Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Joan Davidson Showed How Little It Sometimes Took To Get Big Things Started"

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Joan K. Davidson and the Fight for New York."

As income inequality has widened in recent years, the role of philanthropy has been called into question. Is charitable giving by wealthy individuals and powerful corporations always a positive force, or is that connection to wealth and power an inevitable compromise? Whose agenda does philanthropic giving really benefit, the grantees or the granters? These are complicated questions. But truly enlightened giving is a transformative force. It can not only fund worthy causes but if properly timed can sow the seeds of social change.

Author and urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz has a new book out on one such enlightened citizen and the organization she led: It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York. I recently spoke with Gratz about how, in recounting the story of Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, she also tells the story of New York City in the 1970s, how its turmoil and tumult, its political battles, helped reposition the city for future rebirth.

Martin C. Pedersen (MCP): What is the primary story you are telling here?

Roberta Brandes Gratz (RBG): It’s the lessons of New York City’s successful rebirth starting in the 1970s and the people who made it happen. There are stories and people here that have their parallels in other cities. At a time when everyone in every city and town is figuring out how to rebuild after Covid, the lessons of New York’s rebirth in the ’70s is a useful playbook. At the heart of that successful rebirth is Joan Davidson and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

MCP: Tell me about the origin story of the book?

RBG: I first met Joan in the 1970s when I was a reporter for the pre-Murdoch New York Post covering many of the issues and projects she was funding. What struck me at the time was that not too many people knew about these projects, issues, and controversies. The Kaplan Fund was a real activist philanthropy, supporting many citizen-based groups fighting for their communities, usually against overreaching developers or city policies. Over the years we became friends, and a few years ago a few of her friends and I discussed how her true legacy was largely unknown and vastly underappreciated. I said, “There should be a book,” and the next thing I knew I was proposing to write it. 

MCP: Why should urbanists care about Davidson and the Kaplan Fund?

RBG: Joan was not afraid to engage in some of the most crucial issues in the city: the fight against Westway, the 12-lane replacement highway for Manhattan’s West Side; or for the rescue of two of the most important theaters on Broadway, needlessly demolished to make way for John Portman’s terrible hotel; or for the various fights to save landmark buildings around the city. Evidence of guts in New York City is slim, where too many people care more about being accepted than standing up against the powers that be. This book gave me a chance to remind people of some of the critical battles and to show how supportive the Kaplan Fund was, especially of grassroots efforts.

MCP: In recent decades, the nature of philanthropy has changed, in mostly negative ways. What’s the difference between the way Joan and the Kaplan Fund operate, and the way foundations and wealthy individuals do today?

RBG: Kaplan didn’t expect detailed proposals. If you had a good idea or a good cause and you could show support from other local citizens, a grant could be had. Often it wasn’t large, but that only showed how little it sometimes took to get big things started.

MCP: In the book, you use the term “activist philanthropy”—what does that mean in the current climate, when income inequality has reached levels that haven’t been seen since the Gilded Era? 

RBG: Joan and the Fund were critical to helping grow the historic preservation movement at the time it was least accepted. They were willing to support important lawsuits against egregious developers. And they stood strong on the side of civil rights and liberties, early support of gay rights, and in taking on huge corporations like Con Edison, when the future of the Hudson River was at stake. That chapter in the book on the fight to save the Hudson is not well known at all. So the book not only focuses on Joan and the Fund, but reveals some important New York history.

MCP: By today’s standards the Kaplan fund is fairly modest. It has an endowment of about 130-140 million dollars. How has it managed to punch above its weight?

RGB: Kaplan was often the first or, at least, an early small grant, but it was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for other foundations and individuals to follow. Their initial grants often led to bigger support. The same can be said of the Astor Foundation. The two often supported the same thing and always early.

MCP: The current issue with foundation giving is tied up in the larger context. Too much that was once part of the common good and funded largely through taxation has shifted to foundations and wealthy individuals. Do foundations have too much power? 

RBG: That’s a loaded question, but in the case of Kaplan it doesn’t really apply, because their grants were never huge. If anything, those grants made it possible to stand up to the powers that be that did not have good intentions at heart. Sometimes it forced elected officials to follow with public funding in order not to be left out.

MCP: What lessons do Davidson and the Kaplan Fund have for today?

RGB: There are two overarching important lessons here: one, how meaningful and truly important small financial donations can be; and two, how critical to the city these grassroots efforts are. If you follow the history of Kaplan grants, you see clearly how true urban revitalization starts from the bottom up, and that time and time again some of the smallest grants lead to the biggest successes. For example, Kaplan made the first grant to the High Line. No better example of big success exists. It also made the first grant to the pocket park on East 103 Street, no bigger than a small building lot. That led to the pocket parks movement citywide and then nationally in the United States. Then there’s the Green Market movement. Kaplan funded the first of them here, and then look what happened.

All the stories in this book demonstrate the big change that small efforts can make and how it is always local people who are the initiators. The real fun of this book for me was being able to remind people of the full variety of great issues that mark New York City history of the past half-century. I had written about some of them before but it is always useful to go back and remind us all what really works, instead of what the so-called experts tell us will work. The book is full of lessons for today.

Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Joan Davidson Showed How Little It Sometimes Took To Get Big Things Started" - Image 2 of 2
Book cover of "It’s a Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the Fight for a Better New York". Image © Bold Type Books
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Cite: Martin Pedersen. "Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Joan Davidson Showed How Little It Sometimes Took To Get Big Things Started"" 26 Mar 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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