Who was Carter Burden and why does it matter today? What is his legacy?
If you live in New York City, especially if you’re over sixty, the question might be What is, not Who was Carter Burden? Getting to know Carter Burden, the man, not the nonprofit that bears his name, rewards you with optimism. Fifty years ago, Carter Burden steered us into a much better future.
His inspiration has not cooled down.
Carter Burden: What’s In a Name?
By David Stone
It was my mistake.
In the commotion of the Carter Burden Network’s arrival on Roosevelt Island in 2016, I thought Carter Burden was a convenient hyphenation. Chiseled into a cornerstone to honor benefactors.
Like Bird S. Coler… And whoever Goldwater Hospital honored.
Coler was a Brooklyn politician, and Sigismund Shulz Goldwater was a City Health Commissioner. The Welfare Hospital for Chronic Disease became”Goldwater” in 1942 and later vanished forever, making way for Cornell Tech.
Outside their families and history geeks, no one remembers either, except for the long term facilities on Roosevelt Island.
Carter Burden is a different matter.
Robert F. Kennedy’s Protégé
Burden was a New York City politician. Gifted, too, a progressive activist. His Upper East Side district now counts on Ben Kallos, also a progressive.
The date, 1969, matters. Carter Burden was Robert F. Kennedy’s protégé. RFK was murdered in 1968, and Burden first ran for public office in the aftermath.
Like Kennedy, Burden was born rich, a great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Before plunging into politics as a twenty-seven year old, he collected first edition books. He started with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
Burden loved modern art, especially drawings.
The Carter Burden Art Gallery is a legacy of the man, like the network of centers he seeded for seniors. For a person of wealth with a privileged education, art and literature are part of the deal.
Helping senior citizens is not.
A man who cared when he didn’t have to.
Elected to the City Council, up to his neck in learning the ropes, he still put the empathy 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, in 1971, he created the Carter Burden Center in an Upper East Side storefront.
“…for the Aging” came later. A 501 (c)3 nonprofit continues his legacy at eight locations in Manhattan, now renamed the Carter Burden Network, CBN for short.
A Broader Legacy
Burden’s passion for the arts and vulnerable neighbors matched his political interests. An article after his death in 1996, at the age of 54, in 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.”
Time and again, Carter Burden was a step or two ahead of his contemporaries. Values mattered.
How he scraped together the time, we will never know, but Burden also founded Commodore Media at the same time as he served as managing partner in his family’s investment partnership.
And he was, for six years, principal owner of The Village Voice.
The man got things done.
The Morgan Library, which hosted a show featuring his book collection in 2014, benefited from his generosity, and he donated to the New York Public Library and the New York City Ballet.
In 2016, Roosevelt Island inherited Carter Burden’s legacy of giving and, more significantly, caring.
A Legacy To Be Remembered and Honored
Carter Burden’s political career ended in 1978. He gave up his Council seat to run for President of the Council. He lost.
Then, he lost again, this time to Bella Abzug. Burden wanted to succeed Ed Koch in Congress. The contest was close, but he did not run for office again.
Burden quit politics.
For eighteen more years, Burden worked in finance. He supported charities and the Carter Burden Center for the Aging.
Like his mother, he died from a heart attack at 56.
His empathy survived, and we have a share at a half-dozen senior centers spread around New York City.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Roosevelt Island Daily.