Betty Cooper Wallerstein receiving a City Council proclamation from Council Members Dan Garodnick, left, and Ben Kallos earlier this month. Photo: New York City Council
Every once in a while, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says, she will receive a “lovely, personalized, handwritten thank-you note” that seems to harken back to a different era in the life of New York.
The missive doesn’t travel through cyberspace. The sender never, ever communicates by email. Instead of hitting the send button, she affixes a postage stamp, and the correspondence arrives via U.S. mail.
It’s the “old-fashioned way of working,” Brewer said. The approach is so novel these days that the letters have actually become keepsakes: “I have saved at least 10 or 15 of her thank-you notes,” she marveled.
At this point, most Manhattan elected officials, city commissioners, community board members, senior City Hall staffers, cops, cab drivers, sanitation workers and Upper East Side doormen will readily be able to guess the letter-writer’s identity:
“She is a unique person, and you are never going to find another Betty Copper Wallerstein,” said state Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side and Midtown East.
“There is no one like Betty Cooper Wallerstein, and she can never be replaced,” said East Side Council Member Ben Kallos, who, in keeping with local tradition, also uses all three of her names.
“She’s the gold standard, and no one in history will ever replace Betty Cooper Wallerstein,” said Valerie Mason, president of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association.
Why all the panegyrics? Wallerstein has served as president of the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association for 33 years. Through sheer will and force of personality, she’s built it into one of the most historically effective and accomplished civic organizations in Manhattan.
After co-founding the group in 1984, originally along a three-block stretch of 79th Street between East End Avenue and Second Avenue, she guided its expansion to encompass 49 blocks, with members as far afield as 72nd Street to the south and 96th Street to the north.
Now, she’s finally ready to step down next year. “I’m an old work horse, and it’s a lot of work,” she said.
The organization’s new leadership team hasn’t been unveiled. Possible changes in its direction have yet to be announced. There’s a clear need to bring younger leaders into an aging organization. Informally, there’s even talk about merging the 72nd and 79th Street associations, but it’s preliminary and may or may not prove viable.
Still, Wallerstein acknowledges, one change is certain: “I’m totally non-technological,” she said. “I don’t have email, I don’t have a computer, and I don’t miss it. I find it very impersonal. I like to speak to people.
“But that’s not the way the world is, so I think there’s zero chance that whoever takes over won’t be into technology and email.”
Absent a Facebook page and a website, how did she get the word out and notify people about her meetings? She did it the old-fashioned way.
“We had our notices typed up and personally delivered to the buildings by a team of about 30 people, each of whom covered an area of two or three blocks,” Wallerstein said.
Whatever her modus operandi, it clearly paid off. She led the 10-year battle to save City and Suburban Houses on 79th Street, preserving affordable housing for 1,350 families when the “model tenements” for blue-collar families was designated a landmark in 1990.
She also proved that marketing savvy can be deployed by community organizers. With a group dubbed “Neighbors ‘R’ Us,” she fought plans to convert a warehouse on Third Avenue and 80th Street into a Toy ‘R’ Us superstore, eventually winning a 1996 Court of Appeals decision barring the development.
Along the way, Wallerstein helped establish the Cherokee Station Post Office on York Avenue; worked with the 19th Precinct on a program to train 2,000 block watchers; created the area’s first dedicated taxi stand on York Avenue; beautified streetscapes with hundreds of new trees; and expanded police, bus and sanitation services.
Her mission — advocating and agitating for her community, fighting City Hall when necessary — is hardly over. Indeed, her retirement sounds a bit like a busman’s holiday. “I’m not retiring from civic work,” she said.
Wallerstein said she’ll now focus on zoning issues, like an absence of height caps east of Lexington Avenue. “Ninety-story buildings are being proposed,” she said. “Affordable housing is being torn down for super-tall buildings. It’s very urgent. But our mayor doesn’t seem to be find it urgent.”
Her shifting role and semi-departure raises a broader question about the health of the so-called “civics.” Are they waxing or waning? Is membership and attendance at events up or down?
“If you had asked me two years ago, I might have said, ‘Where are all the young activists who are going to take over these roles and do a better job than we did?’” Kruger said.
“But today, I’m happy to say, I see a new generation of activists getting involved in the political process and community organizing, jumping on community boards, forming new civic associations and political clubs — working on the same issues Betty spend her whole life working on.”
Kallos said he was aware of a decline in local civic associations when he was elected in 2013. Since then, he’s seen a resurgence, as groups like Carnegie Hill Neighbors “get larger and larger every year.”
“I have made it my mission to build the civics and helped launch the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association, East River Fifties Alliance and the steering committee for the 86th Street Business Improvement District,” he said.
Still, some insiders report a falloff:
“We’re looking for both members and board members, and we don’t get a great response,” said Bernard Dworkin, treasurer of the Sutton Area Community and the group’s attorney and ex-president. “The board has about 10 members, but there’s room to double that. People are not flocking to join.”
The ever-changing Manhattan real estate market can be a factor. Marty Barrett, president of the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association, says that roughly 15 years ago, his group had some 600 members. Then a chunk of nearby Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village went market rate, and as older residents departed, few new residents joined up. “Now, we have 70 or 80 members,” he said.
On the other hand, the East 72nd Street group, which was founded in February 2016, has quickly grown from six member buildings to 20 member buildings, and its public meetings are typically packed.
“I don’t think activism is on the wane,” Mason said. “On the contrary, I think issues like zoning have energized people.”
Will her group merge with Wallerstein’s 79th Street association? “There haven’t been formal talks,” Mason said. “We work together, we go to their meetings, they go to ours ... There’s no us or them, there’s only the Upper East Side. And we’re trying to collaborate and cross-pollinate on a variety of issues.”