90th birthday bash for iconic activist Doris

Doris Diether’s friends are organizing a birthday party for the legendary activist, who is one of the city’s longest-serving community board members, to mark her hitting the big “9-0.” Design by Susie Schropp

BY GARY SHAPIRO | Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village in 1950, Doris Diether crossed the doorstep of Judson Memorial Church. This was 69 years ago, more than half the entire history of Judson, whose construction was initiated in 1890.

Her 90th birthday will be celebrated at the church on Thurs., Jan. 10.

Over the decades, Diether has fought for a vision of Greenwich Village in which urban life on a human scale is championed. She participated in one of the most consequential Village preservationist fights in the 20th century, namely, the campaign to stop Robert Moses from plowing through Washington Square Park.

“Moses wanted people on the south side of the park to have Fifth Ave. South addresses,” she said.

Diether well recalls that campaign’s most prominent activist, Jane Jacobs.

“She was very strong-minded,” she said, “knew what she wanted to do, and wasn’t afraid to fight for it.”

This aptly describes Diether herself.

Diether once convinced a reticent poet E. E. Cummings to speak to the press to save a Patchin Place apartment of his.

“He originally hid upstairs when I went over,” she said.

Her most amusing activist moment came in 1960. It was at a protest outside then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s office, opposing the demolition of older buildings to put up for luxury apartments. A woman arrived with a pig rented from New Jersey. When no one else would take the rope strung around the pig’s neck, Diether volunteered.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” the woman told her.

In a black dress and high heels, Diether picketed while holding the porker. A newspaper account reported, “Pig Pickets to Save Village.”

One of the longest-serving Manhattan community board members in history, Diether also helped Eighth St. fight development.

“That’s why little stores and buildings are still there,” she stated.

Regarding the Landmarks Preservation Commission protecting only facades on some buildings in the Village that are worthy of saving, she said, “This is a historic district and not a movie set.”

A few years ago, she heard that musicians in Washington Square might be banned.

“I found out by sleuthing around that the Parks Department was having a meeting,” she said. “I told all the musicians. Twenty-five of them showed up.”

She still recalls the look that the meeting organizer gave when she herself showed up. Diether and the musicians prevailed.

By the 1960s, Diether had taught herself zoning so thoroughly and was already instructing others, that the City University of New York asked her to teach a course under its auspices.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I never graduated from college.”

She explained that, to become a zoning expert, one needs to learn a jumble of numbers and letters, such as “C7B,” for example. (For the layperson, that describes a commercial district with certain height restrictions.)

Sharon Woolums, chairperson of the Doris Diether Birthday Bash (“DDBB”), said that Deither has been a mentor, a friend and great neighbor to many.

“For so many reasons, we all celebrate and love ‘The Queen of Washington Square Park,’” Woolums said.

Asked about becoming a nonagenarian, Diether said, “I don’t even think about it. I’m too busy.”

Reflecting on all the development in the West Village in recent years, she said, “I wish Jane were still here.”

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