their father’s work, eventually settling in Massachusetts near Peabody, which was a center of the tanning industry. Ellen attended high school in Beverly, then studied physical education at Bridgewater State Teachers College, also in Massachusetts.
After moving to New York, she lived in the Village on University Place, and then, starting in the late 1980s, at 622 Greenwich St., between Leroy and Morton Sts. She taught phys ed just outside the city, in Clifton, New Jersey.
Around 30 years ago, she married the love her life, Dr. Al Lewis, a unit chief in psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. The two met through playing tennis in East Hampton, a passion of Ellen’s.
Lewis, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, remains in their Village home, with several caregivers, and is not aware of Ellen’s absence. In kindness, his caregivers are not telling him of her passing.
Frieda Bradlow, another veteran member of V.I.D., said Ellen “was a force” in the area’s progressive politics.
Ellen and Bradlow — along with Ann Arlen, chairperson of the Community Board 2 Environmental Committee — formed a core group of activists who stood up for the community’s interests on local environmental issues, ranging from fighting against truck fuel depots on Hudson St. to pollution by printers in the former Printing District, among others. Ellen and Bradlow were both public members of Arlen’s committee.
“Usually, many mornings, we would both be down at City Council testifying on one thing or another,” Bradlow recalled. “Together with Ann Arlen, we considered ourselves the triumvirate.”
Ellen’s strength was her incredibly diligent research, Bradlow said.
“She was the most tenacious fact-getter on whatever we were working on,” she said. “If she said so, you better believe it. We relied on her when we were giving testimony to give us the actual facts. Her gift to the community was her tenacious research.”
Whereas Bradlow and Arlen would make “intellectual and emotional” arguments, Bradlow recalled, it was Ellen who came armed with hard facts and data.
Eight years ago, Ellen was part of the resistance to the Spectra high-pressure fracked-gas pipeline that came into the Village — across the river from New Jersey — at Gansevoort Peninsula, right near the Whitney Museum.
She also was involved in the losing battle against the construction of the multi-district Department of Sanitation garage at Spring and Washington Sts.
She was part of the Greenwich Village Task Force and its struggles on many community issues.
Bradlow added that those like Ellen and Al who settled in the Far West Village were truly trailblazers.
“Those buildings were converted to residential,” she said. “They were warehouses. That was like a wasteland until these people moved in, like pioneers.”
Just as she was in the Village, Ellen was also a force in East Hampton, which was a big part of her life, Bradlow noted.
She was an avid collector of East End art, and enjoyed sports on the Island, especially canoeing, swimming and tennis.
“She was one of the few women who I met on the court who I couldn’t beat,” Bradlow said.
Ellen’s generosity and commitment to V.I.D. were legendary. Tony Hoffmann, a former Village Democratic district leader, recalled how, in 2012, she funded the development of the club’s Web site, which literally saved V.I.D. by attracting new membership at a time when the club’s continued existence was in doubt.
“She came into the club a little after me,” Hoffmann said. “I joined the club in 1976. … We had a very poor Web site. We had no money, we were living month to month. She gave the club, I think it was $3,000, to develop the Web site.”
As a result of Ellen’s generosity, “We really had one of the best Web sites of any political club in Manhattan,” Hoffmann said. “That really attracted people.
“She was ahead of her time,” he said, of Ellen’s recognizing the importance of the Internet to the club’s membership-building efforts.
In 2018, the V.I.D. Web page attracted more than 174,000 visitors, who viewed a total of 1.69 million pages.
“She was very much a liberal,” Hoffmann said. “And she believed in the issues of the environment and education, and V.I.D. was the club that symbolized those issues. She was instrumental in the survival of the club.”
Jonathan Geballe, a former V.I.D. president, issued a statement praising Ellen, calling her “one of those golden people.”
“Ellen was for many years a member of the V.I.D. Executive Committee,” he wrote. “Her voice was always welcome, progressive in outlook, but a critical and firm voice of moderation. When necessary she would bring inspired but untested propositions down to earth.”
Geballe noted how she was an intrepid gatherer of petition signatures to get candidates put on the ballot.
