President Barack Obama (right) with David Axelrod (second to left) and others in the Oval Office (Photo by Pete Souza/ White House)
By Sabina Mollot
David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who’d also helped strategize campaigns for him and a slew of other elected officials, and who worked as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, has recently written a book about his professional experiences. The Stuyvesant Town native, whose introduction to the world of politics began with a historic visit from then-Senator John F. Kennedy to the street where he lived, has called the memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics ($35, Penguin). While in the midst of a multi-state media tour, Axelrod, now the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, discussed his book, his background and his career with Town & Village.
What was growing up in Stuyvesant Town like for you?
I grew up reading your newspaper. It was a great experience. It was a different kind of community than it is now. It was pretty modest. A lot of World War II veterans and families, and it was really an oasis in the city. We all got together in the playground. I’m still friends with a lot of people I grew up with. Some of them came to my book event in New York and some of them are coming to my event in Boston. Back then there was a real sense of community in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper. The people you grew up with you stuck with from nursery to high school and ultimately through life. I have a great association with Stuyvesant Town and growing up there.
I was just there a week ago to film a piece for CBS about my book. We walked on 20th. My first address was 622 East 20th Street. We talked about the day in 1960 when JFK came and campaigned in Stuyvesant Town. I was noticing the change in the community, all the high end kind of stores and air conditioners in every window, because we didn’t have that back then. It looked like a very upgraded version of what I remember. When we lived at 622, my parents were mostly still married, but they did split up when I was eight. Then my mom and I moved to 15 Stuyvesant Oval. My mother was a writer and worked in advertising and my father was a psychologist. I had an older sister, Joan. At 622, it was a two-bedroom, so Joan and I shared a bedroom with a wooden divider.
As you know, Stuyvesant Town apartments are small, small kitchens, small bathrooms. By today’s standards, the apartments were very modest, but it seemed comfortable to me. My parents got divorced when I was 13 and my mom and I went to live at 15 Stuyvesant Oval. My sister was gone by then. My mom moved in 1948 and moved out in 2006 to an assisted living facility in Massachusetts. She died last year. (Axelrod’s father committed suicide in 1977.)
There was a lot of activity and my group was the Playground 10 group. There were parts of Stuyvesant Town that were predominantly Jewish and parts of Stuyvesant Town that were predominantly Catholic and parts that were predominantly Protestant, and the playgrounds roughly followed those ethnic divisions. Like Playground 9 was where the Catholic kids hung out. There were very few minorities back then.
I went to PS 40 and Junior High School 104 and Stuyvesant High School when it was still on 16th Street. In my day they were excellent public schools. I still have a teacher in my head who played a formative role in my life. It was at PS 40 and her name was Lee Roth. She brought poets to our classroom, well-known poets of the day, like Ogden Nash. In the classroom, she would engage us in discussions on current events. It really enriched my life and I feel a debt of gratitude to all the people like her.
When JFK came to Stuyvesant Town in 1960, David Axelrod was in attendance. This photo, originally published in Town & Village, also appears in his book.