The Grande Dame of New York City Land Use

It was a quintessential Village life back then, working and acting and painting and going to parties. She married her husband, Jack Diether, a music critic and Gustav Mahler scholar, in 1958 at Judson Memorial Church, and moved into his basement apartment, where she still lives among shelves of dusty books, and where she keeps the three-volume zoning code close at hand.

She entered public life in 1959 with a rather blunt speech lambasting Robert Moses’ proposal to end free Shakespeare in the Park. She was then recruited to join Save the Village, which eventually divided the neighborhood into geographic areas headed by herself, Jane Jacobs, Ruth Wittenberg and Shirley Hayes.

“The Village always had these incredible women,” said Kent Barwick, a past president of the Municipal Art Society and former chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “They had style, they had brains, they had a sense of humor, and they knew what they were talking about.”

Ms. Diether’s specialty became zoning. When Save the Village decided in 1960 to draft an alternate plan to the city’s overhaul of the zoning code, she joined a team of architects that included Robert Jacobs, Jane’s husband.

Since I had some spare time occasionally, they would send me out as sort of a gopher. And I just picked up the zoning. I’d go around the different blocks and they’d say, ‘That’s an R6, that shouldn’t be zoned an R6,’” Ms. Diether said.

Forty-nine years later, she’s the one to spot problems. “It gets me very annoyed, because I can walk around three or four blocks and find at least six violations, and the Buildings Department doesn’t do anything about them.” Her knowledge has made her a resource for other local groups—sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid—and in the 1980s, she began teaching a class on zoning at the Municipal Art Society, which later grew into an accredited, five-part course at CUNY. “I try to keep it funny.”

All of [the Village activists] would agree—whether alive or in their grave,” Mr. Barwick said, “that no one was more instrumental in decoding New York City’s draconian zoning codes, and making sure community groups weren’t fighting with one hand behind their back, than Doris Diether.”

But the Village activists of her day also had a flair for the dramatic. Ms. Diether keeps three notebooks filled with her press clippings, and one of the first photos shows her holding the reins of a hefty sow in front of Governor Rockefeller’s mansion, protesting the “piggish” greed of relaxed rent-control laws. (She remains a Rockefeller Republican, and later went to work for the Rockefellers; she still receives an annual invitation to their Christmas party, along with a small pension.)

During the fight over the city’s new zoning in the 1960s, Save the Village bused supporters to the hearings on the Loconik, a sightseeing train designed by Salvador Dali that was owned by the Hotel Albert. Later, supporters rode to the hearings in a 1920s automobile wearing black, wide-brimmed derby hats to demonstrate that the city’s zoning was “old hat.”

“If you don’t go public, you’re going to lose,” Ms. Diether told the reclusive poet E. E. Cummings when he was worried about being squeezed from his Patchin Place apartment. Eventually, he did go public, and the publicity forced the mayor to personally assure Mr. Cummings that he would never be evicted.

When Mr. Barwick chaired the Landmarks Commission, Ruth Wittenberg gave a rousing speech from her wheelchair, berating the city and imploring the chairman to protect some piece of history. Then she turned to him and—unseen to the crowd—winked. “They understood that, in part, it was a game,” Mr. Barwick said.

Perhaps that explains one of Ms. Diether’s more surprising pastimes. When she is not drafting a zoning proposal, or teaching her zoning class, or opposing a zoning variance on the community board, she enjoys having a glass of wine and watching a bit of professional wrestling.

 

THERE ARE THOSE FOR which Ms. Diether’s opposition has been neither fun, nor a game.

In the early 1960s, Ms. Diether was helping a group of older Italian women with a troublesome landlord in Little Italy, when she discovered the owner had lied about refurbishing the building’s roof, which would have entitled him to raise their rent and potentially force them out. Ms. Diether scoured the local papers and found that, on the day he claimed to have done the work, a hurricane had swept through the city.

“Some of the Italians took umbrage with the fact they were being threatened,” she said. “He got roughed up pretty good in a barbershop over in Brooklyn.”