Janet Freeman Way honors tireless tenant advocate | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Janet Freeman Way honors tireless tenant advocate

Holding up an honorary co-naming sign that was given to Freeman’s family members, from left her brother, Ed, Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney and Freeman’s sister, Pixie.  Photos by Tequila Minsky

Holding up an honorary co-naming sign that was given to Freeman’s family members, from left her brother, Ed, Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin, Borough President Gale Brewer, Congressmember Carolyn Maloney and Freeman’s sister, Pixie. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKY  |   Friends, family, neighbors and local politicians recently gathered at Kenmare and Elizabeth Sts. as the city paid one of its highest, and most visible, honors to Janet Freeman — co-naming the street corner for the late community activist.

A resident of the neighborhood for more than 40 years, Freeman died in 2011 at age 60. She lived in a graffiti-covered storefront apartment on Elizabeth St.

Freeman was a tenant advocate, dedicated and tenacious, helping her neighbors save their homes when faced with harassment and possible eviction. 

At the June 22 dedication of Janet Freeman Way, neighbor Elizabeth Espada told of how Freeman had helped out when a fire in Espada’s building left residents homeless. Freeman defended tenants with disabilities and immigrants with little English, Espada noted.

Maria Muetes, of Housing Court Answers, one of the co-naming’s sponsoring organizations, said Freeman could always be counted on when it mattered.

“She was the only one person there through all the meetings and court hearings,” she said.

City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who was friends with Freeman, shared with her a passion for tenant organizing. 

“Through the years, we joined together in the noble struggle to preserve our Lower East Side community and affordable housing at large,” Mendez said.

The councilmember noted that Freeman was a founding member of the Coalition to Save Public Housing and Section 8. Freeman was also active — first as a volunteer, then as a staffer — at Metropolitan Council on Housing and the Citywide Housing Court Task Force, now known as Housing Court Answers.

She was known for assisting anyone who was in a vulnerable housing situation, and was often referred to as “the woman on the bicycle with a cigarette in her hand.”

She worked with Met Council, Cooper Square Committee, Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). University Settlement and the Coalition for a District Alternative (CoDA). Freeman also helped create the Lower East Side Co-op Watch, the Croman Tenants Association and Justice for Lincoln Swados.

Yanking the string to pull off the paper wrapping covering the new Janet Freeman Way street co-naming sign.

Yanking the string to pull off the paper wrapping covering the new Janet Freeman Way street co-naming sign.

“People in the Lower East Side, Little Italy and Chinatown,” Mendez said, “can accredit Janet for organizing tenants threatened by aggressive landlords and ravenous developers, as she helped the average citizen understand the interworkings of housing court. Janet’s passing was a huge loss for tenants everywhere.” 

That sentiment was echoed by Sook Ling Lai, director of Chinatown Head Start, another sponsoring organization of the street co-naming. Lai said Freeman worked to maintain an intact neighborhood that was appropriate for children. In some cases, that meant fighting off bars and night spots that wanted to open in the area, like Ivan Kane’s Forty Deuce nouveau-style burlesque club.

Adverse to bureaucracy, Freeman channeled her intellect, dedication to ordinary people, thoroughness and accurate research into an unbroken series of actions and campaigns for more than three decades, working as a free agent or volunteer. 

Among those who also spoke were Borough President Gale Brewer, Councilmember Margaret Chin, housing advocates Valerio Orselli, of Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, and Damaris Reyes, of GOLES, along with Georgette Fleischer, founder of Friends of Petrosino Square, another sponsoring organization, and family friend Sylvia Morse.