Activist Evelyn Ortner dies at 82

The Brooklyn Paper
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Evelyn Ortner, whose four decades of preserving Brooklyn’s unique character started with a single brownstone on Berkeley Place in Park Slope and ended with her opposition to Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project, died Tuesday. She was 82.

An early advocate for restoring Brooklyn’s crumbling brownstone neighborhoods, Ortner — along with her husband Everett, himself a noted preservationist — reversed Park Slope’s steady decline in the 1960s and ’70s, by demanding that city and state officials protect a historical and architectural significance that others had overlooked.

“They were both pioneers and legends,” said Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which recently presented the couple with an award. “They were ahead of their time and they had great guts.”

After buying a brownstone on Berkeley Place in 1963, the Ortners began talking friends into moving into the neighborhood. They were soon fighting “urban renewal” projects that had slated most of Park Slope’s brownstones for demolition and convinced banks to start giving mortgages to prospective homeowners.

“They were the heart and soul of that movement,” said Maryann Feeney of the Park Slope Civic Council, who worked with the Ortners.

From the base in Park Slope, Ortner and her husband fought middle-class flight by encouraging would-be suburbanites to remain in the city and rejuvenate the inner city.

“She brought people to Brooklyn,” said Karen Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Ortner had served as a board member for over 30 years. “She made what was great about Brooklyn known to other people.”

Dexter Guerrieri, president of the Brownstone Revival Coalition and chairman of the Preservation Volunteers, two of the groups co-founded by the Ortners, added: “She has been a tireless promoter and big-picture thinker.”

But she never lost her essential Brooklyn-ness.

“She had a wonderful wit,” Guerrieri said, “and a real knack for pulling people together. She knew everybody. Everybody was her friend and everybody loved her. She’s not replaceable.”

Most recently, Ortner had lent not just her voice, but four decades of credibility, to the opposition to the Atlantic Yards project. She joined the board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn in May — even as she was serving on the board of BAM with developer Bruce Ratner.

“She felt that Atlantic Yards was against most things she stood for,” says DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein.

“To have someone like that support what we were doing further emboldened us and showed us that what we were doing was right.”

Ortner’s death came weeks after she underwent a double mastectomy. She is survived by her husband of 53 years with whom she did most of her work.

“They were an irrepressible team,” Breen said.

Given Evelyn Ortner’s passion for preservation, it should come as no surprise that her family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations should be sent to Preservation Volunteers, 232 East 11th Street, New York, NY 10003.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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