Another Leader Who Helped Build (and Rebuild) Battery Park City Lost to September 11-Related Illness
On Saturday, longtime Battery Park City resident and community leader Kathy Gupta died in her home, in Gateway Plaza. This makes her the latest in a succession of community leaders and longtime residents made gravely ill and then taken by an illness arising from exposure to environmental toxins on September 11, 2001, and in the weeks and months that followed.
Her son, Arun Gupta, said, “words can not fully express what she meant to my father, myself, my family and everyone she has come into contact with over the 72 years of her life. My mom was a truly amazing woman who left a lasting impact on everyone she met. She helped build strong, lasting communities everywhere she went, lived or worked. We loved her very much and will miss her deeply.”
Ms. Gupta and her husband, Udayan, were expecting Arun when they moved into Gateway Plaza in 1983, becoming some of the earliest residents of Battery Park City. “They had these ‘Keep Off the Grass’ signs everywhere,” she recalled for the Broadsheet in 2007. “The only place where kids could play in those days was the courtyard of Gateway Plaza. But if children tried to sit on the lawn, the security guards would come and tell us we had to stay on the sidewalk or sit on the benches.”
Along with a Gateway neighbor who would become her closest friend, Lois Eida, Ms. Gupta helped form the Battery Park City Parents Association that year. “During our first summer here, we would walk up to anybody who had a baby in a carriage and try to get to know them,” Ms. Gupta remembered. “By fall, we had made contact with seven or eight couples who had kids.” Among the Association’s first moves was to approach the Battery Park City Authority to request a playground.
“That’s how Pumpkin Park came into being,” Ms. Gupta recalled. “The Authority worked with us, and chose a location behind Gateway Plaza, overlooking the marina.” The name comes from the fact that the playground opened a few days before Halloween, 1986, but also refers whimsically to the underground water pumping station (which services the enormous climate-control systems of the World Trade Center) located beneath the park. “That was also the beginning of the Battery Park City tradition of a kids parade on Halloween,” Ms. Gupta noted of an observance that persisted for decades, eventually moving indoors to what was then the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place).
This campaign led to others (also spearheaded by Ms. Gupta), such as the push to bring the first school to Battery Park City. “One of the arguments we kept hearing in the early discussions,” Ms. Gupta observed, “was that the 1980 census showed there were no children living here.” She countered by observing that the same census showed there were no human beings of any age living in Battery Park City (which had not existed in 1980), and the Parents Association began compiling lists of families with children. “Being able to document that we had 25 kids in the neighborhood, then 50 a year later, and then so many we couldn’t keep up” reflected Ms. Gupta, “was very important. Being able to prove this with names and telephone numbers made the decision-makers pay attention.” This push reached fruition a decade later, when P.S. 89 opened in 1997.
Along the way, Ms. Gupta helped assemble the building blocks of a rapidly coalescing community in numberless other ways. “She was the kind of person who could take a big city and turn it into a small town,” recalls Ms. Eida. “She was very strong with tradition and holidays—the whole floor would come to her apartment for Christmas, to decorate the tree and bake holiday cookies. I later found out that she had rented three storage units near Canal Street, which were filled with decorations for different holidays—Christmas, Halloween, Easter, and others.”
Ms. Eida remembers that, “Kathy was also the one who started the Halloween list,” a local innovation that enabled families with young children to trick or treat in every residential building in Battery Park City, which sparked countless lifelong friendships not only among the costumed toddlers, but also between the parents escorting them. “Even after she got sick, she kept up with Halloween and Christmas until last year.”
“She had a gift for creating in her home and in her neighborhood environments that were inclusive and cohesive.” Ms. Eida muses. “She would bring people in to create things. In a sense, Kathy had landed in the perfect spot, because she was a community builder and in those days, Battery Park City was a community that needed building.”
Another project that Ms. Gupta and Ms. Eida (who declared themselves honorary sisters almost 40 years ago) collaborated on was the community gardens, for which they lobbied to build support among the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy and local landlords, who made space available. Ms. Gupta and Udayan maintained a plot together there continually since the gardens opened in the 1980s, where they mentored less-experienced gardeners, and were known for their beautiful dahlias.
