Sally Goodgold, Civic Advocate Who Practiced ‘Bagel Diplomacy,’ Dies at 82

August 31, 2011


August 29, 2011

Sally Goodgold was the Ethel Merman of land use: bold, brassy and capable of sounding notes that could be heard over any orchestra.

As a civic leader, Mrs. Goodgold believed that New Yorkers deserved affordable housing and accommodating public environments; that private development ought to help create these things, not eradicate them; and that it was the job of city officials to prod, not coddle, powerful builders.

“Nothing and no one intimidated her,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at Mrs. Goodgold’s funeral service, on Aug. 21. “As the first woman elected president of the City Club of New York, in 1984, she attracted all of the biggest names to speak there. One such forum featured Mayor Ed Koch. Sally was introduced as ‘Someone who can go one-on-one with our special guest.’ Mayor Koch looked up with raised eyebrows and said, ‘And she has, quite successfully!’ ”

As a member of the New York City Police Foundation’s scholarship committee 25 years ago, Mrs. Goodgold helped Mr. Kelly, then a police captain, get a grant that defrayed the cost of attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Mrs. Goodgold died on Aug. 18 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 82.

Watchdog, gadfly, conscience, irritant. Any number of advocates answer to these descriptions.

But Mrs. Goodgold was something else. She was ubiquitous and unmistakable, with a broad, open face; a full helmet of hair; and eyeglasses large enough to take in a 270-degree view of the city’s planning process, just what was needed to catch the fine print. Until recent years, she attended, or seemed to attend, almost every meeting of the City Planning Commission.

“Well into her 70s, you’d see her sitting in the first row, taking notes, finding out what was going on,” recalled Judith M. Gallent, a partner in the Bryan Cave law firm in New York City. Her father, Martin Gallent, at one time the vice chairman of the City Planning Commission, was Mrs. Goodgold’s strongest ally in city government, and they later taught together at Queens College.

As a land-use lawyer herself, Ms. Gallent spends a lot of time before the planning commission, and she had many chances to watch Mrs. Goodgold in action.

“It was almost like she was shining a light on the process by being there,” Ms. Gallent said. “She was her own sunshine law.”

When city officials learned in 1987, after the fact, that the developer Ian Bruce Eichner had built the Cityspire skyscraper at 150 West 56th Street 11 feet taller than permitted, they agreed to remedy the problem not by lopping 11 feet off the tower but by constructing an addition at the base of the building that would contain much-needed free rehearsal space.

Mrs. Goodgold criticized the notion of solving the problem of a too-big building by increasing its size. She said the strictures of the city’s land-use law, known formally as the Zoning Resolution, ought to prevent such an arrangement, even though it was proposed by the government.

“Whose rules are we playing by?” she asked. “The Zoning Resolution is the Zoning Resolution is the Zoning Resolution — with apologies to Gertrude Stein — and I’ve been clearly made to understand that we don’t trade off amenities for density.”

Confrontation, however, was not Mrs. Goodgold’s game. She preferred bringing people and institutions together, at her apartment on West 79th Street, with bagels from Zabar’s. She called it “bagel diplomacy.”

“I have people over to my apartment between 8 and 9:30 a.m.,” she said in 1984, “and I feed them and keep them talking for as long as it takes to chew through a whole bagel. Stanley Zabar once said he knew the state of the city by the size of my bills.”

Born in 1929 to J. Samuel and Dora Gottfried, she grew up in the Plymouth Hotel on West 49th Street, one of several around Times Square that her father managed. After graduating from Bucknell University, she worked as a volunteer at Beth Israel hospital, where she met Dr. Murray Goodgold, a cardiologist, whom she married.

Mrs. Goodgold is survived by a son, Jay; a daughter, Iris; a sister, Betty Gottfried; and three grandchildren.

Though best known as the president of the City Club, a good-government advocacy group, Mrs. Goodgold was active in many civic causes, serving on the boards of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Police Foundation, the Settlement Housing Fund and Citizens Union. She was also chairwoman of the Upper West Side community board.

She seemed to cherish her childhood in Midtown. “Rockefeller Center was my playground,” she said, “and every Saturday my mother would drop me off at the public library while she went shopping. The city baby-sat for me, and that is one reason I am trying to pay it back.”

Originally published in The New York Times