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Frances Goldin, legendary housing activist, literary agent, dies at 95

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated, Mon., May 18, 6 p.m.: Frances Goldin, who battled Robert Moses and City Hall over their plan to bulldoze a swath of the Lower East Side for urban renewal, and who was a leading literary agent for leftist and radical authors, died on Sat., May 16. She was 95.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but Goldin had been in declining health and growing weaker in recent years.

Goldin and her allies famously fought off Moses’ Cooper Square redevelopment plan, which would have leveled 12 blocks with hundreds of buildings from Ninth St. to Delancey St. to create a Stuyvesant Town-style middle-income complex, while displacing 2,400 tenants. Instead, the opponents fought to implement an alternate community plan, which, after five decades of struggle, was finally achieved.

In 1959, Goldin — along with Thelma Burdick, Esther Rand, Walter Thabit and others — founded the Cooper Square Committee. Two years later, they unveiled their alternate development scheme for the area. Their belief was that urban renewal should improve the lives of existing tenants rather than displace them.

Frances Goldin as a young tenant activist on the Lower East Side.

The committee’s proposal combined preserving existing low-income housing along with constructing new mixed-income housing. Four new buildings along E. Houston St. between Bowery and Second Ave. (the main southern one houses the Whole Foods Market and Chinatown YMCA/community center), constructed by AvalonBay Communities, were part of the community plan; twenty-five percent of their units are affordable. 

The alternate plan was approved by the city’s Board of Estimate in 1970, but didn’t really gain support until Mayor Dinkins was in office. Construction of the new E. Houston St. buildings finally began under Mayor Bloomberg in the early 2000s. 

In addition, in 2012, tenants in the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association’s roughly 325 apartments were able to buy their homes for as little as $250.

Frances Goldin speaking at a protest against the city’s Cooper Square Urban Renewal Plan.

Three years earlier, the Cooper Square Committee had honored Goldin at its 50th anniversary gala at Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown.

“It took us 50 f—ing years,” Goldin told the audience in her remarks, “but we made this community, this little community of Cooper Square, unlike any community in the world! Chelsea and Harlem and Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx — we fought the city in many places, but they [those communities] failed. But when they did it in Cooper Square — it took 50 years — but, dammit, we won the struggle!

“We’re the only neighborhood in the city that built its own urban renewal plan and saw it come to life.”

The housing battle continues in the present day, the iconic activist told the gala, noting, “There are neighborhoods all over the city that are being attacked — by N.Y.U. and by characters that are trying to gentrify the land. … Fight back, organize,” she urged everyone.

Also in 1959, Goldin helped found a second tenants group, the citywide Metropolitan Council on Housing, which is the city’s oldest and largest tenants organization.

An intimate portrait.

Though she is most closely associated with the Cooper Square campaign, and stayed involved with the Committee all her life, Goldin was also involved in another epic Lower East Side housing clash — the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, or SPURA. In the 1960s, blocks of tenement buildings near the Williamsburg Bridge were cleared for redevelopment, but then lay fallow for decades — used as open-air parking lots — as factions fought over whether or not the area should be rebuilt with low-income housing.

Grand St. residents, led by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, generally opposed low-income housing, but Goldin and her side threatened to sue if it wasn’t rebuilt there.

Under the Bloomberg administration, a compromise was finally worked out, under which the site would be redeveloped with a mix of low-income, moderate-income and market-rate housing, plus a movie theater, supermarket and other amenities. One of the buildings in the SPURA project — today dubbed Essex Crossing — is the fully affordable Frances Goldin Senior Apartments.

In addition to her success as a community organizer, Goldin also carved out a niche for herself in the publishing world as a boutique literary agent specializing in leftist books. Her Frances Goldin Literary Agency published Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich and also Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer and, after being taken off death row, is now serving a life sentence without parole.

Perhaps presciently, given the current vogue for socialism, Goldin not long ago co-edited a book on the subject, “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” (Harper Perennial, 2014).

