Saturday, December 9, 2023

Photo of the Day: Bella Abzug Park, NYC

I took the photo accompanying this post a few weeks ago, when I had a few minutes to spare before boarding a Megabus for a short Thanksgiving vacation in Pittsburgh.

Oddly enough, though I had been in Hudson Yards a few times since it opened several years ago, I had never noticed Bella Abzug Park

New York residents who are Gen Xers or younger are likely to have little memory of the local politician this urban park honors, and the knowledge of tourists coming upon it by happenstance at Hudson Boulevard between West 37th and 33rd Streets is likely to be thinner still.

But, for almost a decade and a half from the mid-Sixties to late Seventies, Bella Abzug (1920-1998) attracted a great deal of attention, even beyond the borders of New York State.

This colorful and controversial feminist would have garnered at least some national attention anyway, because of the way she demanded respect from her male colleagues on Capitol Hill. But she became an especially outsized figure in New York, the media capital of the world, at a time when the anti-war, feminist, and gay rights movements were coming into their own.

News image creators from that time—newspaper and magazine editors, TV crews, and cartoonists—latched onto Abzug’s penchant for enormous hats (which she began to wear as a young lawyer, she later recalled, because “working women wore hats; it was the only way they would take you seriously”).

Then there was that voice—regarded as assertive by supporters and abrasive by critics.

Abzug would claim that her critics were, all too often, guilty of male chauvinism. There was more than a little truth to her view (she was frequently shunned by all-male committees and mocked for her weight—criticisms that most male colleagues never had to endure). 

But it is also true that her anger management issues could lead her to lash out even at supporters and her own staffers. The nickname "Battling Bella" might have been a badge of honor she wore proudly, but also pointed to the stereotype that would ultimately limit how far she would go in politics.

Nobody, however, could deny that Abzug was a conviction (as opposed to convicted) politician—a figure who displayed incisive intelligence and a steely will in labor, civil rights, and civil liberties cases undertaken as a young lawyer associated with the National Lawyers Guild, an organization of progressive attorneys denounced during the Fifties by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Abzug was part of the Manhattan-based Democratic reform movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties that helped overthrow the Tammany Hall machine. In 1970, she was elected to the House of Representatives, and five years later became the first woman to hold a job as party whip. 

Unfortunately, her time in the corridors of power was short, as she lost her seat when she tried unsuccessfully to move up the Senate, only to be beaten by Pat Moynihan in the 1976 Democratic primary.

But Abzug left her mark in advocating for unions, the peace movement, and civil rights, civil liberties and LBGQ rights. And now, this park, part of a six-block-long greenway in Hell’s Kitchen, will remind future generations of her contributions.

Ironically, a park that offers weary urban walkers a chance to rest has taken its name from an activist politician who rarely if ever rested throughout her career.

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