HELEN M. MARSHALL, FIRST BLACK BOROUGH PRESIDENT OF QUEENS
Helen M. Marshall, a New York Democrat who was the first African-American to be elected Queens borough president, died on Saturday in California. She was 87.
Her former chief of staff, Alexandra Rosa, confirmed the death.
Ms. Marshall, who served three terms as borough president starting in 2001, was remembered on Saturday as a champion of public libraries and her borough.
She was a “larger-than-life figure in the civic life of Queens” who fought for city resources, Melinda Katz, the current Queens borough president, said in a statement.
Ms. Rosa recalled that Ms. Marshall, who was the second woman elected Queens borough president, had entered office with a detailed list of priorities, which staff members affectionately called the Marshall Plan for Queens.
“Helen wanted to make a difference,” Ms. Rosa said in an interview. “She was very much focused on government’s impact on individual lives.”
In 2013, the Center for an Urban Future reported that Ms. Marshall had steered more money toward library projects in Queens in the preceding decade than the other four borough presidents combined had done in their jurisdictions. She served as the first director of the Langston Hughes Library in Queens and was awarded the statewide Daniel W. Casey Library Advocacy Award in 2005.
Ms. Marshall created the Queens General Assembly, which promoted cross-cultural exchanges among ethnic groups. A slogan she used, Ms. Rosa said, was “Visit Queens and see the world.”
“This job is what you make it,” Ms. Marshall said shortly before being elected to her first term in 2001. “I’m known to be a fighter. I also know how to use power.”
Ms. Marshall served three four-year terms as borough president. Before that she was on the City Council for 10 years and in the State Assembly for eight. Before entering politics, she was a community activist in her East Elmhurst neighborhood, where she pushed for job training programs and economic development.
Ms. Marshall was born in Harlem on Sept. 30, 1929. She graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in education and was an early-childhood teacher for eight years.
Her survivors include a son, Donald Marshall Jr.; a daughter, Agnes Marie Marshall; and a sister, Joan Suger. Ms. Marshall’s husband, Donald, died in January.
As borough president, Ms. Marshall was an ardent booster of Queens culture. A former neighbor of Louis Armstrong, she noted in a State of the Borough speech in 2011 that Armstrong’s home in Corona had become a museum and that she had sworn in the experimental poet Paolo Javier as the borough’s poet laureate.
She also paid tribute in that speech to Queens natives like George Vujnovich, who was awarded a Bronze Star 66 years after he orchestrated the largest rescue of American soldiers behind enemy lines during World War II.
Adding a final note of optimism, she said: “I still believe in the human spirit. I still believe in the Mets.”
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the year in which the photograph was taken. It was 2001, not 2011.
JERRY BIRBACH, LEADER OF FIGHT TO BLOCK POOR TENANTS IN QUEENS
Jerry Birbach, a Queens firebrand whose struggle to block a proposed low-income housing project in his Forest Hills neighborhood in 1972 augured a white middle-class backlash to the liberal urban agenda and helped propel Mario M. Cuomo’s political career, died on Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 87.
The cause was complications of surgery, his grandson Jared S. Pinchasick said.
The planned housing project was a hulking experiment in racial integration that urban planners called scatter-site housing — in this case, three 24-story towers to be occupied mostly by black and Puerto Rican tenants in a largely white, Jewish neighborhood of private homes and garden apartments.
When construction began in 1971, the project galvanized Mr. Birbach and his neighbors and became a national flash point for white resistance in the wake of the civil rights movement and commitments to racial integration.
Mr. Birbach, a paunchy home renovator who lived four blocks from the proposed project’s site, managed the opposition as president of the Forest Hills Residents Association. Mr. Cuomo, a relatively obscure Queens lawyer at the time, was the mediator recruited by Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration to broker a compromise.
During months of negotiations, some civic leaders preached racial harmony and sought a middle ground. But the project’s opponents resented having to bear the brunt of decisions dictated, as they saw it, by government liberals cloistered in Manhattan.
Mr. Birbach and his followers insisted that they were not racists; rather, they said, they feared that a sudden influx of hundreds of poor tenants would cause a crime wave in what they saw as a stable, middle-class sanctuary.
Mr. Birbach led angry protests (rocks and torches were thrown, but he disavowed sabotage to construction equipment), was arrested at City Hall, hinted at violence and threatened that if the project proceeded, he would lead a mass exodus — and even sell his own home to blacks.
