It was 1959, and a painter and actress from Greenwich Village posted an “open letter to the people of New York” around Manhattan, warning that a plan by the formidable Robert Moses, then the city parks commissioner, jeopardized Shakespeare in the Park. Moses eventually dropped the plan. Atop the letter, which Doris Diether still keeps, appear the handwritten words “start of my civic career.”
Soon, Mrs. Diether joined Manhattan’s Community Board 2, a platform she used to become kind of a one-woman shame squad against crooked landlords, reckless renovators and haughty developers all over the city.
In the Village, she called Jane Jacobs to tip her off about preservation battles. She helped extract from Mayor Robert Wagner a promise that E. E. Cummings would not be evicted from his low-rent apartment on Patchin Place. She convinced a young lawyer named Ed Koch to represent six women who were facing illegal eviction and marched into a gentleman’s club with the women to confront the landlord, she said.
Mrs. Diether, still on the community board at age 84, has grown frail. But late in late February, for the first time in perhaps 10 years, she paid a visit to a meeting of the Board of Standards and Appeals, the city’s high court of zoning issues. Once again, her opponent was a powerhouse: the empire of the celebrity chef Mario Batali. Mrs. Diether did not have to look far for this battle. Mr. Batali’s ever-jammed restaurant Babbo sits directly across from her basement apartment on Waverly Place.
Mrs. Diether fought Babbo from its very arrival in 1998, when it opened at 110 Waverly in violation of historic district code at the site of the Coach House restaurant. (Coach House had closed five years before, and according to code, the property lost the right to operate a restaurant after two years lapsed.) In 2002, Babbo obtained a 10-year variance. The variance expired in December, and as Babbo moves to renew it during a grace period, Mrs. Diether is seizing the moment to try and block it.
“Chefs pay attention to detail,” Mrs. Diether said hoarsely on two weeks ago (she has been battling laryngitis for weeks). “You can say this chef was inattentive when he lied about when Coach House closed, but I think he was very, very attentive.”
Mrs. Diether has been lobbying her fellow community board members in advance of Babbo’s next date there April 10. She has also been helping her neighbor and friend Nuri Akgul, a retired oil businessman who lives next to Babbo in a collegiate gothic townhouse at 108 Waverly and has been its most ardent opponent.
Mr. Akgul, 57, has compiled a list of offenses that would score well on any 311 bingo card. It includes idling limousines; an increase of noisy commercial-grade air conditioners to eight from the Coach House’s two; the moving of a loud vent to right beside Mr. Akgul’s property after neighbors behind the restaurant complained; a smelly chemical that sprays onto Mr. Akgul’s property when Babbo’s vents are hosed down to dislodge grease; Babbo’s noise-exacerbating failure to break up empty wine bottles before throwing them out; and a breach in the wall of his 1826 home that he attributes to a beam Babbo installed to hold up all those air conditioners. “For starters,” quipped Mr. Akgul.
“The front of Babbo is Greenwich Village,” Mr. Akgul said recently at his home. “This,” he said, gesturing out his kitchen window, from which the restaurant building resembles a Rube Goldberg machine stitched together by lengths of duct tape and sound-damping blankets — “is the Potemkin village.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Batali did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for the firm representing Babbo in its application said in a statement, regarding Mr. Akgul, that the restaurant “has made many changes in its physical plant and its operations, at considerable expense, to address his concerns” and would “continue to work with him to find even better solutions.”
Mrs. Diether and her community board colleagues are expected to vote April 23 on whether to recommend Babbo’s variance be renewed, after which the matter goes to the appeals board for a final decision.
This is not Mrs. Diether’s last battle — she has amassed reams of documents on the Bowery and the old Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn — but it may be her most personal since the time the landlord of her rent-controlled apartment removed the town house’s roof in an attempt to force her out, she said. She won that fight, too.
At the appeals board meeting Feb. 26, Mrs. Diether, despite her long absence, was recognized by several people who worked at or served on the board. They said they had missed her and were glad to see her.
“It’s because I’m memorable,” Mrs. Diether explained.