Volume 22, Number 31 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 11 - 17, 2009
Downtown Express photo by Julie Shapiro
Battery Park City activist Barry Skolnick, who is moving to Minnesota with his family, near the World Trade Center site. He is most proud of starting the effort to get P.S./I.S. 276 built in Battery Park City. “A lot of people thought it was a very foolhardy, Don Quixote-like thing to do,” he recalled.
Quality of life gadfly leaving B.P.C. for better…
By Julie Shapiro
Barry Skolnick, crusader for quality of life Downtown, is leaving the city at the end of the year.
It wasn’t just the lack of affordable senior housing, or the broken elevators, or the cyclists riding on the sidewalks, which finally drove Skolnick to his decision.
“It’s everything,” Skolnick said. “After a while, you get tired of fighting the same battles.”
Skolnick, 62, has fought for school seats and weekend subway service, reasonably priced groceries and countdown timers at crosswalks. His venue was Community Board 1, where he served on four committees and had one of the board’s best attendance records. His enemies were bureaucracy, inertia and people who thought quality-of-life issues didn’t matter.
Skolnick has won many battles over the years — his biggest victory was getting a school at Site 2B in southern Battery Park City, over former Gov. George Pataki’s objections. But Skolnick said he recently felt more and more worn down by the indifference of such a large city.
“I’m getting tired of the crowds, tired of being a number,” Skolnick said. “It’s an attitude, a lack of help, a lack of proactivity.”
A longtime resident of Battery Park City’s Gateway Plaza, Skolnick also worries that the city is getting too expensive for him, his wife Marianne and their 12-year-old daughter Victoria. Subway and taxi fares keep going up, and although Gateway will stay affordable for the next 10 years thanks to an agreement negotiated by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, no one knows what will happen when it expires in 2020.
Skolnick also grew disenchanted with New York after seeing the way his ageing parents were treated. The Access-A-Ride program forces elderly people to wait outside to get picked up, sometimes for hours, Skolnick said. Patrons are often shuttled to the outer boroughs and back to pick up more riders, and bathroom breaks are not allowed. When Skolnick complained, he said he was told that his father should wear a diaper.
“I felt that was human degradation,” Skolnick said. “I didn’t want to grow old in a place where that could possibly happen to me.”
Still, when Skolnick moves with his family to Minnesota in a few weeks, there is plenty about New York he will miss: the museums, the concerts, the friends he has made, and, perhaps most of all, Community Board 1.
Looking back over 20 years of community board meetings (the last 7 as a full member), Skolnick is most proud of his effort to secure the Site 2B school, now known as P.S./I.S. 276 and opening next fall. When Skolnick suggested the location, Pataki’s wife was planning to build a women’s history museum there. Against the advice of nearly everyone he knew, Skolnick steadily argued for a school until the balance of political pressure switched to his side.
“A lot of people thought it was a very foolhardy, Don Quixote-like thing to do,” Skolnick said last week. “People thought I was wasting my time.”
After Pataki left office, the effort picked up steam and was joined by the rest of the community board and Speaker Silver before Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Mike Bloomberg agreed.
People on the board still sometimes think Skolnick is wasting his time. When he launches into one of his familiar rails against a slippery walkway, or a peculiar diesel smell on the Liberty St. bridge, or a cafe that serves beer and wine near a school in the afternoon, he is sometimes met with good-natured eye rolling.
Skolnick, though, argues that nothing is more important than protecting quality of life.
“The way people live their lives on a day-to-day basis is what makes life worthwhile,” Skolnick said. Taking only a global view “ignores the essence of living,” Skolnick continued. “The bigger picture is made up of details.”
Julie Menin, chairperson of the board, compared Skolnick to Pearl Scher, another Battery Park City activist who continued speaking out and helping others until she died in 2006 at the age of 91. Skolnick is just as dedicated and persistent, Menin said.
“Even board members who disagreed with him had to respect that he really cares about this community and fights for what he believes in,” Menin said.
At the board’s meeting Dec. 15, Menin will present Skolnick with an award for his service.
A couple weeks later, Skolnick and his family are moving to Rochester, Minn., a town of about 100,000 that is home to the Mayo Clinic and often ranks on lists of the best places in the country to live. Skolnick visited 10 cities before selecting Rochester for its walkability, friendliness and access to good medical care.
“I want to experience what Middle America is like,” Skolnick said. “I want the peace of mind of slowing down a little bit.”
As Skolnick described Downtown Rochester, where his family will live, similarities to Lower Manhattan emerged. Rochester’s business district is crowded during the day but empties out at night. Residents are starting to move Downtown, but the amenities are slower to follow.
Battery Park City and Rochester also have something else in common: skyways. B.P.C. was originally envisioned as a cluster of “pods,” buildings linked by passageways, so neighborhood residents could get from one end to the other without setting foot outside.
That vision never became a full reality in Battery Park City, but something very similar was built in Rochester, where winter temperatures regularly plummet into negative digits. A system of heated tunnels and skyways connects much of the downtown, so Skolnick will be able to walk from his new apartment to the post office, the library, the hospital and government buildings without putting on a jacket in January.
Skolnick is sure that this seeming utopia will still have issues that need addressing, and he’s already made a good start on getting involved. He has spoken to Rochester’s mayor, schools chancellor and local newspaper and plans to join subject-based committees that are similar to the community board.
Pat Moore, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Quality of Life Committee, joked at Skolnick’s last meeting that his new colleagues might not appreciate his thorough approach.
“When he gets out there and starts attending their community board meetings, they’ll be paying us to take him back,” Moore said as Skolnick laughed.
Skolnick was born in Washington, D.C. and moved to New York City when he was 2 years old, living briefly in Brooklyn and growing up in Queens. He went to local public schools and attended Queens College in the last class before open admissions, then received a masters in college and university administration from New York University.
Skolnick worked in city government for over 36 years, including 19 years in the mayor’s office, under Ed Koch, David Dinkins and briefly Rudy Giuliani. Skolnick most recently worked as a personnel coordinator for the city Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, until he retired last month.
Menin, with C.B. 1, said it would be impossible to find someone to fill Skolnick’s shoes on the board.
“Barry’s an original,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will ever be quite like Barry.”