By Arlene Kurtis
By 1961, Carmine DeSapio had been the boss of Tammany Hall for twelve long years, and the public had enough of his cronyism and patronage. Fifteen Reform Democratic clubs decided to make a concerted effort to end Tammany and DeSapio’s reign.
On the Upper West Side, two important clubs were the Riverside Reform and the FDR-Woodrow Wilson Democratic club of which I was a member. We met on the second floor of an old taxpayer structure but much of our work was going door to door. First, we had to round up enough signatures to enable us to put names on the ballot. I solicited a young doctor I knew, Larry Schwartz, to sign the petition. He declared he had no use for politics. When I explained that he would have no one to vote for in the general election except the Tammany hack, but if instead he helped our candidate have a line, he would have a choice in the primary. He agreed to sign. Once we had our lines, we needed to convince the neighbors to vote for our candidates.
The idea of holding Coffee Klatches was the creative genius of Irving Wolfson, an insurance executive who lived on Central Park West and belonged to the club. Members agreed to host Coffees in the homes and invite neighbors over. Young lawyers from the club and our candidates spoke at these gathering, The Klatches were a big success. Some came to check a neighbor’s decor, others to listen to the speakers or to nosh on goodies the hosts put out. But robust discussions continued in lobbies and on the block.
The Klatches did more than elect ‘reformers’ to office, it made our neighborhood into a small town. Networking increased, people greeted each other on the street and in elevators. This was face-to-face before there was Facebook. Our efforts were successful city-wide. Tammany Hall was R.I.P.
The Village Independent Democratic club made Ed Koch district leader. Uptown, Irving Wolfson became our district’s leader. We sent Ted Weiss and William Fitts Ryan to the U.S. House of Representatives. Fred Ohrenstein, of our club, was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1961, became its leader and served until 1994. Among his many legislative achievements was the law that required the landlords of each building to install lights on either side of the entry so that a person arriving home in the dark could be safe.
Fred Ohrenstein, at this writing is 90, but most of these folks are gone. Irving and Ellen Wolfson have passed away. Their daughter, Nora, and I reminisced about those days. I believe Irving’s legacy is a friendlier West Side, where people now visit over lattes or perhaps a few coffee klatches.
Arlene Kurtis is the author of “Lila’s Hamsa: A Novel of Love and Deception.”
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Image of an Upper West Side mug via Zazzle.