The way Doris Diether tells it, she was the last holdout in her Waverly Place building a few years back, when the landlord moved in someone new to intimidate her.
“Every time he’d go by me, he growled. Then one night he banged on my door and said, ‘If you think you’re getting any money, forget it,’” recalled Ms. Diether, 80, who moved into her basement apartment in 1958 and, thanks to rent control, still pays virtually the same rent she did when Robert Wagner was mayor.
“I started laughing, it was so ridiculous. I don’t think that’s the reaction he wanted,” she said with a sly smile.
Ms. Diether’s laugh is a rolling chortle that punctuates nearly every story she tells, and illustrates the kind of airy joie de vivre she has brought to the mundane, often-bitter battlefield that is local land use.
For the last half-century, Ms. Diether has been a kind, but constant, thorn in the side of landlords and developers–ever since she joined Save the Village as chair of the tenants committee in 1959, agitating alongside such luminaries as Ruth Wittenberg and Jane Jacobs. She was appointed to Community Board 2 in 1964—“to keep me quiet,” she suspects—and she remains Manhattan’s longest-serving community board member.
Over a noon breakfast at the Waverly Restaurant in late June, Ms. Diether picked through a packet of her own press clippings. She drained three cups of coffee, and she laughed about five decades of fights—won and lost—against a litany of landlords (hers and others), countless community board members, and urban planners from Robert Moses to current City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, who Ms. Diether hopes will come around to her current crusade: downzoning the Bowery’s east side. (Ms. Diether has already drafted the zoning proposal and hopes to submit it to Ms. Burden this month.)
“Oh, she knows me well,” Ms. Diether said with an impish grin. “I even sent her a birthday card.” At that, she threw her head back and laughed.
“I NEVER QUITE UNDERSTOOD why other people are so afraid of fighting, but maybe that’s because of my grandmother,” Ms. Diether said.
After her grandmother immigrated to the United States from Finland—dodging a husband whom she didn’t like—an American customs officer asked whether she was, or ever had been, a Communist. Ms. Diether’s grandmother, who had survived the Soviet invasion of her home country, promptly hit the man.
She changed her name and raised three daughters in Massachusetts, one of whom eventually settled in Queens with Ms. Diether’s father, a cabinet maker and Mayflower descendant. The family moved to Massachusetts when Ms. Diether was in her early 20s, but she couldn’t be reconciled to small-town life. “If you went out with a guy more than three times, you were obviously getting engaged. And if you came home after 2 in the morning, everybody said, ‘Oh, you came home late last night.’”
That was too much prying for a woman who still dresses up to go out, still puts on red lipstick, and still confesses to being a “party girl.”
“Oh, man! She likes to party!” said Sean Sweeney, Ms. Diether’s co-chair on CB2’s landmarks committee and himself a bit of a land-use legend. “I like to party and get drunk, but Doris will out-party me. For 80 years old, she can out-party kids who are 30.”
So it was only fitting that when she moved back to New York from Massachusetts in her mid-20s, Ms. Diether moved into the Hotel Albert, a famed Village flophouse on the corner of University Place and 11th Street, where her staid father once came to visit.
“He asked for my room number and the guy gave him my room number without even asking who he was, and he got to the elevator and he was propositioned by one of the women in front of the elevator to do it for a bottle of liquor,” Ms. Diether said. “And then he got in the elevator and there were two gay guys in the elevator making out, and this was at 6:30 or 7 o’clock in the morning.”
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.”
Ms. Diether said one of her own landlords went to jail for fraud, after she sent to the state attorney general’s office housing records that showed he was listing the same loan on several co-op conversion applications.
“That’s why I like Doris; she’s tough” said Mr. Sweeney, who often takes Ms. Diether on “dates” to the opera or the ballet. “It’s one thing for men to break someone’s legs, but she’ll do it in like a feminine way.”
But for a woman who has fought so aggressively, and so continuously, from the same basement bunker for 51 years, Ms. Diether has a rather startling number of friends. She sends out 600 Christmas cards annually, and 150 people braved a January snowstorm to celebrate her 80th birthday.
“I still consider Doris a friend, and I still get a Christmas card from Doris,” said Richard Landman, who served with her on CB2 before he went to work in real estate for New York University, which Ms. Diether has often opposed.
“But we fought!” Ms. Diether said when asked about her friendship with Mr. Landman. “It’s not a personal fight. I’m fighting about an issue.”
It helps that Ms. Diether likes to socialize. “She’s a party animal. And proud of it,” said Susanne Schropp, a friend who helped organize her birthday party. The two met when Ms. Schropp needed help with a landlord problem, and she went on to take Ms. Diether’s zoning class. “Doris is just so adorable. She’s a really wonderful person.”
Ms. Diether has become such a local legend that her birthday party engendered—fittingly perhaps—a political fight. Council Speaker Christine Quinn apparently refused to let a political rival, Councilman Tony Avella, join the proclamation honoring Ms. Diether, a spat that became public when Mr. Avella’s side of the email exchange was leaked to the press.
For her part, Ms. Diether avoids email and the Internet. She got a computer about 10 years ago, but never took it out of the box. She continues to type her zoning resolutions and her community board minutes on a typewriter, to the chagrin of some who work with her.
“I wish she did have a computer and access to the Internet,” Ms. Schropp said. “To have a tool like that available, it would just be a nightmare to everybody she’s opposing.”