Doris Diether, Cat Lover

By Brian and Joy Pape

DORIS DIETHER WAS RECOGNIZED FOR HER MANY CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE COMMUNITY, evidenced by this sampling of plaques behind her, but was equally known for her love of other creatures, especially her cats. Credit: Brian J Pape, AIA.

This month, we feature our dear departed friend Doris Diether (January 10, 1929- September 16, 2021) who was known far and wide as a cat lover. I will share my personal experiences with Doris and her cats, just one aspect of her life well lived.

I was introduced to Doris in 2010, after my wife, Joy, and I befriended a few regulars in Washington Square Park, who told us “You just have to meet Doris, she’s the queen of the Park!” Sure enough, as soon as we met Doris, we saw how everyone in the park seemed to know and love Doris. Not just the people either, as Doris fed the pigeons and squirrels and had them eating peanuts out of her hands. One pigeon in particular, Opal, would spot Doris on her walk and would fly down to roost on the bars of her walker, shooing away others. It was beautiful to see them communicating with each other.

Over the years, Doris would call me up if she had a problem that needed fixing, and I would go over and help out as best I could (not being an expert handyman). Doris had two cats, Lucky and Missy. In 2019, Missy died and Doris needed help getting another one to keep Lucky company. We took a cab to Bideawee at 410 East 38th Street, near the UN. This was Doris’ favorite adoption agency, where no appointment is needed. Within a few minutes, we were shown into a room set up for cats, where we met several prospects. Doris took an immediate liking to one shy little kitten, and after some time of bonding, off we went to the office to sign the papers.

Little did we know about the new rules for adopting pets, which include having a co-sponsor as well as valid government picture ID. Well, Doris didn’t drive, so no driver’s license, and she didn’t travel much, so no passport, and no other photo ID, so no cat adoption. But Doris would not take that without a fight! She called her state representative office, and Brad Hoylman who she knew personally, to report her dilemma. The next day, she went back and got her cat, named her April, for the month of adoption, and was so thankful for all the help she got. Doris was always thankful for her blessings.

APRIL & LUCKY. Photo by Elissa.

Fortunately, April and Lucky soon bonded as well, so much so, that April began staying in hiding whenever visitors came, just like Lucky. That made it difficult when it came time to take April to the vet clinic for check-ups. If you’ve ever tried to capture a cat by hand when they don’t want to be captured, you’ll know what I mean. April fought hard to evade capture, and clawed and bit anything trying to get it, even Doris. That also meant crawling under beds, desks, chairs, and behind appliances and on top of bookshelves- something Doris couldn’t do! How did April know Doris would put her in a cage to carry to the clinic? Finally, we succeeded, and April got a clean bill of health from the veterinarian.

Both Lucky & April are now living with Elissa, another cat lover and friend of Doris’ who often visited and fed them when Doris was not able to do so. Elissa said they no longer hide from her but they have totally acclimated to their new blended family, which includes two calico cats, and one human, Elissa. We know that makes Doris happy. Elissa can see the reflections of Doris’ personality, ways and expressions in them.

The NY Public Library has collected over 110 oral histories from New Yorkers, and Doris is one of those. In 1996, Village Preservation conducted an interview with her, called Doris Diether Oral History: Activist and Zoning Maven. In that interview, Doris recalled the goal of the Save the Village group, with a four-point plan, ranging from tenant protections to preservation. Pressuring Mayor Wagner to utilize the Bard Act of 1956 to create a Landmarks Preservation Commission with teeth, one that could actually save buildings in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in the city. By 1960, Doris began her work in zoning law when she became the informal “spokesman of zoning” for Save the Village. At one demonstration at City Hall, Doris showed up with a pig on a leash, calling it a “Pig Picket.”

If you’d lived in Greenwich Village as long as Doris Diether had, you’ve seen a lot of strange things. But Doris was not one to just watch the passing parade, she was in the parade! Married at the Judson Church at Washington Square Park South in 1958, Doris’ career as a painter, journalist, zoning expert and civic leader often found her in the church fellowship hall for Community Board Two (CB2) meetings, where many of her former students of zoning regulations showed up to present their architectural projects, greeting Doris warmly. In 1965, Doris would begin serving at Community Board Two, becoming the longest-serving member in the city’s history, never to be broken, due to new term limits.

Doris’ life was largely devoted to preserving the special character of her Village, the architecture, the streets, the parks, the people, animals and birds. One of the treasures of this Village is Washington Square Park, so full of music, entertainers, tourists, neighbors. Years ago, Doris heard about a proposal that would ban live music and entertainment from her beloved park. She went right to work to rally friends, put out notices, attend hearings, and get the votes to squash this rotten idea.