Gotham Gazette

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Linda Stone Davidoff, 1941-2003


When Riverside South park opens in the spring, sun bathers and ball players will find a wooden sign in the park telling them that the area between 65th and 68th Street has been named "Linda's Lawn." This is in tribute to Linda Stone Davidoff, the urban planner, activist and former director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation, who died December 31 at age 62.

Among her many achievements in more than 40 years of activism, Davidoff developed the plan that led to the creation of this new park on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She also ran political campaigns and launched the national effort that resulted in the passage in 1993 of the National Voter Registration Act. Known as "Motor Voter," it requires states to provide voter registration forms to citizens when they apply for drivers' licenses and other services.

At a memorial service in the Prospect Park Picnic House on January 4, about 250 family, friends and colleagues remembered Davidoff as a woman who liked to win but was never afraid to embrace losing causes, and who threw herself energetically into everything that engaged her -- from the fight to end the war in Vietnam to her final battle against leukemia. But Davidoff was also honored for her fierce devotion to her family and for the personal example she set for her wide circle of relatives, friends, colleagues and comrades in arms.

Born in Washington, D.C, Linda Stone Davidoff grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a Steelworkers Union employee and a teacher. She graduated from Radcliffe College and received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Her long history of political involvement started in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. It was then that she embarked on a lifetime of working for losing political candidates. While living in Larchmont, New York, she struggled mightily to elect liberal Democrats to replace entrenched Republicans in Westchester County. Later, she would manage Elizabeth Holtzman's losing campaign for Senate in 1980 and Ruth Messinger's unsuccessful New York City mayoral campaign in 1997. But despite so many fights for the losing side, her friend Libby Moroff said in her eulogy, Davidoff always hewed to an "implacable, unshakable conviction that something could be done." A fitting motto for her, said Moroff, could come from the "Lord of the Rings": "Death is certain. Victory unlikely. Let's fight."

Despite her affinity for politics, Davidoff saw herself primarily as an urban planner. In a series of articles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she and her first husband, Paul Davidoff, developed the concept of advocacy planning. This idea held that planners should not be merely technicians but instead should consider social and political values in their work. Paul Davidoff died in 1984.

After heading several non-profit organizations (including the Parks Council, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Citizen Action of New York), Davidoff in 2000 became executive director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation, the publisher of Gotham Gazette. In less than three years, she expanded the group's budget and staff and led it into greater activism and involvement in communities across the five boroughs of New York City.

While speakers at the memorial service remembered Davidoff's many political crusades they also spoke of her personal warmth and intensity. Noting the large number of Manhattanites in Brooklyn on a rainy Sunday morning, Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, said, "It would take someone like Linda Stone Davidoff to get the Upper West Side to relocate to Prospect Park."

After being diagnosed with leukemia in August, Davidoff kept a firm grip of life, spending time with her husband Harold Stone, whom she married in 1997, and her children, stepchildren and their children. Anne Mackinnon, her "step-daughter-in-law," recalled how, less than a week before her death, Davidoff plunged into Christmas Day, exclaiming over how delicious the coffee was, marveling at the croissants and seeing the humor of atheists tearing open Christmas stockings.

She was, it seemed, following the advice she had given her loved ones two months before on Rosh Hashanah: "It's definitely time to give thought to ... saying good-bye, NOT being sadder than we have to be, keeping a sense of humor and perspective and, especially, of the sweetness of a good life."

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that contributions may be sent to Citizens Union Foundation or to Howard Dean for America. A larger memorial celebration will be held this spring, at a date to be announced.

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