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Op/Ed: Samuel Dickstein Plaza, Named For a Soviet Spy, Should Be Rebranded

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This month in our print magazine, we debuted a new regular feature: a guest opinion column we’re calling “Local Voices.”  The first opinion piece was written by Susan LaRosa of Henry Street Settlement.  If you’ve got something to say and you’d like to say it in The Lo-Down, send a 500-word article to tips@thelodownny.com.  Submissions will be considered for either print or online publication.

samuel dickstein plaza

It’s time to practice some much-needed revisionist history on the far east Lower East Side.

Henry Street Settlement is petitioning to change the name of Samuel Dickstein Plaza, a one-block area at the intersection of East Broadway and Henry Street, to Lillian Wald Way, in honor of the Settlement’s founder.

Why bother? Please read on.

Dickstein was a U.S. Congressman who represented the Lower East Side for two decades beginning in 1923, serving as vice chairman of a House subcommittee on un-American activities. He later became a State Supreme Court justice. Dickstein died in 1954; the plaza was named for him in 1963.

In the 1990s, historians Allen Weinstein, who later served as the Archivist of the United States, and Alexander Vassiliev were granted unprecedented access to secret Soviet archives where they discovered evidence that Dickstein began passing information to the Soviets in 1937 – while he was a seated congressman! He did so purely for money; he was paid $1,250 per month by the NKVD, the Russian security service. The quality of his information underwhelmed the Soviets; they ended their relationship with him in 1940. His code name, assigned by the Soviets, was “Crook.” Weinstein and Vassiliev published the information about Dickstein in The Haunted Wood, Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era (The Modern Library, 1999).

Wald was one of the most respected and influential social reformers of the 20th century, a true progressive pioneer who founded Henry Street Settlement in 1893 to fight the social causes of poverty, and worked tirelessly to help vulnerable residents of the Lower East Side lead better lives. During her tenure at Henry Street, Wald founded the Visiting Nurse Service, placed the first nurse in a public school, opened the first playground in the neighborhood, established the first pure milk program for children, supported racial integration and was a founding member of the NAACP, supported the labor movement and fought for child labor laws, conceived the idea for the federal Children’s Bureau, lobbied for women’s suffrage and established the first theater in the nation (now the Abrons Arts Center) for a low-income community.

In 1922, The New York Times named Wald as one of the 12 greatest living American women, and she later received the Lincoln Medallion for her work as an “Outstanding Citizen of New York.” On her 70th birthday, Sara Delano Roosevelt read a letter on a radio broadcast from her son, President Franklin Roosevelt, in which he praised Wald for her “unselfish labor to promote the happiness and well-being of others. “ In 1970, she was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

It has been 14 years since the sorry truth about Dickstein came to light. It’s time for the community to right a wrong, and replace his name with Wald’s. In life, she embodied the best of the Lower East Side. In death, her legacy lives on in Henry Street’s work, which helps more than 50,000 individuals each year through social service, arts and health care programs, making the neighborhood and the entire city a better place for everyone.

Susan LaRosa is the deputy officer for marketing and communications at the Henry Street Settlement.

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  1. While Lillian Wald should certainly be honored, this effort to attack Samuel Dickstein and remove his honor give me the creeps. How many of us lived through the McCarthy era? Choose another block to honor Lillian Wald.

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