Ross Graham Dies at 93; Tenacious Fighter for New York City

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Ross Graham, an unheralded exponent of Manhattan’s West Side and a pioneering legislative aide whose legacy involves the Hudson River Park, the preservation of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen and the legalization of abortion in New York State, died on Jan. 28 in Manhattan. She was 93.

The cause was the coronavirus, which she contracted after being hospitalized for a broken hip, her sister, Judith Graham Miller, said.

Ms. Graham was hired as a legislative aide in 1964 by State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein, a Manhattan Democrat who became the minority leader in 1975. She became his chief of staff and was at one point described as the highest-paid woman on the state payroll in Albany.

In 1970, three years before the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade, Ms. Graham was a leader in the legislative fight to decriminalize abortion in New York (she hung the historic roll call tally on her wall), which was accomplished by a one-vote margin.

After she retired from Mr. Ohrenstein’s staff in 1985, she was appointed to Community Board 4 on Manhattan’s West Side, serving from 1986 to 1997, including two years as the chairwoman.

She considered herself a moderate — negotiating with opponents “is not necessarily selling out,” she told The New York Times in 1995.

As a result, she was able to help reduce the height of proposed high rises in Chelsea and in Hell’s Kitchen (an earlier name for the neighborhood, which she preferred to the tonier “Clinton” promoted by real estate developers).

In 1996, she was named by Borough President Ruth W. Messinger to the Hudson River Park Conservancy board and three years later was a founder of the Friends of Hudson River Park, which she co-chaired with the developer Douglas Durst from 2002 to 2011.

In those roles, she was instrumental in transforming derelict piers and head houses, parking for garbage trucks and other remnants of the industrial waterfront into a four-mile, 550-acre greensward that offers biking, boating, jogging, skateboarding and other recreation.

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In New York’s long history of behind-the-scenes shapers, said Ira S. Glasser, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “I know of no one who fought as many good fights on as wide a variety of issues, and with as much strategic intelligence and unswerving commitment to principle, as she.”

Nancy Ross Graham was born on Dec. 19, 1927, in Williamstown, Mass., to Charles L. Graham, a college physical education coach, and Lois (Litchfield) Graham, a high school English teacher. Raised in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and drama from Tufts University in 1949.

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    “She had the troublemaking instinct from the very beginning,” her friend and mentee, Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said. “As a student at Tufts she fought to integrate her sorority.”

    After writing for the society page of the Reading Times in Pennsylvania where the future novelist John Updike was a colleague, she ventured to New York in the 1950s. She was hired by a trade magazine and then worked in London for several years. She gravitated to politics after John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 and became a lifelong Reform Democrat.

    Her sister, her closest survivor, was the bookkeeper for the Nixon re-election campaign in 1972 and a vital source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in exposing the Watergate scandal. She was played by Jane Alexander in the film “All the President’s Men” (1976).

    Ross Graham, who lived since 1966 in a rented a one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea, was considered tough, but reasonable, a rarity among West Side activists.

    When a circus wanted to commandeer DeWitt Clinton Park for seven months, she persuaded the Parks Department to compensate with major improvements.

    “Trying to balance everybody’s interests and at the same time leading — it’s a challenge, but it’s the part that’s fun,” she said.

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