A Rich Inheritance of Caring

Who Was Carter Burden and Why It Matters to Roosevelt Islanders

Updated 1 year ago David Stone
Love / Photo Credit: Pixabay
Love / Photo Credit: Pixabay

If you live on Roosevelt Island and especially if you are over sixty, you might expect the question to be "What?" not "Who?" But getting to know Carter Burden, the man for whom our Center for the Aging neighbor takes its name, will surprise you in very positive ways.

Carter Burden: What's In a Name?

It was my mistake. 

In the midst of the considerable commotion accompanying Carter Burden Center for the Aging's sudden arrival on Roosevelt Island, early last summer, I assumed that "Carter Burden" was just another of those names chiseled into the cornerstone to honor a benefactor.

Like Bird S. Coler or whoever it was that the now demolished Goldwater Hospital was named after.

Coler was a Brooklyn politician and Sigismund Shulz Goldwater was a City Health Commissioner for whom the Welfare Hospital for Chronic Disease was renamed in 1942 when he died. The reality is, outside their families and history geeks, no one would remember either if long term facilities on Roosevelt Island hadn't carried their names into succeeding generations.

Carter Burden is a different matter.

Robert F. Kennedy's Protégé

Yes, Burden was a politician, however briefly, but also, in a mold similar to current City Council Member Ben Kallos, a progressive activist, elected in 1969 to roughly the same Upper East Side district.

The date, 1969, matters. Carter Burden first ran for office after being the protégé of Robert F. Kennedy who was murdered the year before.

Like Kennedy, Burden was born into wealth, a great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Before plunging into politics as a twenty-seven year old, he was already an avid collector or first edition books - his initial acquisition, a book that inspired me to write, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer - and modern art, especially drawings.

The Carter Burden Art Gallery is as much a legacy of the man as is the Center for Aging, but as a person of wealth and privileged education, art and literature were part of his upbringing. Helping senior citizens was not.

Shortly after being elected to the City Council, at a time when he should have been up to his neck in learning the ropes of representing his district, according to New Yorkers are like this in the New York Social Diary, he was putting the empathy he shared with Kennedy to good use:

"It was not long after Carter Burden became Councilman Burden that he recognized a very great need in his district – a great number of seniors, often frail and elderly who were living, often alone and on tiny pensions and Social Security, in small tenements, once active members of the community who now needed help in order to remain living independently in their apartments and participating in their neighborhood life."

With a single social worker to cover his whole district, in 1971, he created the Carter Burden Center in an Upper East Side storefront. With "...for the Aging" added to the name as its reach expanded. The 501 (c)3 nonprofit now carries on his legacy at eight locations in Manhattan.

A Broader Legacy

As wide as his passion extended for the arts, Burden's political interests may have stretched even farther. According to an article after his death in 1996 at the age of 54, the New York Times said this:

"...he served as chairman of the committee on health, fought to protect children from lead-based paint poisoning, sought to better the health and housing of the elderly, advocated the establishment of standards for prisoners' rights and introduced one of the first gay rights bills in the country."

You notice, time and again, that Carter Burden was a step or two ahead of his contmeporaries.

Where he scraped together the time, I will never know, but he founded Commodore Media while serving as managing partner in his family's investment partnership. He was also, for six years, principal owner of The Village Voice.

Along with the Morgan Library, which hosted a show featuring his book collection in 2014, his generosity also helped the New York Public Library and the New York City Ballet.

Here on Roosevelt Island, we are the lucky downstream inheritors of Carter Burden's generous legacy of giving and, more significantly, caring.

How Many Degrees of Separation?

With the Carter Burden Center for the Aging now making daily life better for Roosevelt Island's seniors, we beat the oft mentioned six degrees of separation by four. A very few of us may have noticed an earlier close connection.

In March, 2013, Cornell Tech reached the last hurdle in the ULURP process allowing them to build on Roosevelt Island in a session before the City Planning Commission. The Roosevelt Island Community Coalition was there, too, well prepared with demands that the community be fairly considered.

Chair of the Council, as I wrote in the Main Street WIRE, was none other than Amanda M. Burden, Carter Burden's first wife. At the time he founded the Center for the Aging in 1971, they were two of New York's "beautiful people," staked out at an apartment in The Dakota, and frequently in the press.

A Legacy To Be Remembered and Honored

Carter Burden's political career ended in 1978 when he gave up his Council seat to take a shot at President of the Council and failed. He then lost a contest so close it had to be finally decided by the State Supreme Court, battling the legendary Bella Abzug to succeed Ed Koch in Congress when he became mayor.

The glamorous and most newsworthy segment of his life ended, but for eighteen more years, he worked in finance and supported other charitable institutions along with his namesake Carter Burden Center for the Aging.

His sudden death from a heart attack meant that he, like his mother who died at the same age from the same cause, never grew old enough to benefit from his contribution to the well-being of seniors. His empathy lives on, however, and we are lucky to have our small share of it at 546 Main Street on Roosevelt Island

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