Madeleine Polayes, a tireless advocate for the Upper West Side who famously took on Donald Trump over the Riverside South mega-development, died on Monday.

Polayes was a founder of the Coalition for a Livable West Side, an activist group that continues to fight to protect community and environmental interests. She was a teacher and worked on all sorts of local and city issues, from affordable housing to child welfare.

Her funeral will be held Friday, March 1st at Riverside Memorial Chapel, West 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue at 9:30 AM.

Starting in the 80’s, Polayes took on Trump and the Riverside South (or Trump Place, as some still call it) development stretching from 59th to 72nd Street along the Hudson. Those battles consumed Upper West Siders for decades, and they’re still going on (anyone notice how many parks in Riverside Park around the development are marked “private”, when they are supposed to be for the community)?

Trump got his big buildings in what still feels like a semi-private elite neighborhood (pictured below). But the battles achieved certain compromises: Trump had initially wanted to build the world’s tallest building, a shopping mall and other amenities in the development, but community opposition helped reduce the project’s density, for instance.

While other community members eventually sided with Trump, Polayes continued fighting. She also helped stop the Lincoln West development project.

She explained her philosophy in an article  in the New York Times in 1995: “They always called us those crazy West Siders, those activists, but there are groups all over the city that want things done right. Are we crazy that we really want things done right, that we want planning, which the City Planning Commission has never done”

We received the following from Batya Lewton, who led the Coalition with Polayes for many years and considers her a mentor. Parts of it may be cobbled from other sources, she told us:

In 1958, in recognition of that role, she was selected to serve on the Mayor’s  Committee  on Urban Renewal  (86th to 97th  Streets). Then in 1960, she co-founded the Stryckers’  Bay  Neighborhood Council with  Reverend  Henry  J.  Browne. They built Stryckers’ Bay Apts. Inc., a  Mitchell-Lama coop in 1965. In 1969, Madeleine and her dear friend Marianne K. Jacobs built  the low-income Turin House Cooperative. While doing all this she successfully lobbied in Washington for the important 221D3  housing legislation. Together with her husband Sillik, the Madeleine and Marianne team formed an active community and political force for change in this city.

She founded the Coalition Against Lincoln West (a/k/a Coalition for a Livable West Side) – a grass roots all-volunteer community-based environmental organization in 1981. Based on Madeleine’s belief that change has to improve the quality of life, not reduce it for the people who live on the west side, the Coalition has become the West Side’s leading non-government voice, whose members care about the city and protecting a healthy environment. Madeleine served as its President since 1981.

Madeleine was President of the Federation of West Side Block Assoc. from 1978 to 1984, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Broadway Mall Association Center. She has also served as a community representative on many governmental task forces.

She earned a B.A. from the University of Connecticut, in 1948, an M.A. History and Economics from Columbia University in 1950 and a P.D. in Guidance from Bank Street College in 1968.

Madeleine was an outstanding teacher and guidance counselor. She ran her own nursery school, The Madeleine School on the Westside, then began working as a Guidance Counselor for the NYC Board of Education.

Her proudest moments came after she had reported and followed through in court proceedings on some of the worst child abuse cases imaginable. She rarely lost a case and safeguarded many children. She retired from the NYC Board of Education in June 1992. We on the west side are grateful that Madeleine did not retire from her role as a leader of this west side community.”

NEWS | 4 comments | permalink
    1. Batya Lewton says:

      Thank you for honoring Madeleine with your article. Just one small correction. I was the caboose and Madeleine was the engine. She was a great mentor.

      Her name should be linked with the great Jane Jacobs as outstanding defenders of the community.


      • NikFromNYC says:

        The thousands of professionals who work in Manhattan and live in Trump buildings and want to do so at affordable rent level are evidently not part of this community of those who live in rent controlled buildings. Had Trump been able to add twice as many units then twice as many high income professionals would now be present to support a much wider array of cozy shops and cafes especially since with hundreds of additional units, rent and mortgage expenses would be lower, freeing them to support local shops instead of just their landlord.

    2. Mel Wymore says:

      Madeleine Polayes was a hero! For decades, she worked relentlessly to protect the livability of the Upper West Side. We thank her (and Batya!) for defending the air, light, and public spaces we enjoy each day.

    3. Tom DeMott says:

      “They always called us those crazy West Siders, those activists, but there are groups all over the city that want things done right. Are we crazy that we really want things done right, that we want planning, which the City Planning Commission has never done” YEAH, GROUPS ALL OVER WHO HAVE AN IDEA THAT THERE ARE COMMUNITIES WORTH PRESERVING. LIKE WEST HARLEM AS WE FIGHT THE COLUMBIA U. EXPANSION. PROPS TO MADELEINE AND HER, AND BATYA’S, COALITION AGAINST LINCOLN WEST. Tom DeMott – Coalition to Preserve Community