Frances Goldin is an accomplished affordable housing activist and literary agent. She is the only surviving founding member of the Cooper Square Committee and has been active for over 50 years, fighting to save her neighborhood from destruction by construction running through the Lower East Side. In 2013, her committee’s alternative renewal plan was finally adopted and nearly 2,400 families previously at risk of displacement were able to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. She was a Clara Lemlich honoree in 2011.
Interview by Sereene Kurzum
I used to live in Queens, but it was a very uninvolved community. After I got married I decided to move to 11th street, to Cooper Square, and I found nirvana. I moved to 11th street between 2nd and 3rd and lived in a five-flight walk up. I heard that there was an organization called a tenant council, in the building of the American Labor Party on 2nd avenue. I initially went to the organization because I wanted to find out if I was paying the right rent. When I went over, they took all my information, and they said to come back in one week. I came back one week later, and they told me I was paying the right rent after all. It was $65 a month. Then they said, “You seem intelligent, would you like to come work in the tenant council and help us out?”. I said sure, and I’ve worked with the tenant council ever since. I never left.
Then in 1959, Robert Moses wanted to build a freeway through the Lower East Side to make it easier for rich people to get to their jobs on Wall Street. It would have destroyed our neighborhood. That’s when we formed the Cooper Square Committee. Cooper Square came up with a plan to build public housing on vacant lots and then move people right into that affordable housing in their neighborhood. We organized and demonstrated and finally beat him 50 years later.
It was a few years ago, when everybody who lived on 3rd and 4th street, between 2nd avenue and the Bowery, came out with their families and signed leases to secure their apartments for the next 200 years. Everyone came out, there was a lawyer there, they notarized their leases, and that was that. They owned their apartments for the next 200 years. This was the moment I knew we had won. Everybody who came to sign kissed me and said, “You helped us do this, thank you!” I mean, it was wonderful. Yes, it was quite wonderful.
I’ve been involved with affordable housing organizations through all those 50 years, and I was very active in meetings and organizations. I never stopped being active. When you stay active, it’s good for your health.
I have this sign that reads, “I adore my lesbian daughters” on the front, and “Difference enriches us all” written across the back. I had a friend who was very artistic. I asked him to letter that sign for me and he did. I took it to the parade that year and it was the most popular sign at the parade. Lesbians and gay men would rush to me and say, “Would you call my mother?”, “Would you contact my father?” Of course, I’d call them. I’d tell them about an organization called PFLAG that works with parents of gays and lesbians to help them learn to accept and understand their children. I’d give them the number of that group. I hope they called them.
Every year there was a gay pride parade, I went to it, and every year I walked with that sign. Every year. I’ve been carrying it since the beginning, although one year I had a heart attack, and I couldn’t go. I was shocked because the next year, two people, one was a cop, came up to me and said they missed me last year! Oh, I was so touched! They were looking for my sign, and I was not there. That they even were looking for it was amazing! I still have the sign. It’s behind my couch.
I’ve met wonderful people, and not just at the parades. Joyce Ravitz, now the chairperson of the Cooper Square Committee, became a very close friend. She’s been involved for many years too. I think I was even able to change her outlook on activism, because she’s become a very wonderful activist. She’s my best friend. We’re very close. We still do things socially and we still do things politically, because we’re personal friends as well as activists.
I represent many wonderful authors through my literary agency, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, Barbara Kingsolver, and other progressive writers. I started my literary agency because I wanted to publish the kinds of books to change the world. Most agencies don’t do that. They do whatever is popular and whatever sells. So I decided to have a special agency, and I went after people who were activists all over the world and I asked them to write books. So I did the kind of books, like my life, to change the world. It became very popular and I succeeded as an agent representing radical authors. Mumia writes wonderful books. It helps that he’s a wonderful writer. Every one of them still sells. We’ve been friends for 21 years. I used to visit him in the prison regularly, but now I only write to him because I don’t get around so easily anymore. But I write to him and I talk to him on the telephone. We’re very close.
I never thought I would fail. There was never a time when I thought that. Because I had my friends, and I had my helpers, and I was not alone. I was part of an organization with other people involved. Now I’m on the board of three organizations. And because I have a big room, most of the meetings are at my house, so I don’t have to take a taxi to go to a meeting! We meet there, at my house. I can seat 13 people there.
I’m very old, but I still try to stay active. And when you stay active it’s good for your health. There are several records of what specifically we did throughout the 50 years we spent saving Cooper Square. It was a long, hard journey, but what was most important was that the people always came forward. If they didn’t support it, it never would’ve happened. But the tenants involved always came out and marched, went to meetings, went to City Hall. They did whatever they had to do. That’s why we won.
If you are young and you feel like you can’t make a difference, well you’re wrong. If you become part of changing the world, your whole attitude will change because you’ll know that you can help make that change. But not if you sit home and knit. You have to get out and demonstrate and march and talk and when you get involved, you’ll be very grateful because it does change your life. So I encourage people to do that. When you see that your activity helps change things, then you keep doing it. All I can say is, if you’re not involved, you’re not making change. If you’re involved you feel better because you make the change, and the change is what makes the world a better place to live in.
Frances then asked me if I was involved. When I responded, “I try to be,” she replied without hesitation, “Try harder.”
Interviewer and author Sereene Kurzumwas enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues. More at laborarts.org.