A life well lived — Doris Deither

Over 550 Christmas cards won’t be going out this Christmas. These cards would have been sent to people on Doris Deither’s holiday mailing list to whom she’d begin addressing  envelopes by hand right after Halloween. 

If there was a movement to save the postal service, Doris Deither was by example in the forefront with her hundreds of posts mailed on friends’ birthdays and other holidays. These cards always included some sort of kitchen-tested casserole recipe.  

Greenwich Village icon Doris Deither, zoning maven, Grand Dame of land use, and the Queen of Washington Square Park passed away in her Waverly Place apartment on Thursday. September 16.  She was 92.

Just blocks away from Washington Square Park, which served as her front yard, Doris lived in a ground-floor apartment for 63 years. She moved in when she married music critic and musicologist Jack Deither in 1958. He died in 1987.

In 1959 Doris entered public life, successfully fighting Robert Moses’ plan to stop free Shakespeare in the Park.

Fashionbly dressed. Always. At her gate, Three months during lockdown.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

A year later, accompanied by a hefty sow on a lease, she’s known for this antic in May 1960 of protesting at Governor Rockefeller’s 54th St. the “piggish greed” of relaxed rent-controlled laws.  An interesting note, she later worked for Rockefeller and was very proud that she collected a pension from him, even until last week.

A contemporary and fellow traveler of Jane Jacobs, they supported the same issues including fighting Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan.  One strategy included four women, of whom she was one, dividing up the Village into sections, (she handled the central Village) who could quickly rally troops from their sector when bodies were needed for a protest.  

Another issue she took on, when there were proposals to stop live music in Washington Square Park she attended hearings and rallied friends to get the votes to squash the idea.  

Serving on the Community Board since it was established in 1977 and on the Community Planning Board that preceded it, for a total of 57 years, she was the longest-serving Community Board member in Manhattan and vehemently opposed term limits. (Voters approved term limits in 2018. One can now serve four consecutive two-year terms, and after a two-year hiatus can be reappointed.)

A zoning specialist

As the New York Observer reported: “When Save the Village decided in 1960 to draft an alternate plan to the city’s overhaul of the zoning code, Doris joined a team of architects that included Robert Jacobs, Jane’s husband.”

Picking up valuable information along the way, zoning became Doris’ specialty—she became an expert in the field.  Subsequently, Doris taught a class at the Municipal Art Society, and later a five-part course at CUNY.

Former Community Board Chair and Vice Chair of the Land Use Committee Terri Cude served with Doris on the Land Use Committee for ten years. State Senator Brad Hoylman who also served with Doris on the Community Board says, “ She knew the intricacies of zoning that even the lawyers don’t know.”

Current CB Chair Jeannine Kiely says,  “She read every application and resolution and showed up at committee and full-board meetings prepared with questions and comments.  She is an example of how every Community Board member should participate.” 

In this last decade or so, many a member of the Community Board would accompany her home after each meeting.  

Even during this last year, when Doris was in and out of rehab and the hospital, CB District Manager Bob Gormley would take papers to her to review. When meetings went remote after March 2020, Doris attended by phone.  Kiely reports, “The last meeting she attended was in August— it was on open restaurants.” 

Truly moved when he heard of her passing, Doug Sheer recounts knowing Doris for more than 50 years—primarily in the beginning within the community housing lens and issues of protection of artists housing in and around SoHo.

 Sheer saw her every month for over a decade at the Arsenal Building near the zoo in Central Park. “She was a fellow board member at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Artists Certification Committee,” he said.  

Summing his remembrances up, Sheer continues, “She inspired many, many people.” “She was a fierce defender of artists housing and more broadly of preservation in Greenwich Village…where I grew up. She embodied everything I like about political involvement at its grass roots.” 

Doris is an example of a way to live life. Kiely often thinks: What would Doris do? “Doris gave it her all; she didn’t live her life on ‘slow mode’.   She loved New York and took advantage of what it had to offer. And (especially) she loved the spectacle of Washington Square Park.”

A sign of affection from Brad Hoylman who worked together with Doris on the Community Board.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Doris and the park

Doris’ routines for years were daily strolls around Washington Square Park. She toted and later her walker was packed with a bag of peanuts for the squirrels and pigeons, many that she named and became her outdoor pets. 

In 2013 Doris showed up with envelope in hand seeking out a marionettist she read about in this paper—she herself had written about puppets years before. Thus, began a friendship between Doris and Ricky Syers who had just begun busking in the park with his marionettes, fashioned from people he knew. 

It wasn’t long after they met that there was a “Little Doris” marionette, attired in a flowered blouse and blue skirt, carrying a cane—a true mini-Doris.  Soon Ricky created a “Larry, the pigeon man” marionette— both becoming part of the WSP puppet family.  

After Doris made her routine walk through the park she’d join the actual Larry, and a cadre of others to hang out on the southern side of Holly Plaza as Ricky was busking.   

Between Ricky’s notoriety in press, NYC travel books, and the AARP-produced video “An Unconventional Friendship” that profiles  Doris and Ricky, tourists showed up by droves in the park seeking Doris. 

