By Sabina Mollot
When the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association was formed half a century ago, it began as many civic organizations do — as a response to a perceived threat to the community that the residents were willing to fight. In this case, the interloper was Beth Israel, which was expanding its footprint at the time, buying up brownstones in the Stuyvesant Square neighborhood to raze and turn into larger buildings.
Rosalee Isaly, the president of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association, who’s been involved in the group’s efforts since 1970, said neighbors were concerned about the expansion impacting their quality of life, especially when the hospital received a federal grant to turn an empty lot at the corner of Second Avenue and 17th Street to build a 40-story building to house its staff. The group, initially just three couples (including husbands who worked as attorneys), fought this tooth and nail.
Eventually that street corner became home to the significantly smaller Hospital for Joint Diseases, and Beth Israel built the 24-story Gilman Hall on First Avenue across from Stuyvesant Town to house its residents. (Gilman has since been emptied and sold to a California-based developer as part of the hospital’s downsizing plan.)
As for the three couples from Stuyvesant Square who made up the founding members of the SPNA, they were John and Mary Tommaney, Adrian and Marisa Zorgniotti and James and Carvel Moore. Isaly, who now owns and manages a couple of local properties and is also an artist, joined the SPNA upon moving to the neighborhood when she was a newlywed. She’s lived there since then with the exception of a few years in the 1970s when she and her family lived in Paris.
In 1975, when a man named Charles West was the group’s president, the SPNA succeeded in getting a designation as a historic district. This meant no property owner could change the exterior of a building there without a permit process. The historic district has since been comprised of the lots surrounding the two-section park bisected on Second Avenue from Rutherford to Perlman Place and from 15th to 17th Streets, as well as the park itself. It also includes much of a three-block area west of the park from 15th up to 18th Street from Second to Third Avenues and three lots across the street from the park’s south side on East 15th Street.
Still, despite this victory, the group was unable to save a building within the district that was once home to the composer Antonín Leopold Dvořák when Beth Israel acquired it and redeveloped it into a hospice for patients with AIDS. The hospital, which is now owned by Mount Sinai, has since leased the building to the Bowery Residents Committee, for a 28-bed homeless shelter.
Determined to preserve the composer’s presence in some way, SPNA member Jack Taylor was able to acquire a statue of Dvořák that had been unutilized at Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. The SPNA then had it installed at the park after raising $100,000. The hefty price tag, Isaly explained, was partially due to transporting it but also because the Parks Department demanded a trust so the monument could be maintained in perpetuity. The group was also able to save a plaque from the building, which is now at Bohemian National Hall.
Meanwhile, over time, like most entirely volunteer-run organizations, the SPNA had years of being very active, in particular when trying to fight unwanted development and preserve the neighborhood’s character and years of almost no activity, depending on who was at the helm. One constant in the early decades was a fair in the park.
“We’d have a bake table and it was just a lot of neighborhood fun,” said Isaly, who learned the ropes of group leadership under Olive Huber, who ran the organization for many years until she died in 1993. Later, Carol Schachter assumed the role as president and kept the organization alive through revenue earned from a street fair each year.
According to Isaly, revenue from the fairs, which used to be around $10,000, is now closer to $3,000 due to city regulation changes in recent years, so the SPNA has also had to reach out for grants and government allocations for much of its work. However, money from previous events had been invested, so the SPNA always had some reserves, Isaly said.
After the 1990s, when the organization wasn’t doing much beyond the fairs, the SPNA decided to encourage more community involvement by way of day-to-day maintenance of the park, which by then had fallen into a state of disrepair.
“They don’t have the resources to take care of all these parks,” said Isaly of the Parks Department. “So they try to establish local groups to help take care of the parks like conservancies.”
One day, early in the new millennium, Isaly and Ana Maria Moore, another longtime member who is now vice president (and the daughter-in-law of the Moore couple who were the organization’s co-founders) met with representatives of the Parks Department about how to get neighbors to volunteer.
The city officials advised Isaly and Moore to check out Charles Schurz Park near Gracie Mansion, “because that park looks fantastic and it’s run by volunteers,” Isaly said. The pair did so and learned that while that the Upper East Side area had a generally wealthier constituency, much of its success was simply due to volunteers tackling small parts of the park at one time and seeing participation grow as neighbors took notice of the improvements.
“They showed us a picture of the park before and after. In 1970, it looked like a disaster zone compared to the way it is now,” said Isaly. “It’s a long process, but all of a sudden you transform one area and little by little it happens, and people are appreciative especially in the city when we have so little green space.”
The SPNA then implemented its own volunteer program and today, at least a few volunteers gather at Stuyvesant Square Park twice a week to help weed and plant alongside a city-employed gardener.
The SPNA also shells out some of its own funds to keep the park well-maintained. A few years ago, it paid $10,000 to get the trees pruned, but the SPNA has since decided not to spend money on pricey services its members feel are the city’s responsibility. More recently, the group has consistently sponsored seasonal programming for park goers like free tango lessons, yoga classes and movie nights.
The group also recently invested in a power washer to deal with odors at the park’s dog run and the installation of four new garbage containers, which have helped to keep rats at bay. The SPNA also springs for dog poop baggies to fill dispensers at park entrances during the summer. (During the school year, the nearby Friends School foots the bill for those.) Isaly said a goal for the organization is to get more institutions and owners of properties around the park to pitch in more for that sort of thing.
As always, the biggest challenge in keeping the organization going, Isaly said, is keeping neighbors engaged and this has been an ongoing effort. A recently spruced up website and active Facebook feed have helped though and currently there are about 250 dues-paying members.
Another ongoing struggle has been getting the city to move on maintenance projects like the restoration of the park’s historic wrought-iron fence. That project began in the 1980s, but was only completed last year.
Still, with that matter finally being settled, Isaly can report the park is in a good state.
“It’s well-kept, but it’s the only fenced in public park in Manhattan,” she said. “I know people who live in Gramercy Park and like to come over here. They have dogs so they can’t take them there.”
Added Isaly, “It’s the public version of Gramercy Park at this point.”
The SPNA will be holding a “50 Years in Bloom” cocktail party that will also be a fundraiser on Saturday, June 9 at 6 p.m. at the chapel at St. George’s Church. Tickets will be $100, $75 for guests under 35. They can be purchased at the door or online.