Goldin was born in 1924 to working-class Russian-Ukrainian Jewish parents. She grew up in Springfield Gardens, Queens, and Harlem. In Queens, her family experienced anti-Semitism — reportedly including bricks being thrown their window on two occasions — which helped fuel her lifelong pursuit of social justice.

The program for the Cooper Square Committee 50th anniversary gala recounted an early example of her mettle, which got a kick out of the crowd: When a rabbi made an unwanted sexual advance on the young Goldin, she fiercely rebuffed him — by biting his thumb.

In the 1940s, Goldin moved to the ethnically and racially diverse Lower East Side — in what is today known as the East Village — and felt right at home. She soon became a tenant organizer. She married Morris Goldin, a staffer of the socialist New York State American Labor Party, and was introduced to radical politics. Like him, she joined the Communist Party.

Speaking at the Cooper Square gala in 2009, Goldin said, “It helped to have a couple of reds living in the neighborhood. That didn’t hurt at all. We knew how to organize. … 

“And many of us got arrested — not once, but four or five times, to save our neighborhood,” she recalled.

Frances Goldin leafletting.

In 1951, when she was 27, she ran for the state Senate as the American Labor Party candidate.

She and her husband eventually separated, then divorced, though reportedly stayed on good terms.

She lived on E. 11th St., a few blocks north of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area.

In addition to her ongoing activism with the Cooper Square Committee and on housing issues, Goldin championed issues like peace, women’s rights, labor rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

In 2011, she attended Occupy Wall Street, toting a sign saying, “I’m 87 and I’m Mad as Hell.”

She was known for always wearing purple and dying her hair that hue, too, which she said was for her daughters, Sally and Reeni. Both her children came out as lesbian in 1971, shortly after New York City’s first Pride March. Goldin always marched in the annual event, toting a sign reading, “I Adore My Lesbian Daughters.”

Frances Goldin with her two daughters. (Courtesy Frances Goldin)

Steve Herrick, the executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, recalled Goldin as “a force of nature” who confronted social injustice everywhere.

“Frances Goldin is the reason the Lower East Side still exists,” Herrick said. “If it weren’t for her, Robert Moses would have bulldozed a big chunk of our historic neighborhood east of the Bowery and displaced thousands of mostly poor residents when he declared our community blighted. 

“She co-founded the Cooper Square Committee in 1959, the city’s first community-based housing organization fighting displacement, and years later the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and the Community Land Trust. 

“All of us who love this community owe her a debt of gratitude for the fact that we have nearly 900 low-income apartments in the Cooper Square area, and for saving the E. Fourth St. cultural district. 

“She was an activist, a community organizer, an intellectual and a force of nature. She had a moral clarity about the need to confront social injustice, whether it was in housing policy, or fighting to end U.S. military intervention or economic inequality. She was an ally to all who struggled against oppression and helped lift marginalized voices in her work as a literary agent who represented many progressive writers, especially people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. people.  

“I was privileged to have known her, and to have learned from her example. Her legacy is enormous, and will continue to inspire future generations.”

Frances Goldin always participated in New York City’s annual Pride March, at which she would hold a sign honoring her two lesbian daughters. (Courtesy Frances Goldin)

Valerio Orselli, the former executive director of the Cooper Square Committee and M.H.A., is currently involved in establishing the This Land Is Ours Community Land Trust, focused on helping distressed Housing Development Fund Corporations. He started working at Cooper Square in 1972 and he and Goldin were longtime allies in the trenches for affordable housing.

Orselli said many elderly people, in particular, were deeply upset to hear she had died, noting, “She was an important part of their lives.”

“Our community lost a great and fearless warrior,” he said. “I lost a dear friend and a comrade. The struggle continues.”