Later, Brandon Stanton included a photo of Ricky, Doris and ‘Little Doris’ in his 2015 edition of Humans of New York. Doris and Ricky attended the Union Square Barnes and Noble book launch that year where Doris signed books and beamed in the spotlight. 

Doris loved the squirrels and pigeons, some were her pets, and she always carried food for them.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Doris’ 90th birthday

Two and half years ago the community came together at Judson Memorial Church  (she was a Sunday regular for years and found like-minded kindred at Judson) to celebrate Doris’ 90th birthday. 

Local restaurants donated food and booze, Washington Square Park musicians provided the entertainment, and all the downtown politicians paying homage, attended and presented her with certificates and proclamations. Dressed in her favorite color red, with a crown on her head, she reigned over the festivities accepting with delight the much-deserved praises. 

The party also provided two opportunities for donating, either to the elevator fund, which would be of use to Doris, or the postage stamp fund— attendees knowing how much she supports the postal service.

Knowin how to enjoy life, Doris stops for a drink at the hotel next to her apartment after she received the Clara Lemlich Award.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Neighborhood pitches in

Doris had developed arthritis and experienced a couple of falls and the highly independent Villager starting relying on a group of helpers.  

One week after her retirement from the MTA, Hellen Osgood began coming by every evening to help Doris heat up a pre-prepared meal. 

She would often accompany her through her stroll in the Park.   Everyone knew that Doris would say hi to everyone there and that age or situations were never a criterion for friendship. One group of park musicians would stop whatever they were playing when she came by to play their homage song to her—Queen of Washington Square Park.

Doris loved her two cats. She had a heavy cat water bowl and it became too difficult for her to bend down, pick it up and change the water. And they were very picky needing completely fresh water. Doris would often enlist the help of a visitor to change the water. 

Among his many acts of friendship, Judson Minister Micah Bucey at times assisted with the cats. “In 2012, I accompanied Doris to the vet ER in Chelsea, in the middle of the night, where she had to have her beloved cat Mr. Pip put to sleep; this was after years of going with her to the Washington Square Animal Hospital for regular check-ups. It was an honor to accompany her through so many times with her cats!” he says.

Received for social activism and lifelong pursuit of justice. Doris with her Clara Lemlich Award.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Other bits about Doris

Doris dressed very stylishly and she had a slew of costume jewelry earrings that she’d pull out to match her outfits. Even though she wasn’t going out during the pandemic, she dressed up ever day, often very fashionably. 

Doris liked whisky, watching wrestling, detective shows and recently Animal Planet. A pastime/avocation of hers was to pretend to fall for the telephone calls that were constantly attempting to sell her a bill of goods. She seemed to be on every call-list for some unbelievable scheme. 

Doris went along with the callers sometimes keeping them on the phone for almost an hour or having them call again the next day.  Of course she never did what they directed her to do, and any information she gleaned she’d often pass on the 6th precinct.  It was her goal to scam the scammer or at the very least, gum up their works. 

Hellen Osgood, a member of Team Doris who daily would come by help heat her food and provide contact during a very isolating time.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

The Pandemic

While Doris did not get Covid, the Pandemic was not very kind to her. A very social being, she desperately missed her usual social interaction. There were no strolls through Washington Square Park, no chances to stretch her legs.   She did not leave her apartment for almost the first eight pandemic months.  

When vaccinations became available, it took the proactive work of Erik Botcher to finally get a home visit vaccination. 

She also experienced a dysfunctional health care system. When she was at Lenox Hill Hospital, they lost her dentures and she was sent home, having to settle for non-solid foods.  When she was at NYU Hospital, they wouldn’t perform a necessary procedure that was deemed “outpatient” even though she was too fragile to be an outpatient.  Her last hospital stay at Mt. Sinai West sent her home with hospice. 

Her friend of many years, Erin Rogers coordinated and oversaw her needs and became Doris’ health proxy.  With Elissa Paskin and Hellen Osgood, the three became Team Doris accompanying her through this last year of rehab, finding the wonderful loving home caregiver Usha, and the multiple in-and-out trips to the hospital during this past summer. 

Fashionbly dressed. Always. At her gate, Three months during lockdown.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

A life well lived

When you think of Doris, you can think of the nine Cs—cats, cards (particularly Christmas), chocolate, chardonnay, community, coffee, champagne and charm. 

And when it comes to describing her a string of descriptive words are conjured: an inspiration, a gem, spunk, color, action, style, commitment, remarkable, good will, activism, joy, engaged, and that impish smile.  But these words only begin to describe the life force of this Villager and what and who will be missing from Village life. 

As to her wishes, she will not be laid out.  A commemorative memorial will be planned soon. 

The Judson bulletin paid tribute to their devoted member his week. “Her life was a wonderful example of civic action, responsibility, building community, and friendship. She was at home surrounded by love, including her cats, as she transitioned. We are grateful not just for Doris’ life, but for the lives of those who cared for her. Life in Washington Square Park will not be the same.”

A favorite pastime of Doris, scam the scammers.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)