Ralph Feldman, 79: Fought fires and to save shul

Ralph Feldman in late summer 2013.
Ralph Feldman in late summer 2013.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Ralph Feldman, a retired fire marshal and longtime East Village resident whose sculpture honoring firefighters who perished in a 1966 fire is enshrined at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, died on Feb. 5 in his E. Eighth St. home of more than 40 years.

He was 79 and in recent years had depended on an oxygen tank in his battle with lung cancer and emphysema. A city police officer for a brief time before becoming a firefighter, he served in firehouses in the Bronx and in Harlem, retiring in 1985 as a fire marshal.

A nearly legendary presence on E. Eighth St., Ralph Feldman lived at 315 E. Eighth St. in a building he bought in 1969. lt was next door to the Eighth St. Shul, one of the last of the tenement synagogues. After years of dwindling congregation, fires and disrepair, the synagogue’s few remaining trustees moved to sell the building for development.

In 1998 Feldman joined Clayton Paterson, a Lower East Side activist, and others in an effort to preserve the building at 317 E. Eighth St. as a synagogue. Feldman, a nonobservant Jew, told a local newspaper at the time, “I want it to stay Jewish — that’s all.”

His actions matched his words. At his own expense and with much of his own labor, he replaced roof beams, installed a new roof, new water and sewer lines.

“I thought if the congregation saw what I’ve done, they’d come back,” he said at the time. The congregation did not return and the building was redeveloped as a two-family residence by 2008.

John Knox, the city’s longest-serving (1964 to 1998) uniformed fire marshal, recalled that he met his friend Ralph Feldman in 1964.

“He had thousands of photos of buildings and fires, including a five-alarm fire right across Eighth St. where he lived,” Knox said.

Elizabeth Ruf-Maldonado Remembers Ralph

Last fall, Ralph Feldman told a local blog that there used to be as many as five fires a week on his block of mostly vacant buildings.

“At the same time the Bronx was burning, the East Village was burning,” he told the blog. “All Brooklyn was burning. In the ’70s and ’80s, big portions of the city burned down.”

Feldman began buying distressed properties in his neighborhood and in Williamsburg, “and turning them into something that people could live in,” Knox said. EV Grieve, an East Village blog, said that a tenant of Feldman’s told the blog that Feldman never raised the rents on his buildings.

But some activists accused Feldman of being a slumlord.

“I remember that he beat the crap out of one guy,” Knox said.

“You either loved him or hated him,” said Paterson, Feldman’s partner in the effort to save the Eighth St. Shul. “He was known for marking graffiti, ‘Yuppie Squatters Out,’ around the Lower East Side,” Patterson recalled.

John Penley, a former East Village resident and activist, said in a post on Facebook, “Thinking of Ralph Feldman and his passing: since he was an FDNY fire marshal for 27 years during a long period when there were many fires in the Lower East Side, Ralph had to have seen some terrible things on a regular basis because he would have been the one to go in after a fire and investigate it. That gives you some insight into some of the good and bad things about him.”

Robert Perl, head of Tower Realty and the redeveloper of the Eighth St. Shul, recalled that Ralph could be either charming or aggressive.

“He told me that after President Reagan sent in the Marines in 1983 to take over Grenada, he went down there with a lot of cash and bank checks to buy waterfront property,” Perl said. “I don’t know if he actually did it, but that’s what he told me.”

Feldman was reputed to own 100 properties in the outer boroughs in conjunction with Joe Pogostin, his business partner of 47 years.

Susan Roecker, a graphic designer and Ralph Feldman’s longtime companion and collaborator, met him 42 years ago when an acquaintance introduced them.

“He was an imposing figure and a little shy,” she said. “He was wonderful to travel with because he was so very approachable to everyone who met him.”

Roecker drew the presentation pictures for Feldman’s art projects, including the monumental “To the Fallen 12” honoring 12 firefighters who perished in a 1966 fire at 7 E. 23rd St. The work, a 30-foot charred wooden beam grasped by steel bars resembling fingers, was installed in St. John the Divine in October 1976 on the fire’s 10th anniversary.

Rabbi Javier Bogner, of the Stanton St. Shul, officiated at Feldman’s funeral at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Ridgewood on the cold afternoon of Feb. 6, where an F.D.N.Y. color guard, firefighter friends, East Village neighbors, Hasidim and West Indians gathered to pay respects, Roecker said.

Two nieces, Linda Corozzo and Joyce Feldman, and a nephew, Mitchell Feldman, survive, as do several grandnieces and grandnephews.

More from around NYC