Orselli recalled other efforts Goldin was involved in over the years, including two that championed racial equality. In 1984, there was the successful push to force the JASA (Jewish Association Serving the Aging) senior residence, at E. Fifth St. and Cooper Square, to use “community preference” in admitting its residents, meaning it would not be an all-white facility. Goldin was also part of the winning fight to integrate the Grand St. Co-ops when they were still middle-income housing and were discriminating against blacks and Hispanics: White activists inquiring about apartments at one of the co-ops, East River Housing, were told to come back in a week while black and brown activists were told there was “a 10-year waiting list.”

“Frances never gave up,” Orselli said. “Her commitment to the end, it was unbelievable. She was a magnificent woman.”

In terms of the Cooper Square Committee’s impact, he noted, for example, that the Bowery Residents’ Committee, today a major homeless services provider, was originally a committee of the Cooper Square Committee.

Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez also worked with Goldin to save the neighborhood’s housing. She arrived in the East Village from Puerto Rico in 1978. By then, the fight for housing — fueled by landlords’ large-scale abandonment of buildings — had exploded beyond Cooper Square and engulfed the neighborhood.

“The demolition of buildings and the city was already in march, in this neighborhood and many others,” Lopez recalled. “The area had many activists who were trying to save the neighborhood from total displacement and destruction. At that time, it was not gentrification — it didn’t exist then. We were just fighting to survive.

“Fran was a special voice in the struggle,” Lopez said, “because she had a way to articulate ideas that would touch people and she was fearless. She was willing to do whatever needed to be done. She was very charismatic.”

Back then, the area had nearly 40 organizations — multicultural and multiracial — all working to save and create affordable housing. Goldin was a founder of the Lower East Side Joint Planning Council, an umbrella group that unified them all. Lopez was the J.P.C. chairperson.

Targeting city-owned vacant buildings and empty lots east of Avenue A, the J.P.C. was able to create 2,000 units of low- and middle-income housing.

Lopez, who is openly lesbian, also admired Goldin for attending every Pride March, carrying her sign for her daughters. The last time Lopez said she saw her there was four years ago, when she marched with Assemblymember Deborah Glick and saw Golden sitting in a wheelchair, watching the procession go by.

“That means something to the gay community — huge and big,” Lopez said. “The kindness, the whole persona. Her support of her daughters was unequivocal from Day One.”

As for Goldin’s socialism, actually, it was the norm in the movement, according to the former councilmember.

“The majority of the people who were involved, I will tell you, were socialists — at a minimum,” Lopez said. “I was one. I won’t hide that.”

Lopez went on to be elected the East Village councilmember from 1998 to 2006, then was a board member of the New York City Housing Authority until 2014.

“I am a better person because I met her,” she said of Goldin. “I always say all these Jewish women who I met here made me a better human being, and I’m very fortunate that I met them.”

She was referring to Goldin and also other housing allies, like Harriet Cohen, Lisa Kaplan and former Councilmember Miriam Friedlander.

As for Goldin’s career as a literary agent, Lopez said, “Of course she was successful — because she was brilliant.”

Herman Hewitt, former development director of Interfaith Adopt-a-Building and a longtime vice chairperson of Community Board 3, was a member of the housing coalition with Goldin.

Posting on Facebook, he wrote, “She was our matriarch.”

Local politicians lauded Goldin upon the news of her passing.

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein tweeted: “I am sorry to say we lost Frances today. Such a loss for all of us. The lower east side will miss you and your all you stand for. We will keep up the struggle in your name.”

Former Greenwich Village District Leader Keen Berger, knew and admired Goldin for decades. She shared her thoughts with the Village Independent Democrats’ Executive Committee.

Frances was an inspiration and comfort to me and my husband, Martin, for forty years,” she said. “She was one of the very few people he allowed to visit him in the hospital, and she was the force behind Cooper Square. I will miss her.”

East Village District Leader John Blasco tweeted: “Rest In Peace Frances. Thank you for your contributions and leadership in the Lower East Side.”

