Melinda Holm quips with a wink, “Doris is a wench and a mensch and now she has a bench.”
Holm is one of the many helpmates and friends who dedicated the Washington Square Park bench with a Doris Diether plaque, this past Saturday. Community Board cohorts and local pols joined the commemoration on the park’s west side, opposite the Alexander Lyman Holley Monument. The bench reads: Doris Diether Sat Here. Iconic Community Hero, Activist, Preservationist, Historian.
This is where Doris would meet up with friends, after circumnavigating the park, during a daily constitutional.
Hellen Osgood, who often accompanied her, describes the park routine. “She would visit ‘the stations of the park: Tik & Tac, the musicians, Colin, sand artist Joe Mangrum and the little dog park. She’d pass her favorite spots for squirrel and pigeon feeding.” When Ricky Syers began marionette busking— which included a “Little Doris” marionette —at Holley Plaza, this area became a regular another smoozing spot.
Doris traveled with a stash of peanuts and bird seeds. “The squirrels knew her and would come racing toward her when she approached,” Kisic remembers. She’d instruct visitors how to feed the squirrels and which were the best peanuts to buy —roasted, unsalted. She had a few pigeons who knew her too.
Evident from the energy buzzing around the soon-to-be dedicated bench on this glorious autumn day, the life force of Doris channeled through her friends and fans.
Long before holding an elected post, now Councilman Chris Marte, whose district includes the park, remembers his first encounter with her after he had spoken out at a community meeting at Scholastic Auditorium. Doris motioned to him to come to her and directed him that he must go into politics.
Jeanine Kiley, Chair of Community Board 2, reminded all that Doris Diether was on the the Community Board for 57 years and holds and will hold the record for longest serving member on a community board in New York. Term limits have subsequently been instituted.
Among those commemorating was Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. “Doris was a strong supporter for the Bowery Poetry Club getting a liquor license, which is the only way a poetry venue can stay open,” he recalls. “She preferred I call the place a ‘café’ or ‘society’ — she thought a ‘club’ was déclassé for a poetry spot! We were friends forever after this.” He added, “She’s the Queen of Downtown.”
Jill Gerwitz only slightly knew about Doris and just happened on the bench ribbon-cutting event. She commented, “I am impressed by the stories friends shared of her dedication and passion and sense of connection she had with people, and her commitment to the community.”
Prior to the formal gathering, the Washington Square Park Conservancy oversaw horticultural plantings nearby, which included the perennial Asclepias tuberosa, a species of milkweed, a source of food for the caterpillar of a native butterfly. Gerwitz didn’t mind getting down and dirty planting border greenery, Heuchera—Autumn Bride, behind the Doris bench.
A Doris event would not be complete without music. Sharon Woolum’s “Ain’t She Sweet” adapted lyrics led the assembled in song.
Adapting further, Melinda Holm’s stanzas referenced Doris activism: “Ain’t she fine, Like a well tempered wine, Making sure that those developers, Toed the line. Ain’t she great, Lordy what a fate, To be the terror on the landmarks committee, Ain’t she great.”
Richard Weintraub revived the song he wrote for Doris’ blow-out community 90th birthday bash at Judson Church where Doris attended every Sunday. Weintraub’s song, to the tune of “Runaround Sue”, highlights how much Doris likes to party.
Good friend to Doris, Associate Pastor at Judson Rev. Micah Bucey concluded the event with a benediction, asking folks to close eyes, feel the park and listen to sounds. He even pointed out the sounds of a protest—an Iranian rally entering the park. Doris’ spirit appreciated it all.
Doris Diether passed away September 2021. Lois Rakoff and Sharon Woolums thought long and hard on how to honor this mentor and friend to so many, Park doyenne and Greenwich Village icon. A bench in her name, in the park she loved so much, perfect!
With Zella Jones creating a fundraising website, a strong community response in contributions, Alison Greenberg’s enormous support and partnership with the Washington Square Park Conservancy, Doris got her bench.
Rakoff looks to the next tribute, in a year, a street co-naming on Waverly Place, where Doris Diether lived for more than half a century.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.