New York lost four giants this month. Three you probably heard of - singer Lou Reed, activist/reporter Doug Ireland and Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens. You may not have heard of the fourth -- Elaine Rivera, a kick-ass journalist who was a passionate confronter of injustice whether it was fighting racism, exposing the institutional underpinnings of poverty or plugging in the coffee pot.
You should have heard of Elaine.
Owens, the only librarian to ever serve in Congress, emerged from the political ferment in the community empowerment movement that took hold in Brooklyn in the 1960s to eventually replace Rep. Shirley Chisholm and serve two decades in Congress. His funeral at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights was a history lesson in the last half century of activist politics, with Georgia Rep. John Lewis delivering an impassioned eulogy summoning all of us to follow our better angels in doing what we know is right, even if it is not politically popular at the moment.
Reed was a troubadour and an activist, whether in Velvet Underground or singing for free in support of working people. I remember his performing at a benefit for striking Daily News workers in the early 1990s, perhaps the last great strike that captured public support and public attention. (It should be lost on no one that it was a newspaper union that drew public attention -- it is a newspaper after all.)
Ireland moved back and forth from activism to journalism, including a stint writing the Press Clips column for the Village Voice long before that vanguard of progressive advocacy journalism sold its soul to a national chain more dedicated to separating kids from their parents' disposable income. He was so well-educated that his column could sometimes seem a parody -- it sometimes seemed he would berate his readers for failing to have read the minutes of some Communist Party committee in the original Bulgarian -- but he was never without a passionate point of view that was informed and well-expressed.
Elaine Rivera, who was found dead in her apartment last Saturday after a struggle with liver disease, was ours. She was funny and incisive and oh so relentless in her stories, whether for New York Newsday, where I worked with her, El Diario/La Prensa, the Maynard Institute or at WNYC radio where she worked until leaving for a job teaching journalism at Lehman College in the Bronx. Along the way she had stints at Time magazine and at the Washington Post, but chafed under the constraints that those "big journalism" factories imposed on those who weren't careful enough to hide the advocacy instincts that all great journalists have, or should have.
That sense of outrage, and her intense work ethic, led to some breathtaking stories, such as the 1989 story in which she was entrusted by the undercover police officer who had infiltrated Malcolm X's organization and cradled his head when he was assassinated to tell his story. For WNYC, there was a searing series comparing the glitz of the new Yankee Stadium, a virtual taxpayer-underwritten shopping center in a ballpark, with the neighborhood businesses that have yet to benefit from the promised spillover effect.
She could walk the halls of power with ease, but she never forgot that what happened in those halls affected the lives of marginal people without her access, people struggling for prison reform, combatting domestic abuse, or seeking immigration justice.
She was always a mentor, both to younger colleagues and finally to her students at Lehman. She believed journalism was a noble, if not lucrative, profession. At the end, she was pressing students to make that extra call, conduct that extra interview, do the extra work to nail down the point they want to make -- even if it meant fighting an internal battle with editors to ensure the story saw the light of day.
And she was funny. When I first became friends with Elaine, she would often bemoan the fact that she and her boyfriend at the time were a perfect mismatch -- he was a Jew with no money and she was a Puerto Rican who couldn't cook.
But as the years went on, and we all focused on our families and our jobs, we didn't stay in as close touch with her as we should have. When liver disease landed her in Mount Sinai Hospital early this year, she did not tell anyone at first. When she did, she found a cadre of friends -- mostly smart and similarly incisive Latinas in and around journalism who loved her -- ready to step in and take control of her life even if she did not want to.
They made sure she was fed and had company and lots and lots of visitors. They called in favors and rattled as many cages as they could to make sure she was not lost in any bureaucratic shuffle. That love, and her realization that she was loved, gave her hope and a dedication to try and get better.
But her body -- if not her spirit and her soul -- had other ideas.
Elaine Rivera was 54.