Emily Jane Goodman, the retired New York State Supreme Court justice, said she learned much from the legendary activist.

“I considered Fran Goldin one of my foremothers, a guiding light,” she said. “I knew her first in the tenant movement — there was no better organizer or warrior. She became a literary agent after years as a secretary to an agent when she realized she could be an agent herself. And she became the premier agent of leftist and progressive writers, such as Adrienne Rich and Barbara Kingsolver.

“I learned so much from Frances Goldin,” Goodman said, “and will never forget her lessons.”

Writers who were clients of Goldin’s at her literary agency lamented her passing and sung her praises.

Michael Kimmel, who has written books on masculinity, including “Guyland” and “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” was a Goldin client.

I’m heartbroken,” he wrote on Facebook. “Frances was my agent and like [she was for] so many of her clients was my friend and cheerleader. What an amazing woman!!!”

Joan Steinau Lester, who writes on themes of biracial identity and societal diversity, knew Goldin both personally and professionally.

“I knew her in the 1960s, when she was the leader in the Metropolitan Council on Housing, and her daughter babysat for us,” Lester posted on Facebook. “Then later her literary agency took on one of my books in the late 1990s and did a great job with it. She was a force that I admired! May her memory be a blessing…and oh my, it surely is.”

Journalist, writer and activist Judith Mahoney Pasternak was co-chairperson of Metropolitan Council on Housing and editor of its newspaper, Tenant, in the early 1990s.

“Fran was a leading light in the tenants’ movement in which I also toiled, and of course the literary agent I turned to for advice on my own book projects,” Pasternak told The Village Sun.

“But I knew her best as a family friend,” she said. “She was the matron of honor at the 1994 wedding of my cousin Ruth Baharis and left-wing civil-rights lawyer Ira Gollobin. When Ruth and Ira died within weeks of each other in 2008, Fran delivered one of the major eulogies at their joint memorial service.

“At the informal reception after the service, I was sitting down, talking with someone, when I heard behind me a voice singing the “Internationale.” I stood up as I turned around, and of course it was Fran, singing, fist in the air. Also of course, I joined her.”

There was no immediate word on a memorial or if one will be held at a later date. But Lopez said that, once it’s safe to do so, there certainly will be one.

Asked who she was hearing that from, she said, “Everyone.”

“There’s definitely going to be a major memorial,” Orselli concurred. “She touches so many issues…her advocacy for Mumia Abu-Jamal. She was always involved.”

Correction: The original version of this obituary incorrectly stated that Frances Goldin died at age 96. She was 95.

13 Comments

  1. Arthur Schwartz Arthur Schwartz May 17, 2020

    What a sad loss. But someone we should always learn from and emulate. She was the epitome of progressive community activism!

  2. Andrew Gallagher Andrew Gallagher May 17, 2020

    Her spirit and fight will be missed ♥️ Love to the whole family.

  3. mary reinholz mary reinholz May 17, 2020

    A remarkable woman of courage and energy way ahead of her time. Rest in power, Frances Goldin.

  4. Melissa Aase Melissa Aase May 17, 2020

    Our North Star. We would not have the Houston Street Center without her. She made it abundantly clear that activism makes a difference, that it is all of our responsibility to fight for a fair community, and that justice is a lifelong pursuit. University Settlement salutes you, Frances.

  5. Margie Hassan Margie Hassan May 17, 2020

    What an amazing leader and organizer. I was with the Chelsea Coalition on Housing working with Jane Woods and many others organizing rent strikes and doing squatting actions to try to save low income housing in Chelsea. I know she and Jane were friends in the struggle and talked many times. Rest in Power Frances and I know you’ve got lots of friends waiting to talk over old times waiting for you. Thank you for your hard work, ideals and inspiration.

    • Margie Feldman Hassan Margie Feldman Hassan May 17, 2020

      By the way it’s Margie Feldman Hassan…for the older fighters out there..

