Brooklyn Boro

Michael Armstrong, 79, founder of iconic newspaper on political reform, succumbs to COVID-19 a month after wife succumbs in nursing home

May 6, 2020 Editorial Staff
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The death on Monday, May 4, of Michael Armstrong, a literate political operative and innovative Brooklyn newspaper publisher, was a heart-wrenching event and a brutal demonstration of COVID-19’s lethal disjunction of families.

Dnynia, his wife of almost half a century, had suffered from the virus and died just a month before he died. Armstrong had reportedly visited her, according to family members, and at times even found a way to read to her and bring her favorite foods as she recovered from periodic dialysis at a local nursing home.

“He simply could not bear to see her suffer alone,” said their daughter, Arija Noel, who had recently traveled from her home in Spain to help her father cope. When Armstrong went to the nursing home in early April to check on Dnynia, according to his daughter, he was told that Dnynia had been taken to NY Methodist Hospital, where she died on April 4. Neither Armstrong nor his daughter were able to visit in her last waking hours there.

Realizing he had been exposed, Armstrong kept distance from his visiting daughter even in his lowest moments of loss and depression. Arija, recalling how much Armstrong loved trains, described for the Eagle some virtual train rides she shared with him online, as they remembered many family train trips they had taken together. “One family trip took 34 days,” she told the Eagle. “We had Eurail passes and explored the histories of Europe’s great cities.”

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Arija also read extensively to her father, via an iPad, so that he could see her face and hear her voice while he was in the hospital. In a heart-wrenching moment, she continued reading to him — even as it was clear he had passed — to the end of one of his favorite books.

Armstrong’s career in Brooklyn turned to publishing in 1972, when he founded The Brooklyn Phoenix as a new progressive voice during the borough’s transformative brownstone movement. Two years before, Armstrong had resigned from the firm Ruder & Finn to run the Congressional campaign of attorney Peter Eikenberry.

As his wife, Dnynia, received care at a local nursing home, Armstrong found ways to read to her and to provide her favorite foods. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle

Armstrong found himself in the epicenter of the Democratic reform movement that brought new names to the political table: State Senators Carol Bellamy and Martin Connor, both products of the reform West Brooklyn Independent Democrats in the Heights, and Assemblymembers Michael Pesce and Eileen Dugan, from Carroll Gardens’ club IND (Independent Neighborhood Democrats).

Armstrong’s role in the reform movement was pivotal, with the Phoenix as a vigorous voice.

“The history of brownstone and Downtown Brooklyn were largely written by Michael Armstrong and the Phoenix,” wrote New York State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon. “Between the Phoenix and his stint at Borough Hall, he played an essential role in how I connected with this place called Brooklyn when I moved here in 1981 and how I served my community as president of the Boerum Hill Association in the 1990s. I later worked with him closely in advancing the Child Victims Act, when he worked for then Assembly sponsor Marge Markey. Mike cared deeply about Brooklyn and doing the right thing. He and Dnynia, his wife and Phoenix partner in crime, were part of the fabric of our neighborhood and we will miss them both very much.”

Armstrong has also played a pivotal role in a wide variety of civic and cultural institutions.

As an award-winning newspaper editor and an ardent supporter of the arts, he melded these two passions — Armstrong devoted more than two decades publishing community newspapers. The Phoenix chronicled and supported the renaissance of Brooklyn’s cultural life. The Villager, the hometown newspaper of Greenwich Village, established a highly praised annual Theater Awards program for the emerging downtown Off-Broadway and experimental theater scene. Both The Phoenix and The Villager, along with their staffs, won dozens of local, state and national awards for outstanding journalism under Armstrong’s leadership; for example, frequent annual awards for Best Coverage of the Arts in New York State.

Retiring from newspaper days, Armstrong became director of public affairs for Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, taking charge of research, media, public relations and special events for the Borough of Brooklyn. After Golden retired as Borough President, Armstrong became the public relations director of Independence Community Bank and its associated Independence Community Foundation.

Later, he formed Armstrong & Associates, a media and marketing consultancy.

Armstrong loved trains, and shared many family train trips with his daughter, Arija, and his wife, Dnynia. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle

A Brooklyn resident since the 1960s, Armstrong served on Brooklyn Arts Council’s Board of Directors since 1980. He also served on the boards of the Old Stone House Museum, the New York State Press Association, Prospect Park Alliance, Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and Atlantic Avenue Local Development Corp., the parent organization of the Atlantic Antic.

John Manbeck, who was Brooklyn Borough Historian for many years during the tenure of longtime Borough President Howard Golden, wrote, “Knowing Mike for over 27 years, I found him to be a loving, irascible friend. He guided me in my role as Brooklyn Borough Historian and we worked on The Brooklyn Century (2001) together, a tribute to Borough President Howard Golden. Our coffee breaks at Happy Days included discussions about his beloved Phoenix, projects for Howie, his trips to Albany for Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, his journeys to the West Coast and Ocracoke, NC. But his family and his home on State Street were prime on his list. His office was always busy and he was not a clock watcher … Mike was there when you needed him.”

Attorney Peter Eikenberry, perhaps Armstrong’s most enduring connection outside of his immediate family, was a young Congressional candidate in 1970. Inspired by Eikenberry, Armstrong was barely 30 years old when he quit his corporate job to manage the campaign for no pay. “My opponent was the powerful incumbent John Rooney,” Eikenberry told the Eagle.”Rooney was an institution in Brooklyn, and in D.C. he served as head of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State Department, Commerce and Judiciary.”

Eikenberry called Armstrong’s management of the campaign “genius” because, as reported in Time magazine, Rooney reversed his pro-Vietnam position on the war after the campaign. Time also reported that Eikenberry had attracted more than 20,000 volunteers to his campaign.

“I lost by 1,100 votes,” Eikenberry told the Eagle, “which was an astounding feat against a 24-year incumbent … with a third candidate in the primary, Armstrong’s brilliant management helped me get 43 percent of the vote. Rooney got 46 percent.”

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  1. Robert Perris

    It was an honor, an education and a pleasure to work with Mike Armstrong in the administration of Borough President Howard Golden. Annually, Mike, the chief engineer, the staff photographer and I would travel to Coney Island to prepare a pre-season report card on the condition of the boardwalk and beach. Some years, Dnynia would join us after our field trip and we would all retire to Jordan’s Lobster Dock for lunch and laughs. It was obvious to all how much Dnynia and Mike loved each other.

    Mike, as noted, a resident of Community District 2, and I stayed in touch after Assembly Member Markey lost her 2016 re-election bid. Breakfast and gossip at Junior’s never got old. We often discussed his last, unfulfilled project, “The Roots of Modern Brooklyn” (picture above), a history of the revival of Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80s. There is an entire generation who is unaware of the initiatives and leaders who resuscitated a borough given up for dead. Mike was a big part of that, as this obituary makes clear.

  2. Charlotte Cohen

    Mike was a staunch supporter of Brooklyn’s creative sector, and a champion of artists and small arts groups across the borough, particularly those in communities that didn’t have large anchor cultural organizations. He cared deeply about our diaspora cultural groups and their access to resources and networks. Mike’s commitment and advocacy is one of the reasons Brooklyn arts scene is recognized across the globe. All of us at Brooklyn Arts Council will dearly miss his outspoken, intelligent guidance, which came straight from his heart, and his enduring love of Brooklyn’s people and communities.

    Charlotte Cohen, Executive Director, Brooklyn Arts Council