Events & News

Frances Goldin and the Moses Threat to Cooper Square

May 30, 2024

By Katie Heiserman, Jeffe Fellow

“When Robert Moses came to the Lower East Side, we were really ready for him. Boy, did he pick the wrong neighborhood.” – Frances Goldin


For over a century, progressive politics have surrounded Cooper Square, the triangle-shaped juncture connecting four lower Manhattan neighborhoods. In the 1950s, however, Robert Moses threatened the historic fabric of Cooper Square, eliciting a preservation advocacy response invigorated by local leftist politics. 

Once known as Stuyvesant Square, the area bordered by Astor Place, St. Marks Place, and East 4th Street, was renamed after Peter Cooper in 1883. Cooper founded Cooper Union at the northern end of what would become Cooper Square 24 years prior to the renaming. A tuition-free, racially integrated, and co-ed institution, the college was radically egalitarian for its time. Cooper Square also remains home to the widely-circulated alternative newspaper The Village Voice. Adjacent to the square stands the Public Theater. 

Cooper Square’s preservation-related history has progressive strains. When Robert Moses’ Slum Clearing Committee developed a plan in 1959 to level a dozen city blocks from East 9th Street to Delancey Street, a community-led opposition movement quickly formed. The development would have demolished 2,400 housing units, which became the primary focus of the anti-slum clearance preservation organizers. Under Moses’ plan, significant buildings that would become New York City landmarks, including the Metropolitan Savings Bank on East 7th Street and the Nicholas and Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish House, would have been lost. 

Forming the Cooper Square Committee

At the head of the anti-Moses organizing effort stood Frances Goldin, a spirited Queens-born literary agent who moved to 11th Street at age 21 and ran for state senate on the American Labor Party ballot, sharing the 1950 ticket with W.E.B DuBois, at age 26. The fight at Cooper Square was not Goldin’s first battle with Moses’ urban renewal programs. She had been involved in unsuccessful efforts to stop urban renewal at Lincoln Center and Seward Park. 

Goldin brought lessons from these past battles to the first meeting of the Cooper Square Community Development Committee and Businessmen’s Association, later renamed to the Cooper Square Committee (CSC). In her previous preservation battles, she had focused on halting Moses’ bulldozers, but by 1959, her strategy had evolved into a more generalized community preservation approach that embraced building development and prioritized tenant protection from displacement. As Goldin said, “We learned that you don’t go in and fight and say, ‘go away, go away, bad, bad, bad.’ We went in and we said ‘we want urban renewal, but we want it to benefit the neighborhood, not victimize them.’” 

Presenting an Alternative to Moses’ Plan

Shortly after CSC’s first meeting in 1959, community planner and CSC co-founder Walter Thabit surveyed residents of Cooper Square’s old-law tenements and small-scale lofts, asking tenants if they would be able to afford Moses’ housing plan. The survey found that 93 percent of residents would not be able to afford the new rents or co-op buy-ins planned for Cooper Square. Drawing on Thabit’s expertise as a planner, CSC delivered lithograph printed copies of “The Alternate Plan for Cooper Square” to the New York City Planning Commission and other city agencies in 1961. The document outlined a way to rebuild Cooper Square without displacing tenants. In Goldin’s words, “This plan will basically ‘take care of the people who live here.’ And that’s what made it different from any other plan. You might be relocated from the front of the building to the back while the front was being renovated, but you were not out of the neighborhood. You might have gone from this building to one next door while yours was being renovated, but you would not go out of the neighborhood. And we kept that promise. Anybody who lived there still lives there or died there.”

The Alternate Plan proposed clever use of a vacant lot on Houston Street. Construction of public housing would begin on the vacant lot and tenants of a to-be-demolished building would be moved into the new building. The rest of the public housing developments would follow in this checkerboard fashion. As a new building went up, the next would come down, with tenants shuffling over. The Alternate Plan was popular not just locally but citywide. The president of the Greenwich Village-Chelsea branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) praised the plan for providing “on-site new housing for the Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Italians and other poor people displaced by Urban Renewal in this area.” 

Initially, the City responded to the Alternate Plan with radio silence. Moses, however, fought back, attempting to sell the Houston Street lot to the San Gennaro Association to scuttle the plan. CSC fought adamantly and successfully, employing community-centered organizing tactics such as attending public hearings, leading demonstrations and rent strikes, and pursuing media attention. Goldin also elevated the issue to the state level by lobbying weekly in Albany. In 1965, CSC secured a meeting with Mayor Robert Wagner. Actions on the street grabbed attention and often resulted in arrests. One protest involved organizers gluing shut the locks on city offices, requiring the removal of doors. 

Beyond such efforts, CSC drew crowds at rallies both by appealing to the local community’s interest in protecting themselves from displacement and by ensuring political actions doubled as recreational events. A CSC flier from August 1970 held in New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives reads, “Come to a block party and rally. Tenants bring your friends! Home cooked food.” Goldin knew well that effective grassroots efforts relied on people’s power, sustained through community-building, often more than political appeals: “Food is so important. It’s a wonderful organizing tool.” 

Beyond the Alternate Plan

In 1970, after nine years of activism, the City accepted the Alternate Plan. Yet the plan quickly stalled when President Nixon’s administration pulled federal funding for public housing, leaving CSC without the support of anticipated federal funds. New York subsequently fell into a financial crisis and municipal support dried up. Even though the Alternate Plan had yet to be realized, CSC succeeded in stopping Moses’ plan to demolish Cooper Square. In 1986, long after the Moses era, CSC published a new plan which detailed a rehabilitation of Cooper Square’s tenements under a mutual housing association, which officially formed in 1991. By this time, threats of gentrification supplanted urban renewal threats leftover from Moses. 

Over several decades, CSC continued to devise and fight for affordable housing plans across the East Village and the Lower East Side. The organization’s victories included the preservation of 328 tenement apartments in Cooper Square. CSC continues to preserve and develop affordable housing and community spaces, operating out of an office on East 4th Street. 

Although less remembered than her West Village counterpart Jane Jacobs, Frances Goldin deserves attention and further study as a model of fortitude, endurance, and joyful neighborhood organizing. An activist with a distinctive style, she brought the community together and sustained engagement over many years. In her 2014 oral history interview with Village Preservation, Goldin highlighted the egalitarian, community-centered approach at the core of her work with CSC: “Fifty-nine years ago, dues were a dollar a year, and today, dues are a dollar a year.”

The Gotham Center for New York City History published a version of this article in March 2024.