Gloria Sukenick is an accomplished social activist for both the women’s movement and the housing movement. Living in New York City, Gloria has used her opportunities to voice her opinions on important issues and has allowed others to do the same. Still residing in New York City, she continues to attend social movements such as fundraisers for electing people to office who hold the housing movement as a central issue. She was a Clara Lemlich awards honoree in 2015.
By Lilly Engeler
Social activism has been a very gratifying part of my life, even though I didn’t get involved in activism until later on in my life.
Before I focused my time on activism, I went to Yale School of Fine Arts and majored in painting. I came back to New York after about a year. I had a very nice cold water flat in Hell’s Kitchen. It had one washtub in the kitchen for clothes and dishes and everything. It also had no heat or hot water and it was a six-flight walkup everyday with no elevator. Though, the rent was $16 a month for four rooms. Later, I started living a very Bohemian life in another cold water flat in what is now SoHo. I lived there for a couple of years, and went to Bermuda to waitress for a year or two. For a while, I had a job as a model for Montgomery Ward. I used to try on their dresses and see how they photographed for their catalogs.
When I was in my 40s I got a job at Alexander’s in the advertising and copy department. This is when I truly got involved in activism. The first thing that got me very involved was the women’s movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a very politically active group of people. In our meetings, we would have consciousness raising groups and political action groups, and we would go to Washington with these groups. This was probably my initiation into activism.
After this, I was involved in the housing movement. The initial thing that happened was when Barney’s was expanding and taking over apartments on 16thStreet and 7thAvenue. By doing so, they were putting out people who had affordable apartments. Basically, they were expanding their store at the cost of people who had apartments there that were affordable. I got involved with the Chelsea Coalition on housing, which was a very strong group of Chelsea-ites led by this one 80-year-old dynamo, Jane Wood. When she called for demonstrations, all of Chelsea would turn out. We had people standing in front of Barney’s lined down the whole block – we stopped 7thAvenue traffic. We wanted to make their lives as miserable as we could make them because Barney’s kept doing what they were doing and the mayor at the time was very much in favor of big business and expensive stores. When Barney’s construction equipment started to make noise I had pots and pans banging. I even bought a drum that was great at demonstrations that I still have today. Sometimes we would have costumes. At Christmas we would have big demonstrations with Santa Clause’s marching in front of Barney’s with big signs.
These demonstrations were a lot of fun. When Barney’s opened up the women’s store, they invited all of the politicos and they had a major party. Our group hired a limousine and had all of our people dressing up in costumes. As the guests were going in to Barney’s from their limos, we got out of our limo in these wild costumes. I had a big jumpsuit on and I had great big dollar bills that I blew up and paint all over me saying “Barney’s Bill of Rights.” We had our fashion show outside on 16thStreet. You can’t have much more fun than that.
I became head of the advertising department at Alexander’s at this time and I was able to do all of my work for the housing movement there. I could use the art department for layouts for big posters and ran off pamphlets to hand out to everybody at the demonstrations. I wrote the pamphlets that people at the demonstrations would all read aloud about the story of how Barney’s took over the block, buildings, and apartments: “Once upon a time there was a store named Barney’s…” People would be going into the store and they would be standing there listening to this lineup of people that spread from the whole block at demonstrations. So, I was able to expand my involvement in the housing movement and use all of the facilities in the advertising department at Alexander’s to help me do a lot of work for the housing movement.
The Chelsea Coalition had minor victories. The people that were being put out of their apartments lived in rent-controlled buildings. Barney’s was then forced to find them apartments in Chelsea in the same neighborhood at the same affordable rent and rent protections as their old buildings, because Barney’s was taking over their buildings to expand their store. Later, the store finally closed on 16thStreet and moved to Madison Avenue. However, about two years ago, they reopened in the same location. So, I got Chelsea Now to write a whole story in their newspaper about the history of Barney’s with the fight with the tenants that were put out of their housing and the battle that we won.
We took over buildings sometimes. There was a time when landlords were keeping buildings empty because if they were empty for a certain period of time you could make them co-ops. So landlords just kept buildings empty and would not rent them. In the East Village, this had people setting up “housing” in empty vacant lots – they would use hydrants for water. One time, the Coalition group decided to take over a building on Avenue B that was sitting there empty and people were sleeping on benches in the park nearby. There was no affordable housing. The group marched down there and they broke the lock on the door and took over the building. Of course everybody was arrested and some of my best friends ended up spending the night in jail.
After working with the Chelsea Coalition, I became very involved with the Metropolitan Council on Housing. I did a workshop on the Lower East Side once a week where tenants would drop in and tell us all of their problems. We would then tell them how to handle it, what to do, and how to fight their landlords successfully. Landlords still get away with incredible amounts of illegal practices, and people do not know their rights. They would have problems like illegal rent increases, landlords not living up to their responsibilities, and no heat or hot water in their apartment buildings. Then we would have demonstrations against these landlords. The Metropolitan Council is city wide, so we would go to Albany once a year to push the electors around to try to get more protection for tenants. Even now, though it has been years since I have been involved with the Metropolitan Council, people will come by on the street and say, “You helped me years ago. I still have that apartment that I was having problems with!”
Eventually, after about twenty years of working at Alexander’s, they decided they were going to close all of their stores. I was at the point in time where I was going to take retirement as soon as I could and devote full time to either the women’s movement or the housing movement because I was really moving into activism when I was still at Alexander’s. I was able to really make that transition when I retired – my life became more fulfilling, exciting, and gratifying working for the movements. I went from the women’s movement, to housing, and to taking change to the streets.
My apartment complex today was built to be affordable housing – it is not-for-profit. So far, everybody has voted yearly to keep this a not-for profit. It is relatively affordable compared to what is around here. This can be done, you just have to take the profit motive out of housing. There were several other projects like my housing complex, but people living there voted to go private, so they turned it into a for-profit making enterprise. This is a workable solution, but greed takes over.
My advice for young people who want to promote social change is to just go for it. Link up with people who think like you do, because it is hard to do any of this on your own. You really need to find people who are working for the same things. It is such a different world today. But, on the other hand, things like computers offer major possibilities and opportunities as well that were not there years ago. Reaching out is by far easier, and can be used for good results.
It has been a fun life. The work that I did was very gratifying, and I still miss it. It was really nice doing good work and having fun doing it. It is really such a treat to feel like you are doing work that is worthwhile – that has some value and helps people. There is nothing like it. So, I have enjoyed my life enormously, and I would like to live it all over again. The times in my life that I felt that I have accomplished something for good is really for me the most gratifying – it was like a privilege to feel like you used your energies to make things better.
Interviewer and author Lilly Engeler was 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.