Activism at Every Age

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Batya Lewton has a loose definition of the word “retirement.”
Instead of taking time to enjoy life and relax, she became a full-time community activist. But that is hardly surprising, given her history.

In 1986, a negligent landlord didn’t stop her from enjoying her home: she was dubbed “Landlord Buster of the Year” by building residents after she led a successful 20-month rent strike against him.

Even the latest technology doesn’t daunt this independent 78-year-old, as she hunts for a photo to send to a reporter.

“Where it could be…in iPhoto? iTunes? When I find it, I will attach it.” (And so she does.)

Batya Lewton, Coalition for a Livable West Side

Batya Lewton, Coalition for a Livable West Side

A lifelong resident of the Upper West Side, Lewton currently serves as vice president for the Coalition for a Livable West Side (“That’s L-i-v-a-b-l-e,” said the former school librarian, who taught in Harlem for 31 years). The coalition keeps tabs on local development and its impact on the environment, among other things. The group hired a consultant to analyze Extell’s Riverside South project, five glass towers proposed for an eight-acre site between West 59th and 61st streets along the West Side Highway. The consultant examined the impact on traffic, sewage and pedestrian safety.

Lewton’s responsibilities include community outreach, maintaining databases and writing the coalition’s “excellent and informative” newsletters, “if I may say so myself,” she said. “Listen, it takes me two days to get all the information into these small paragraphs because no one wants to read anymore.”

“She must be what, 5-foot-1? At most,” said Mort Berkowitz, who handles the coalition’s street fairs. “She has a shopping cart. When she comes through, people move. No kidding! She’s done so much, especially in the area of preservation.”

A defining period in Lewton’s life was the year she spent in Israel, on Kibbutz Kfar Blum, in 1952.

“The vibrancy, intellectualism and dedication of the kibbutz members had a profound influence on me,” she wrote in a short biography. “I decided I had to make a difference in children’s lives and in my community.”

Her students still stay in touch, a testament to her work as an educator. And by all reports she has made a difference in her neighborhood with her strong, vocal stance against over-development. She mourns the loss of “wonderful” former businesses on Broadway, including Kresge’s at West 80th Street, where you could buy simple notions—a spool of thread and a needle—and the old Woolworth’s with its cafeteria at West 79th Street.

“We do not need one more bank or nail parlor or Duane Reade,” she said.

She also misses the mom-and-pop stores that can no longer afford the high rents.

“You can’t go into business simply to pay a landlord rent.”

She says her greatest accomplishment as a teacher was to get children to “think and question.” But she decries the fact that West Side adults don’t wake up to negative change until it’s too late.

“Years ago, nine out of 10 people would take your flyer. Now you’re lucky if one takes it. Try to tell people what’s coming down the pike, but until it’s a reality they don’t listen. Then it’s, ‘How come no one told me?’”

For all of the negatives, she remains firmly dedicated to people and her neighborhood.

“We need to revive a strong sense of community in the area,” she said. “I love the West Side, its people and its diversity. We’ve lost a lot of diversity, but not all of it. It’s still unique.”

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