Frances Goldin, Met Council Cofounder, Dies at 95

On May 16, Frances Goldin, Met Council’s last living founder, passed away in her Lower East Side apartment at the age of 95. According to her daughter Sally Goldin, “she was well cared for and well-loved up until the very end.”

The youngest of four children, Frances Goldin was born in 1924 in her family’s home in Springfield Gardens, Queens. Her parents were Russian Jews from the Ukraine who fled to the United States to escape pogroms. Fran also experienced anti-Semitism while growing up, which left a deep impression on her.

In the early 1940s, Fran got a job at the federal War Shipping Administration, where she met and married Morris Goldin, a central figure in the American Labor Party and a close associate of Vito Marcantonio, the East Harlem congressman.

“A lot of guys who were in that agency were Reds,” she said. “That’s when I learned that there was history and that there was struggle. Then I got married, and I moved to the Lower East Side, and found nirvana.”

On the Lower East Side, Fran quickly got involved in organizing, from protesting milk price hikes to participating in eviction-defense actions. “We would just carry the furniture back up the stairs, we would break the lock that the marshals had affixed to the door, and we’d stand outside once they were back in to protect them,” she recalled. “The city got sick and tired of evicting people that we put back—and it was exhilarating!”

In the 1950s, she joined unsuccessful efforts to stop two of Robert Moses’ “urban renewal” projects in Manhattan, the destruction of the San Juan Hill neighborhood to build Lincoln Center and the demolition of several Lower East Side blocks for the Seward Park co-ops. In 1959, Moses announced a plan that would displace 2,400 households, hundreds of single-room occupancy hotel residents, and numerous businesses in the area between Second Avenue and the Bowery from Delancey Street north to East 9th Street.

“This was where I lived,” she said. “We were ready!” Fran and her neighbors, including the fiery tenant advocate Esther Rand, founded the Cooper Square Committee to oppose the plan. Later in 1959, Fran and other organizers from around the city banded together to launch Met Council.

From the beginning, the organizing approach at Cooper Square was different. Residents wanted neighborhood improvements—but they wanted those improvements to benefit them and local businesses, not displace them. Realizing that they could neither reform the city’s plan nor just oppose it, the CSC engaged urban planner Walter Thabit and other professionals to translate the needs and dreams of the community into an “Alternate Plan for Cooper Square.” Released in 1961, it is now recognized as a pioneering work, perhaps the first time that a neighborhood vision was turned into an urban plan.

Initially ignored by the city, the campaign for the Alternate Plan became more militant under Fran’s leadership. Its direct-action tactics included sleepins at City Hall, vandalizing the locks of local housing offices, and disrupting government hearings with civil disobedience. At Met Council, she chaired the squatters’ committee in the late 1960s and early 1970s, organizing homeless families to take over vacant buildings. She also pushed the organization to expand its rent-strike tactics, such as using rent monies in escrow to buy heating oil when landlords refused to provide heat.

In 1970, the city announced that it would adopt the Alternate Plan, but it would take four more decades before its resident-led vision would be realized. Despite waves of abandonment, arson, drug violence, and gentrification, Fran ultimately led the conversion of cityowned buildings into a scattered-site housing cooperative, cofounding the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and Cooper Square Community Land Trust. This innovative model— community ownership of housing and land under separate organizations in service of permanently affordable, low-income housing—was the first of its kind in New York State. Its example sparked the current community landtrust movement, and inspired groups such as Picture the Homeless.

Fran was a master community organizer before the term was coined: disciplined, intelligent, militant, grounded and loving. She defined the phrase “in it for the long haul.” She fiercely defended her community and took no bullshit. If you were an ally, she loved you; if she perceived you were an enemy, she could cut you to pieces. She also was extremely practical. She was not militant for the sake of ideology. She did not mistake tactics for goals. She valued and practiced sharp analysis and good strategy. I feel privileged to have known her and to have learned from her.

Fran’s formula for successful organizing, she told a group of us once, had four key elements.

First, “without the troops you have nothing, so the first thing is the people affected have to be involved.”

Second, “you’re dealing with very powerful professional sources, so you need professionals of a different kind. Movie makers, lawyers, planners, accountants… but who are going to represent your interests.”

Third, “you have to have organizers that can organize the troops. Because the troops have good hearts, but they don’t know how to go about it. Fortunately [at Cooper Square] Esther Rand and a lot of people were there already on the ground.”

Finally, “the city will not move unless they are embarrassed. They have all the power, they have all the money. So you have to learn how to have a demonstration which is colorful. You have to be creative (and know) how to use the media.”

Fran left the formal leadership of Met Council in the early 1970s. The details remain unclear to me, but she said that it partly involved a split over tactics and strategy. Despite this, her belief in the organization, and her respect for Jane Benedict in particular, never wavered. When I asked her when and why she left Met Council she didn’t even let me get the question out, declaring unequivocally “I’ve never left Met Council. I’m still a member and still a supporter and always will be.”

In the 1970s Fran founded the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, dedicated to promoting radical, progressive, and marginalized authors. She was responsible for getting Martin Espada, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Adrienne Rich, StaceyAnn Chin, Dorothy Allison, Mike Wallace, Charlotte Bunch, Susan Brownmiller, and dozens of others published. She also worked to keep Margaret Wise Brown’s classic children’s book, Goodnight Moon in print. She said she convinced Barbara Kingsolver to write her second novel after her first novel was rejected by every publisher it was submitted to.

She joyfully embraced the diversity of her beloved Lower East Side neighborhood. “My attraction to Frances was the way she always supported poor people, especially Puerto Ricans, on the Lower East Side,” her friend, former Met Council organizer Eduardo “Tito” Delgado, posted on social media after her death. “When I saw that, I knew this is someone I wanted to work with.” Fran understood institutionalized racism and strongly opposed the prison-industrial complex: If you visited her home and hadn’t read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, you would usually leave with a copy. She worked tirelessly to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who became a close friend.

Although from an earlier generation, Fran found common ground with and supported the women’s liberation movement that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. “At one point in her life, she got to realize that the women’s struggle was a struggle for equality” as important as struggles against racism and classism, her friend and Cooper Square Committee board member Joyce Ravitz noted. “Her feminism was in what she did. She might not have said, ‘I’m a feminist,’ but she worked her ass off” for feminism.

Fran was also a well-known participant at New York’s annual Pride parade, usually carrying a sign that read “I Adore My Lesbian Daughters, Please Keep Them Safe.” Frequently, participants would express their gratitude for modeling what a supportive parent should look like. They sometimes would give Fran their own parents’ phone numbers, and she would call and try to impress upon them what they were missing by shunning their adult children.

Fran was a mentor—and a movement proxy mother/grandmother/ good friend/confidant—to hundreds of us. She lived the struggle for social justice and community survival as a life-affirming and joyful responsibility, not a chore or a dogmatic duty. For all the work she did—her output and work ethic were tremendous—she was also a fun person who loved to have good time. She genuinely loved the people in her life and in her community; you could feel it in her embrace, in her voice, and in the way she looked at you. She was free and generous where it counted: with food, support, solidarity, intellect, tears, laughter and love. Rest in the loving power of the people, Frances Goldin.

Dave Powell is executive director of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association and a former Met Council organizer.

Quotes by Frances Goldin are taken from interviews for the forthcoming documentary film It Took 50 Years: Frances Goldin and the Struggle for Cooper Square. For more information, see www.ittook50.com, follow the film on Facebook, or join its email list: ittook50@ gmail.com.