  6. Esther Newton Esther Newton May 18, 2020

    Frances was (and her agency still is) my literary agent, and her support meant the world to me. At the time it was not easy to find mainstream publishers for LGBT academic work, but Frances believed she could do it and she did. I knew she was an organizer and socialist, but aside from a few of her parties I attended (one memorable one I met Rev Al Sharpton) my respect for her came through her championing of social justice literature and the lesbian community in particular. Thanks for this obit, I learned a lot about dear Frances from it.

  7. alex gross alex gross May 18, 2020

    Sad news…i worked with Frances & Thelma & Esther during the early days of 1959…i miss them all! alex

  8. Deborah Gonzalez Deborah Gonzalez May 18, 2020

    Ms. Frances Goldin was my mentor, a woman who took the time to give back to a community that she loved and fought for tirelessly. Her commitment to me and so many others is a testament of her life, a life she gave selflessly to organizing. Ms. Goldin left a legacy of enormous proportion that will serve generations to come. My life will be forever touched by this phenomenal woman of stature and grace.
    Housing as a Human Right. Rest In Peace Frances

    Deborah Gonzalez, Thelma Burdick Houses LES

  9. Anne Johnson Anne Johnson May 19, 2020

    Frances was a dear friend, mentor, hero. If any of us could do one-tenth of what she did for the betterment of humanity, we would be successful.

    I was so lucky to have known her and be considered by her as a friend. She will be missed, but in her honor we must keep the struggle on.

  10. odella woodson odella woodson May 23, 2020

    We are all so very lucky that she lived! And lived well.
    odella woodson

  11. Joe Bryak Joe Bryak May 28, 2020

    An unimaginable loss. Now when I read in her obituaries of the breadth of her activism and accomplishments I am even more impressed than I was when I knew her in the 1960s. I was a young, dumb aspiring writer recommended by Len Chandler. I remember when he recommended her to me, as well as vice versa, how impressed he was when he said she’d known Paul Robeson, had been involved in some struggle around him, undoubtedly concerning him being blacklisted.
    Frances believed in me, something every writer needs. I was broke, had pawned my typewriter, and Frances actually gave me a key to the office of the Metropolitan Council on Housing so I could go there after hours and use its groaning old electric typewriter to piece together the first 91 pp of my (still unpublished!) novel. What would her colleagues at the Council have said about her trusting an unknown person with that key?
    A few years later the girlfriend of an associate at the old Guardian Weekly worked in the office of Richard Seaver, an influential editor at the time (Evergreen?). She made me a copy of a report on my novel that a reader gave to Seaver. Armed with this, Frances then called Seaver, with me listening in on an extension. It was delicious to be a witness to her dealing with him and probing as he evaded her leading questions on my work, not knowing she had this internal memo in hand. When he denied having ever read or seen my submission, Frances covered the phone and turned to me and whispered, “What a liar!” with a grin. A proud moment that stuck with me. No literary award could ever rival the honor of having her support.
    Support. That key word. Frances’s touching support of her daughters, authors, Mumia Abu-Jamal, every good cause that came down the pike. When she believed in you, she was there. As Steve Herrick said in her obituary in The Village Sun, without Frances there would be no Lower East Side. Mumia might have been executed. The ripples spread; her influence lives on. Frances, I promise you I will carry more picket signs, support more causes — if you didn’t quit — let the reader finish this sentence . . .

    • bill Borock bill Borock May 30, 2020

      What a loss. A women for all seasons.
      Among other things, Fran was part of a group we formed in the 70’s called Home Front.
      One of things Home Front was concerned about was the abandonment of so many
      buildings and the banks redlining certain neighborhoods . This led to the group producing a document called “Abandonment”

      When I think of Fran I remember the time when she was the lookout by the front entrance of a recently renovated building while I went upstairs to get an item that
      she thought would be helpful for use by our group.

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