“Ellen was a reliable, dedicated petitioner and our kickoff campaign breakfasts were not complete without her. She was one of those golden people: trustworthy, fair-minded, looking out for others, a true and loyal friend and a zealous advocate for democracy and justice and the care of our Earth.”
A good friend of Ellen’s toward the end of her life was Jane Martin, an East Hampton artist. The two met on the beach 10 years ago and clicked.
“She enjoyed nature,” Martin recalled, “loved the water, loved to swim and snorkel and kayak. She loved the arts. She collected a lot of Hamptons works. She liked landscapes and Expressionist works.
“Ellen was someone who always stepped up in any circumstance to be of service and support to others,” she said. “She did it with love and respect. We have lost a beautiful spirit.”
Martin would come into the city and stay with Ellen and Al and hit the Chelsea gallery scene with Ellen. They also visited Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park together in 2011.
A few days before Ellen passed, Martin shared with her some live views of her beloved East Hampton.
“When I FaceTimed with her, I showed her the bay and the beach,” she said. “It’s a big hole in my life.”
In 2018, when Ellen came down with a near-fatal illness, her V.I.D.’er friend Jones wrote a tribute letter applauding Ellen and her impressive body of community work, which was signed by two-dozen members of the club.
As noted in the letter, one fight where Ellen definitely did have an impact was against loud tour buses in the Village.
As Jones wrote, “You were the driving force and principle funder of [the group] ‘Our Streets Our Lives,’ which secured NYC legislation to ban loudspeakers on open tour buses and later to alter the routes they took through residential neighborhoods.”
Ellen also weighed in on the New York University 2031 construction plan on the school’s South Village superblocks, and was part of the struggle against the Gansevoort Row project that upzoned a block in the landmarked Meatpacking District.
“She was ever-present in all of Greenwich Village’s causes,” Jones told The Village Sun, “from the fuel depots in Lower Manhattan to the cross-Hudson pipeline, saving the Fiorello LaGuardia statue at the children’s park on LaGuardia Place, Save Gansevoort and throughout the N.Y.U. negotiations. Ellen was a reasoned voice among many who weren’t.”
Jones noted that Ellen was a good friend to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senator Brad Hoylman, former state Senator Tom Duane, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson “and scores of neighborhood activists.”
V.I.D. is the home club of both Glick and Hoylman.
“Ellen Peterson-Lewis was a very active member of the community, committed to the Greenwich Village Task Force,” Glick said. “She was passionate about maintaining an open, accessible waterfront and keeping affordable housing in the West Village, like West Village Houses. Ellen was committed to Friends of LaGuardia Place and retaining open spaces on LaGuardia Place for public use.
“A true Villager, she worked with Village Independent Democrats on voter registration and getting out the vote,” Glick said. “But most importantly, she was smart, insightful and a wonderful woman, supportive of friends and family. Warmhearted and generous, she was incredibly kind to me, and I will miss her tremendously.”
Hoylman said, “Ellen Peterson-Lewis was a compassionate, caring and committed Village stalwart. I’ll miss her involvement in V.I.D. and local politics, as well as the good advice she gave me over the years. They don’t make them like Ellen anymore.”
Throughout her life, Ellen continued to be engaged at Community Board 2 on environmental issues. She was a public member of the Quality of Life Committee, meaning that while she was not appointed to the board, she regularly participated in committee meetings.
“Ellen was a public member of the Environment Committee before it merged with the Quality of Life Committee and she continued on Quality of Life until her passing,” said Joe Gallagher, the committee’s chairperson.
“She was a dedicated member of the committee and tireless advocate for environmental issues. Most recently, she would press all restaurant owners appearing before our committee to use sustainable utensils and packaging in to-go orders. Many times, it was clear that restaurant owners had not considered this idea until Ellen brought it up, and many owners committed to doing so. She will be sorely missed.”
Alicia Hurley, a former New York University vice president of government affairs and community engagement, worked with Ellen on, among other things, protecting the Fiorello LaGuardia statue on LaGuardia Place and the nearby children’s playground.
“That area was proposed for improvements and she was part of a process to get to the right place of what were some nice greening and seating areas and a small playground that the community requested, at N.Y.U.’s expense,” Hurley recalled.
