Susan Leelike, 81, Villager and community activist

Susan Leelike, above, was born on July 20, 1938.  (Photo courtesy Howard Hemsley)

BY LISA RAMACI | Her name was Susan Leelike, and she was a city and neighborhood treasure. She was born in 1938, into a very different New York City, to parents of Russian Jewish extraction; both of her parents were Communists, and she was a true Red Diaper baby who lived for the vast majority of her 81 years in either the West or the East Villages, the last 50 of them on our side of the island.

She co-founded GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side) in 1977 with her friend Floyd Feldman, with the objectives of providing tenant advocacy and shining an early spotlight on neighborhood preservation. Among other things, they envisioned the transformation of an underutilized Department of Sanitation facility, in one of Mayor LaGuardia’s old former city markets, as a perfect spot for a theater; without their creativity and tireless efforts, Theater for the New City would not today be calling East 10th Street and First Avenue home.

She was also a founding member of the Shelter Task Force, created in an attempt to block the city from overloading the East Village with homeless shelters, and BASTA, formed to regulate and better conditions at the infamous Third Street Men’s Shelter, a processing shelter for the homeless, since the city was doing absolutely nothing about the horrific site they were supposed to be overseeing. Through her – and others’ – years-long efforts, the shelter was cleaned up and became a positive resource for the East Village rather than a nonstop source of thievery, drug-dealing, garbage, violence and menace.

In the 1990s Susan and her neighbors on 10th Street between 1st and 2nd took on the 24/7 drug dealers that infested so many streets of the East Village back then and won; this on top of helping to gut-rehab an abandoned, fire-ravaged tenement building that she had called home since 1982. Now a fully-functioning HDFC, it survived and thrived in no small part to her unceasing labors, and the success of her undertakings helped to turn that block into the thriving hotspot that it is today.

She was a founding member of the Democratic Action Club, formed to take on and eradicate the issue of the homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park, another city-ignored situation which turned one of the only green areas in the neighborhood into a filthy, drug-ridden haven for the homeless, while putting it off-limits to neighborhood residents. Anyone who utilizes the park today – its playgrounds, asphalt, dog run or lawns – can thank, among many others, Susan. She tried to fight for the preservation and renovation of the now-closed-and-awaiting-demolition Essex Street Market, one of only two instances I can recall of a battle in which she was vanquished.

I called her the East Village Jane Jacobs – her love of New York and its historical significance, her knowledge of the neighborhood and its architectural and personal history, her memories of the things that used to be here that have vanished in the mists of time, were encyclopedic, and the loss of the memories she carried in her head is incalculable. She labored in obscurity and has passed into the shadows with no fanfare save for that given to her by those of us who loved her, her sense of humor, her stubbornness, her sharp laugh, her crankiness, her belief that a city’s history and the everyday people who made it mattered, and above all her fierceness in fighting for the things she believed were right.

Susan was my friend for 30 years, and on October 26. 2019, I was holding her hand as she lost that second battle, surrounded by the family and friends who cherished her, and whom she loved so much in return. Her passing has ripped another hole in the every-evolving quilt that makes up New York; while to some it may seem tiny, to those of us who knew, put up with and adored her, it is a massive, gaping one that will never be filled. There aren’t many like her left today, and we have just lost one of the good ones.