In 1972, Mr. Birbach challenged State Senator Emanuel Gold, who represented Forest Hills, in a Democratic primary but lost. In a debate between the two, Mr. Birbach was “jowly, gruff, unprepared — but effective!” Mr. Cuomo wrote in his book “Forest Hills Diary: The Crisis of Low-Income Housing” (1974).
Mr. Birbach, Mr. Cuomo added, was “a reasonable fellow and, in a lot of ways, likable” but was “obviously responsive to a growing militancy in this town’s middle class.”
The New York City Housing Authority’s decision to build on a vacant patch at 62nd Drive and 108th Street in Forest Hills even reverberated in the 1976 presidential campaign.
Asked about the policy of placing low-income housing in middle-class communities, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate, said he would not force racial integration that would disrupt the “ethnic purity” of a neighborhood. He was denounced for the phrase, which he said was misunderstood, and he apologized.
By the time he was enlisted by City Hall, Mr. Cuomo had already mediated a dispute between the city and residents of Corona, Queens, over construction of a school that would have displaced homeowners. At times, though, with divisions in each camp, it was unclear whom to negotiate with.
Mr. Birbach repeatedly demanded that the project be scaled down to a garden apartment complex for older residents. Ultimately, it was cut nearly in half, from the 840 apartments originally proposed to 432, with 40 percent of the units reserved for the elderly. The towers ended up being 12 stories tall.
The city also adjusted maximum income levels and transformed the project into New York’s first cooperative public low-income housing, in which residents were shareholders.
As a result, 15 years later, 65 percent of the residents were white (compared with 12 percent in all public housing in the city), and 3 percent were receiving public assistance (compared with 27 percent in public housing citywide).
In the next mayoral election, Mr. Cuomo recalled, “none of the candidates argued for integration or dispersal of ghetto residents in middle-class areas.” (That election was won by the Democratic candidate, Abraham D. Beame.)
“The new and safer emphasis was on rehabilitating the ghettos,” he continued. “The clock had been turned back nearly two decades, and many people felt that the impetus for this withdrawal had been provided by Forest Hills.”
In the mayoral race four years later, Mr. Cuomo lost to Edward I. Koch, who had aligned himself with the Forest Hills protesters.
Mr. Birbach sold his Forest Hills home (not to a black buyer), moved to a house a few miles away in Holliswood, and, Mr. Cuomo wrote, “lost 30 pounds, and with it much of his old image.”
Abraham Joseph Birbach was born on Aug. 5, 1929, in Manhattan to Samuel Birbach, a baker, and the former Esther Silber.
He grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and graduated from Eastern District High School. He attended City College, where he studied accounting, but had to leave before graduating to support his family after his father died.
He later renovated and rented out Manhattan brownstones for a living. After the Forest Hills dispute, he completed a graduate degree in urban studies at Queens College.
Besides Mr. Pinchasick, Mr. Birbach is survived by his wife, the former Sherrie Fox; a daughter, Lori Pinchasick; a son, Steven; six other grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Birbach and his wife moved from Queens to Long Island in the 1980s and retired to Florida in 2006.
After a time, Mr. Birbach let bygones be bygones. In 1982, he voted for Mr. Cuomo for governor. He even called him later to ask him to recommend one of his grandchildren to law school. And 15 years after the compromise was struck, he was reflective about a fight that he still considered worth having embarked on.
“Forest Hills was the first time that anyone stood up for the middle class,” he told The New York Times in 1988.
Of the completed housing complex, he said: “It is a very fine development, better than I ever thought it could be. The integrity of the neighborhood has been preserved pretty well, but, you know, we really forced the city to do that.”
Mr. Birbach would regale his grandchildren with stories about his civil disobedience. “He was quite proud that he was full of conviction,” Mr. Pinchasick said, “especially in this day and age, when people are afraid to speak for what they believe in.”
On his 85th birthday, Mr. Birbach hired a bus and took the family on a “This Is Your Life” tour of his past: the site of the Lower East Side tenement, on Attorney Street, where his parents lived when he was born; Public School 50 in Williamsburg (which the comedy team the Ritz Brothers also attended); his brick house in Forest Hills; and the one in Holliswood.
