Martin Berger: Progressive West Village Champion
By Bruce Poli
Martin Berger, one of the founders of the Downtown Independent Democrats, Vice President of Village Independent Democrats, and a great advocate of civil rights, was a progressive attorney who had West Village values written all over him. And for the West Village he loved, he did great good.
The DID and VID, iconic progressive political clubs, were formed in the 1960s to transfer power from political bosses and the party to the people in the communities of downtown New York. They stood up for low-income housing, neighborhood preservation, quiet accessible street life—two examples were the closing off of Washington Square Park to traffic and the resistance to building a superhighway through the South Village.
These are hallmarks of West Village history that define our neighborhood and make it one of the most desirable communities in New York. As for political stands, the members of the DID and VID backed Adlai Stevenson for president and campaigned for him on street corners.
A longtime advocate of affordable housing and gay rights before it was popular, Martin Berger actually advanced his first amendment principles way beyond a protected arena…
It was 1960 and George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, was in a debate with Berger, who was Jewish. Rockwell told him that he “seem[ed] like a good Jew, so I will give you a trial before executing you when I take power.” “So, I offered to the ACLU that I would defend his right to free speech if he ever needed it,” Berger told the New York Post. “I don’t agree with anything this man says, but he has a right to hold unpopular beliefs.” Thus began a series of dialogues which transfixed audiences and cost him friends, but as a principled progressive, he stood for the human rights afforded all Americans.
According to the New Jersey Jewish News 2/18/66: Berger, a volunteer American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has appeared on behalf of unpopular causes in the past, was the target of sharp criticism from some Jews for his action. Two clients fired him after he got back to his office, and the telephone rang throughout the day with callers denouncing him. Berger said he never got a chance to explain to them why he defended Rockwell or that more than 30 of his own relatives died in the Nazi extermination apparatus in Europe. When he left the courthouse, he was berated by some for being not much less than a traitor to the Jewish people. A Jewish lawyer deliberately spat on the sidewalk as Berger spoke to reporters. A gentile youth passing by said, “Look at him, he puts down his own kind.”
Berger’s was a humanitarian stance unique to the progressive West Village character. Our community has always represented the great ideas, values, and visions of the American spirit and its optimistic and creative view of human life and democratic society.
As a district leader, Martin led the fight for affordable housing in the creation of the extensive West Village Housing development along Washington Street in the 1960s. He fought alongside Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have destroyed a large part of South Greenwich Village and Soho.
Later in life, Martin and his wife Keen (see WVN 8/2014) bought a beach house in Saltaire on storied Fire Island where he became the beloved mayor. He also became an avid gardener, devoted to flowers and seaside plantings. At his Judson Church memorial in January 2003, the following tribute was read: “The board and staff of Settlement Housing Fund are saddened by the loss of Martin M. Berger, indefatigable housing lawyer and passionate advocate. We miss his humor, pragmatic wisdom and friendship” (Carol, Clara, and Susan).
Half a century after these historic roots, downtown New York still leads progressive politics in America. As the saying goes, Greenwich Village is where “America happens first.”
Thank you, Martin Berger, for your leadership for a progressive America.