Memories of Weathermen explosion on W. 11th St.

By Ed Gold

The parole of Kathy Boudin last week brought a rush of memories going back 33 years. I was sitting in my sixth floor office on 12th St. near Fifth Ave. shortly after noon on March 6, 1970, when a fierce explosion shook the building.

As the explosions continued — there were seven in all — a colleague on the sixth floor, usually a package of fun, became panicky. She grabbed her coat, said she couldn’t stand it for another moment, and dashed for the staircase. A young writer on my staff, with a vivid imagination, ran in to tell me she had looked out the window and had seen uniformed Chinese at the street intersection.

Within the next 24 hours, the cause of the violence became clear: The townhouse at 18 W. 11th St. — flanked by two identical houses — owned by James Wilkerson who was in Europe, had been left in the care of his daughter, Cathy. Cathy was a member of the antiwar revolutionary group the Weather Underground, which had evolved from the Students for a Democratic Society, and which believed, ironically, that the road to peace lay in acts of violence.

She had brought in a gang of Weathermen — and Weatherwomen — and they had turned the townhouse into a bomb factory. Something had gone terribly wrong that March afternoon as they prepared a bomb containing roofing nails and dynamite, intended to be exploded at an officers’ dance in Fort Dix, N.J.

In the early confusion the day of the bombing, I received a call from a concerned friend who had just heard that someone with a name sounding like mine had lost a finger in the catastrophe. I assured him that, while I had been a McCarthy Democrat in 1968, I had always thought Weathermen terror was harmful to the peace cause, and inane as well as immoral.

The bomb-maker in question lost more than a finger. Ted Gold, 23 years old, was one of three fatalities that March afternoon.

At the time of the explosions, Boudin and Wilkerson, unclad or barely clad, had fled the inferno, picked up clothing from a neighbor and plunged back into the underground.

The other townhouses also drew media attention. At 16 W. 11th lived a celebrity in the person of renter Dustin Hoffman. Twenty W. 11th was owned by Arthur Levin, a community activist then and now. He had grabbed his dog and cats and fled into the street. He later referred to the experience as “like a World War II movie.” His basement was seriously damaged and he was forced to move to One Fifth Ave., then a hotel, until the city found it safe enough for him to return.

Coincidentally, my wife and I were connected to the Levin house. The previous year we had bought his apartment on 12th St. and he had applied our payment to the purchase of the townhouse.

Actually, the disaster could have been much worse. The police inspector in charge of the investigation found pipe bombs already wired and “enough dynamite to blow up half a block.”

While Boudin and Wilkerson both went into hiding, they took different paths. In 1980, Wilkerson gave herself up and received a three-year sentence. Boudin, on the other hand, returned to a life of terror. In 1981 she was arrested following an armored truck robbery by the Weather Underground, in which two police officers and a security guard were killed

She pleaded guilty and got 20 years to life. She could have received three consecutive life sentences but the court accepted her story that she had served as a decoy and was not directly involved in the shootings. David Gilbert, with whom she had had a son, was convicted of murder and given a life sentence.

She and several of her terrorist colleagues have apparently changed their ways. Boudin earned her parole after 22 years in prison largely because of her extensive work helping AIDS victims. Also, her son had been raised by two friends of the revolution who had married, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Ayers’ girlfriend was killed in the 1970 11th St. bomb blasts. Dohrn, who had once made the F.B.I.’s “10 most wanted” list, is now a college professor and directs a children’s clinic at Northwestern University.

Boudin’s son has been named a Rhodes scholar.

But the bombing had an epilogue in the community. How would the townhouse be replaced? That summer in 1970, the property was sold to a group headed by Hugh Hardy, a prominent architect, who had a plan for construction that would upset many in the community.

Hardy proposed a bay window extending four feet in the middle floors of a five-story structure, while the upper and lower floors would remain in line with the other townhouses. This was a sacrilege to some of the outspoken community landmarkers and Community Board 2 opposed his plan. It took seven years for Hardy to find a buyer who liked his plan, and for the city’s Landmarks Commission to give final and unanimous approval, in part because Hardy agreed to keep the same roofline as the townhouses on either side.

When construction began, the fence that had been built around the 11th St. hole included some ironic graffiti: “Death To The Pigs,” and “Make Love Not War.” It was seven years after Boudin had dashed from the flaming townhouse.

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