A natural leader, she soon joined Community Board 1 (CB1), where she helped start (and get City funding for) a youth recreation program that eventually grew into Manhattan Youth. “Kathy hired me, right out of college, as the Youth Coordinator,” recalls Bob Townley, executive director and founder of Manhattan Youth. “Her son, Arun, eventually worked for me. Our lives were intertwined for decades. She was working for City As Art, as executive director, when I encouraged her to apply for the Henry Street Settlement,” a not-for-profit social service agency in the Lower East Side. She eventually rose to become the chief development officer there, raising millions of dollars to support programs providing food, housing, healthcare services, educational intervention, and arts classes to more than 40,000 clients each year.
Ms. Gupta’s CB1 colleague (and Gateway neighbor) Jeff Galloway recalls, “I always had the sense of Kathy being a pillar of the community. Her son, Arun, is several years older than our children. And she was very much involved in building the park and school constituencies that our kids were able to enjoy and benefit from a few years later.”
“Throughout our service together on CB1 and its Battery Park City Committee,” Mr. Galloway recalls, “you could count on her to speak up about commonsense things that mattered to the community. Whenever we were getting lost in the minutiae of policy, she would bring the discussion back to earth by asking, ‘how will this affect the people who live here?’ She was also an advocate for the people decision makers almost never hear from, the ones who don’t have to time to show up to meetings and complain. Kathy always struck me as the conscience of Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan.”
CB1 chair Tammy Meltzer reflects that, “Kathy had a quiet grace that enabled her to listen while people were hollering at each other, then raise her hand when it was her turn to speak and find a way to bring people together. She was an incredibly kind person, warm and generous in sharing her time and talents. The world has lost a light that shone brightly, but never burned anything it touched.”
Longtime CB1 member and community leader Robin Forst says, “Kathy was ‘original’ Battery Park City. She was part of the Neighbors Association, the Community Board, the groups that pushed for a local school and a local library, and the annual block party. She was always present and always part of everything.”
Ms. Gupta’s leadership rose to a new level following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although flaming debris ejected from the collapsing Twin Towers completely destroyed the Guptas’ home (relics from their apartment are now on exhibit in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum), they were among the first families to return to Gateway Plaza when it reopened.
“When we got back,” Ms. Eida recalls, “one of the first things that Kathy decided was that she needed a Christmas tree. So we got in my Volvo and drove through Battery Park City, out through the military checkpoints, and found a street vendor in Tribeca selling Christmas trees. Then we turned around and navigated the same obstacle course to get it back to Gateway Plaza.”
“She returned early,” Mr. Galloway recalls, “and was involved in physically rebuilding the community. She took the lead on communications with residents who already returned, and those who were still scattered.” She was soon named to the board of 9-11 United Services Group, an umbrella organization that coordinated the work of all major non-profits responding to the aftermath of September 11.
As the rebuilding process gained momentum, Ms. Gupta was appointed to an advisory panel that offered community input on the design for the World Trade Center Memorial & Museum—a model of consultation and collaboration that is still, decades later, universally regarded as a success. More recently, she drew upon this experience to offer uniquely authoritative criticism for the rushed (and bitterly controversial) 2021 plan by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo to build an Essential Workers Monument in Rockefeller Park, with scant notice and no dialog. (That plan was ultimately placed on indefinite hold.)
Ms. Gupta also served on the 9-11 Survivor Steering Committee, which advises the World Trade Center Health Program, a tenure that would turn out to have deep personal resonance. “On the day her cancer was diagnosed,” Ms. Eida recalls, “Kathy was told she had no more than 11 months to live. That was six years ago. She never gave up—sshe had a life force that was remarkable.”
“Like far too many,” Ms. Forst notes, “Kathy succumbed to a September 11 illness. After 21 years, the specter of that day continues to touch our lives, as we continue to lose friends, many of whom helped our new neighborhood become a real community. Though Kathy was ill, she persisted. I am grateful to have known her and to have called her a friend.”
Ms. Meltzer adds, “I am proud to have known her. Kathy loved everything in a quiet, gentle manner. She was incredibly knowledgeable and intellectually curious with a broad range of experience, and the gift of her advice was valuable beyond measure.”
“Her guidance and leadership and concern have made this community a much better place for everyone who followed,” Ms. Eida concludes. “But she made the world a better place, not just Battery Park City. It’s going to be really hard not to have her in the world.”
The Gupta family are planning multiple observances of her passing. Tomorrow (Wednesday, January 18), there will be a wake at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home (199 Bleecker Street), from 5pm to 8pm. On Thursday (January 19), a mass will be held at 3pm in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church (22 Barclay Street). And finally, the family will be holding a Celebration of Life party (at a date to be announced in the near future), where everyone who knew Ms. Gupta can honor, remember and commemorate her life.