“Ellen was always a consistent, effective and passionate advocate for her community and for the environment,” she said. “She had a keen sense for moving things ahead and kept a sharp sense of humor all the way. She will be missed. She taught me a lot.
As an example of Ellen’s dedication to V.I.D., Hoffmann, who is a former club president, shared a particular anecdote about how Ellen helped him win reelection to district leader in a tight race back in the 1980s — putting aside her own feelings on an issue, in the process.
Two years earlier, Hoffmann had barely squeaked out a victory over Tim James, from the breakaway Village Reform Democratic Club. Hoffmann’s Achilles’ heel had been Fifth Ave. and University Place, which James had won. Meanwhile, James’s future wife, Liz Shollenberger, already was the female district leader, and if Hoffmann was unseated as male district leader, then V.R.D.C. would be the Village’s main political club and V.I.D. would be relegated to a mere side note.
“There were street vendors on Eighth St. and on University Place up to Ninth and 10th Sts.,” Hoffmann recalled. “The neighborhood was very much against them. Ellen introduced me to the head of the group opposing the street vendors.”
Hoffmann worked with the area’s politicians to clear out the street vendors — and it paid off at the polls. This time he won Fifth Ave. and University Place, and he again held off James.
“Ellen told me she favored the street vendors,” Hoffmann recalled. “I said, ‘Why did you connect me to all the leaders of the movement?’ She said, ‘I wanted V.I.D. to win. We couldn’t not have a district leader.’
“If we had lost that second district leader seat, V.R.D.C., which was a much more conservative club, a Koch club, they would have been the only club in town,” he noted. “That was typical of Ellen — her support of the liberal club in the area.”
Echoing others, Bradlow stressed that one of the things that made Ellen so beloved was her great warmth.
“She was a very warm and special person,” she said. “I can imagine she was a very dedicated gym teacher. I used to wish I had been in her gym class. She just loved movement and she was such a caring person.”
Whenever Bradlow would visit Ellen in the Hamptons, she was impressed at how everyone they met knew Ellen and greeted her fondly.
“Nobody was warmer than she was,” she said. “A very special gal.”
Ellen Peterson-Lewis is survived by her husband, Dr. Al Lewis, two sisters, Carole Carter, of Topsfield, Massachusetts, and Marilyn Gaven, of Winchester, Virginia, two nephews, a niece and three stepchildren.
Ellen’s sister Carole said Greenwich Village Funeral Home sent her all of Ellen’s cremated remains. A private service will be held in Topsfield.
“Ellen’s ashes, after being put into a lovely protecting urn, will be interred in our mother’s grave at a private graveside service,” she said. “Due to the pandemic and the fact that the cemetery now allows only 10 people at a service, the service will be family only.”
Corrections: The original version of this obituary stated that Tim James and Liz Shollenberger were already married when James ran against Tony Hoffmann for district leader in 1987 and ’89. However, James and Shollenberger married in 1990. Also, the original version said Ellen Peterson-Lewis initially settled in the Village on Greenwich St., when, in fact, she had earlier lived on University Place.
You did Ellen proud, Lincoln. Thank you from all of us.
I am so very saddened to read this. Ellen’s welcoming smile was a joy to receive whenever one ran into her. We all benefited from Ellen’s positive activism. She will be missed. Thank you, for letting us know and for writing such a wonderful article about her life.
Wonderful person. We will all miss her.
I’m very sad to hear about Ellen’s passing. When I first joined VID about 20 years ago, I was a bit intimidated and over-awed by this vaunted progressive cub. But Ellen was one of those who always made me feel welcome at VID meetings and affairs. We will miss her strong progressive voice…and her kindness. Thank you Lincoln for this wonderfully thorough and caring obituary.
Excellent obit, Lincoln
She was a lovable, vital presence in my life for many years. Her participation in our effort to create a Maritime Mile Historic District was especially important to me. And I recall with great pleasure her attending my 90th birthday celebration (five years ago).
A longtime warrior for social justice, may the memory of Ellen Peterson-Lewis be for a blessing.