To attorney, the square is more than just a lawsuit


By Ellen Keohane

“Don’t center me on the arch, it’s against my religion,” quipped attorney Ronald Podolsky as he posed for a photo in front of the Washington Square Arch on Friday afternoon.

The 73-year-old attorney, who has argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court twice, is representing a group of litigants including individuals and organizations such as the Emergency Coalition Organization to Save Washington Square Park who are fighting the city’s renovation plans for the park.

The proposed renovations include plans to move the park’s fountain in order to align it with the arch, to which Podolsky is adamantly opposed.

“I love this park and the people in it. I admire the people who designed it,” Podolsky said. “The fountain has always been off center with the arch and no one’s ever complained about it.”

Sitting on a concrete wall facing the park’s fountain, Podolsky called the Parks Department’s renovation plan “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and illegal.” He also objects to renaming the fountain for the Tisch family, who donated $2.5 million for the fountain and plaza to be renovated. If anything, they should be content with a bench in their name, Podolsky said.

Podolsky first started frequenting Washington Square Park in 1950, when he was a government and politics major at New York University, and later a law student at N.Y.U. School of Law. He even met his wife, Ingrid, who he married in 1978, in Washington Square Park while playing guitar on a bench. He used to push his daughter, Erica Susan — who is now 25 and a law student at Pace University — on the swings in the park’s children’s playground, he said.

And for the past 56 years, Podolsky has come down to the park to play guitar. “I play with whoever tolerates me.” Podolsky said he has never had a lesson, only plays in two keys and is tone deaf.

Slightly disheveled and in need of a shave, it’s easy to imagine Podolsky “jamming” on his guitar, which he continues to do most weekends during the spring, summer and fall. He primarily plays historic mountain music as well as Depression-era and war songs like “Seeing Nelly Home” and “Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim.” Stuff you’d have to go to the Library of Congress to hear, he said.

Podolsky first heard about the proposed park renovation from Susan Furman, a member of ECO who sings in the park. The two met in the park around four years ago.

“We have a lot of confidence in his legal judgment — and we love that we found a lawyer who actually uses the park,” said ECO member Sharon Woolums. “The whole group just thinks the world of him as a human being.”

Born in 1932, Podolsky spent much of his childhood in a Philadelphia orphanage. After his father died, his mother wasn’t able to support three children on her own — it was the middle of the Depression — and so Podolsky and his brother were placed in a privately endowed orphanage called Gerard College, Podolsky said.

While he lived at the orphanage, Podolsky continued to visit his mother and sister on weekends, and in 1948 the family moved to New York City. After graduating from N.Y.U.’s law school in 1957, Podolsky was drafted by the Army and served in the Third Infantry Division in Wurzburg, Germany, until 1959, before returning to New York where he has made a career of fighting the city, he said.

In 1968, Podolsky argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Gardner v. Broderick. The case involved a New York City police officer who was subpoenaed to testify in a police corruption investigation. The officer lost his job when he refused to sign a waiver of immunity, as required under state law. J. Lee Rankin, the chief council of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy, represented the city in the case. Podolsky, who represented the police officer Bob Gardner, won the case 9-0.

“That’s what got me involved in cases against the city,” Podolsky said. Ever since then he’s been contesting various city decisions on behalf of his clients.

In 1988 Podolsky argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court a second time in Marino v. Ortiz, which also involved the New York Police Department. This time, he lost with a split verdict of 4-4.

“I enjoy my profession — it’s an adrenaline rush every time I go to court,” Podolsky said. “I come up with concepts so off the wall that I win cases that others give up on.” Podolsky estimated he’s represented thousands of police officers as clients over the years.

In September, Councilmember Alan Jay Gerson intervened in the dispute with the Parks Department about the Washington Square Park renovations and has negotiated an agreement that has moved the project more in line with what the plaintiffs want to see happen in the park. So for now, Podolsky is waiting to hear the Parks Department’s final decision regarding the renovation.

“If we are happy with it, we won’t do anything,” Podolsky said. “As long as there’s no steam shovels in the park, I’m happy.”