Civic Advocacy

As a reporter at the New York Post, Roberta was given the opportunity to suggest stories worthy of coverage. Instinctively, she chose subjects and issues that needed the spotlight turned on them.

In the early 1970s, women needed corroboration by two witnesses to prove a rape, making proof impossible. Other impediments to conviction existed, along with the societal assumption that women invited the crime. Roberta wrote a six-part award-winning series of articles that brought the issue to the fore for the first time in New York and helped change New York state law.

Roberta did the same for the issue of illegal abortion, writing a six-part series on the consequences of illegal abortions and also wrote the cover story on the subject for MS Magazine for the issue of Jan 1973 with the U.S. Supreme Court Roe V Wade decision.

Urban change in the broad context and specifically historic preservation evolved as an early interest. Roberta wrote an award-winning series in 1973 exposing both the weaknesses in the NYC Landmarks Law (it was purposely weak) and the timidity of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The 1970s was a period of rampant demolition. She focused on many threatened yet undesignated landmarks: Radio City Music Hall, the Empire Stores, Flatbush Town Hall, Pier A, Grand Central, the Ansonia, Grace Church houses, Flushing Town Hall and more, all helping to both save landmarks and raise the city’s preservation consciousness. She also put the spotlight on rent gouging landlords, excessive overdevelopment and community change, including the early signs in the 1970s of neighborhood rebirth in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side.

In 1977, Rupert Murdoch took over the New York Post. Soon after, Roberta left to write magazine articles and books. In 1978, she wrote a cover story for New York Magazine, “How Westway Will Destroy New York: An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” that changed the debate over that mega-landfill and highway expansion favored by almost all the political leaders and editorial writers. The interviews with Jacobs for that article began both an almost 30-year friendship with Jacobs and Roberta’s work on her first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way.

Later, an article she wrote for New York Magazine, “Save the Helen Hayes,” was the catalyst for the dramatic, long-running fight to save both the incomparable Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters, both eventually demolished for the John Portman Marriott Hotel that alternative plans showed could have been built on top of preserved theaters. That ‘battle’ was lost but the ‘war’ to save the remaining theaters was won when the Landmarks Commission designated all the remaining historic theaters in and around Times Square.

In the early 1980s, Roberta accidentally became what she often wrote about, i.e. the change-maker who, if she knew in the beginning what she knew by the end, would never have gotten started in the first place. She helped organize and then led the effort to restore the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, the oldest synagogue built by East European Jews. This was the largest landmark restoration in NYC not affiliated with an educational or other non-profit institution. Twenty years later, the synagogue reopened as a museum in gloriously restored splendor. Its programs and tours draw people from all over the world. A small congregation continues in uninterrupted service.

In the mid-80s, Roberta initiated a conversation among a small group of West Side activists that led to the establishment of Westpride. The mission was to stop Donald Trump’s plan for the West Side waterfront where he proposed a 2 million square foot, six-story mall from 59 to 72 with the tallest building in the world on top, flanked by 6 more tall buildings and parks in between. After a long battle and unprecedented agreement between this grass roots group and Trump, that disastrous development was averted. What evolved is not great by any means but a fabulous new park was created, the river view vistas for West Side streets were preserved, a mega-mall was averted and a pedestrian friendly landscape was achieved at street level.