Gloria Sukenick, Vibrant Met Council Activist, Dies at 94

Longtime Met Council activist Gloria Sukenick, whose vibrant spirit, drum, and cloud of white hair were a ubiquitous presence at pro-tenant demonstrations for the past four decades, died May 30 at her home in the Penn South Houses. She was 94.

“Gloria contributed a joyful, creative presence,” former Met Council executive director Jenny Laurie told a memorial at Penn South June 25. “She was part of hundreds of phone banks, leafletting sessions, protests, sit-ins, sleep-ins, and rallies against Pataki, Giuliani, the Rent Stabilization Association, Barney’s, Mario and Andrew Cuomo, and the countless small slumlord arsonists who plagued Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in the ’80s and ’90s.” She also served on Met Council’s board for many years, “created great flyers,” “was the master of the pithy, satirical piece” for Tenant/Inquilino, and volunteered on the tenant hotline for decades.

“As you can imagine, she helped tenants who called with intelligence, compassion, and a reminder to always fight back,” Laurie added.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman quipped that the recently enacted Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act should have been called the GLORIA Act—“Get Landlords Off Renters’ Innocent Asses.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, she studied painting briefly at the Yale School of Fine Arts before returning to the city and living what she later called “a very Bohemian life,” renting a sixth-floor cold-water flat in Hell’s Kitchen for $16 a month. A lifelong jazz fan, she spent time in the Greenwich Village bohemian scene of the ’40s and ’50s— her younger brother, Ronald, was an avant-garde novelist—while working as a waitress, dance teacher, switchboard operator, and clothing-catalogue model. She worked for about 20 years as an advertising copywriter for Alexander’s department store—and after she got involved in activism, used its art department to lay out posters and run off flyers.

The women’s movement of the late 1960s was her introduction to activism. She attended consciousness-raising groups and helped organize the first Older Women’s Liberation conference. It “gave me more of a sense of myself and what I could do than anything other than my activism in housing,” she told an interviewer in 2015, when she received LaborArts’ Clara Lemlich award for longtime women activists. “My life began to take on real meaning.”

Her entry to housing activism came in the mid-1980s, when she lived on West 16th Street in Chelsea, and the Barney’s clothing store announced an expansion that would force out dozens of tenants on the next block. She brought her artistic and theatrical talent to the campaign, friend and fellow activist Roberta Gelb recalled, such as organizing a street-theater demonstration where people in pajamas banged pots and pans to protest construction noise, and, at a Barney’s event with tight security, slipping past police lines in a rented limousine and emerging wearing an outfit of mock dollar bills. Barney’s eventually expanded, but “we won housing for all the people who were displaced,” Sukenick remembered years later.

One of Gloria Sukenick’s ceramic creations, a sprite intended to protect computers from the capricious spirits of technology.
One of Gloria Sukenick’s ceramic creations, a sprite intended to protect computers from the capricious spirits of technology.

She also counseled tenants at Met Council’s Lower East Side clinic, and, before apartment-succession rights were extended to gay, lesbian, and unmarried couples, organized protests against a landlord who tried to evict a man when his partner, whose name was on the lease, was out of state taking care of his ailing mother. “She belongs not only to Chelsea, but to the Lower East Side,” said Tito Delgado, a Lower East Side housing activist who now lives in Penn South.

Friends and comrades praised her spirit—“her exuberant enjoyment of life, her strength when facing illness, her passion for social justice,” said Judith Sokoloff, a friend and fellow potter at the Penn South ceramics workshop. Ava McNamee, another Penn South potter, said she bonded with Gloria because “we could not live one day without creating art.”

“At her 94th birthday, she danced to music in her wheelchair,” said friend and fellow activist Miriam Rabban.

“For me, Gloria’s gifts really became visible when I had children,” said Jenny Laurie. “If you haven’t seen Gloria with children, you don’t have a full picture of who she was.”

Former state Senator Tom Duane praised both her love for cats and that “she did everything possible to keep Penn South affordable.” Residents of the co-op complex in Chelsea have voted several times to stay limited-equity, against going market-rate.

“I look at Gloria’s political life and wonder about the moment she chose to die,” says Laurie. “We have just won the greatest tenant victory in 50 years. Met Council was part of that constant, relentless, exhausting battle to keep tenants’ power going. And Met Council could not have done that without Gloria and many others who did not live to see this moment.”

I first met Gloria in the early 1990s, when I had just started writing for Tenant/Inquilino. She was campaigning against the eviction of tenants at Leo House, a church-run home for single women on West 23rd Street. She had the special and too-rare combination of being an activist with a militant heart—“Gloria lived her whole life never willing to settle for half a loaf or nine-tenths of a loaf,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried—but who was also a voice of reason.

I’m going to miss seeing that cloud of white hair around. And if she could speak from the grave, she would have kvetched about her memorial being scheduled on the same night as the Rent Guidelines Board final vote.

“It’s like flowers growing,” she said of her political work. “You put out something, and something good happens out of that…. It’s like a great big bouquet of wonderfulness.”