The Forest Hills housing project was not on the itinerary.
An obituary on Thursday about Jerry Birbach, who in 1972 led the fight against a proposed low-income housing project in Queens, misstated the number of great-grandchildren who survive him, using information from his family. There are three, not two.
JOSEPH A. WAPNER, JUDGE ON ‘THE PEOPLE’S COURT’
Joseph A. Wapner, a California judge who became a widely recognized symbol of tough but fair-minded American jurisprudence during the 12 years he sat on the bench of the syndicated television show “The People’s Court,” died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.
His son David confirmed the death, The Associated Press said.
Judge Wapner had served for 20 years on the California Municipal and Superior Courts before becoming the occasionally irascible, highly watchable star of “The People’s Court,” a daytime series on which real-life plaintiffs and defendants from California small claims courts would argue their cases before him.
A decorated veteran of World War II, Judge Wapner ran his television courtroom from the show’s debut in 1981 to the end of its original run in 1993 with stern, mesmerizing discipline, cutting off onscreen complainants who displeased him and threatening to levy unspecified penalties on those who dared to interrupt him.
But Judge Wapner’s reasoned verdicts, in disputes over missing pets, encroaching fences or botched hairdos, were difficult to argue with. And his evenhanded hearings of cases in which mere pocket change was at stake let millions of viewers know that no matter how seemingly insignificant their legal disputes, they, too, were entitled to their day in court.
“People think I’m kind and considerate, and that I listen and evaluate, and give each party a chance to talk,” Judge Wapner said in an interview just as “The People’s Court” was becoming a nationwide hit. “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”
During World War II, he served with the Army in the Pacific and was wounded by sniper fire on Cebu Island in the Philippines, leaving him with shrapnel in his left foot. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his bravery and was honorably discharged in 1945.
After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California in 1948, Judge Wapner worked in private practice as a lawyer for nearly a decade, until Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Two years later, Judge Wapner was elected presiding judge of the city’s vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised some 200 fellow judges.
Of the numerous cases Judge Wapner heard before his retirement from the bench in 1979, perhaps the most notorious was the divorce trial of the California sports tycoon Jack Kent Cooke and his first wife, Jeannie Carnegie. The $49 million settlement that Ms. Carnegie ultimately received would earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
At his audition for “The People’s Court,” Judge Wapner was asked to hear an argument between a petite woman and her boyfriend, a professional football player. When the diminutive plaintiff finished her testimony, Judge Wapner saw the hulking defendant approaching her, and he unflinchingly instructed the man to sit down. The producers knew they had found their judge.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 1989 found that while two-thirds of those surveyed could not name any of the nine justices on the United States Supreme Court, 54 percent could identify Judge Wapner as the judge of “The People’s Court.” That same year, a study published by the National Center for State Courts found that caseloads for small claims courts across the country had nearly doubled and largely attributed that increase to the show’s influence.
By that time, he had numerous competitors and imitators, including former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York, who hosted a resurrected “People’s Court” from 1997 to 1999, as well as Judith Sheindlin, a former Manhattan family court judge, who since 1996 has presided over another television courtroom as “Judge Judy.” Judge Sheindlin’s husband, Jerry, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, replaced Mr. Koch on “The People’s Court” and was in turn replaced in 2001 by Marilyn Milian, a former Florida Circuit Court judge, who has presided there ever since.
“All the judges watched Judge Wapner,” she told Larry King in 2005. “All America at one point or another watched Judge Wapner.” (Judge Wapner was not as kind to Judge Sheindlin, criticizing her in interviews for her brusque, often angry courtroom demeanor.)
So many courtroom shows have been introduced since Judge Wapner’s initial success that in 2008, the Daytime Emmy Awards created a separate category: outstanding legal/courtroom program.
Besides his son David, survivors include his wife, Mickey, and another son, Frederick, a judge on the Superior Court of Los Angeles.
“Judges should decide legal disputes,” Judge Wapner said in one of the ads. “Judges should not make law.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary erroneously included Judge Wapner’s daughter, Sarah, as a survivor. She died in 2015.
A picture caption on Monday with an obituary about Joseph A. Wapner, the original judge on the syndicated television show “The People’s Court,” misspelled the surname of the longtime host of that show. As the obituary correctly noted, he is Doug Llewelyn, not Llewellyn.