By Sabina Mollot
Rosalee Isaly, the longtime president of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association, died at the age of 81 on July 24.
Isaly, who’d been involved with the civic group for nearly as long as it’s been around, recently hosted a 50th anniversary gala for the SPNA at the historic church overlooking the park.
However, less than a month after the event, she learned she had pancreatic cancer, and according to her son Jason, Isaly died 16 days later. She died while staying with family members in Chicago, where she was born and lived before moving to New York City’s Stuyvesant Square neighborhood. Her family held a funeral service for Isaly at the St. Barnabas Church in Chicago and she was buried in Interment Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
Under Isaly’s leadership, the SPNA worked to preserve local historic properties as well as revitalize Stuyvesant Square Park after a period of decline. This included implementing free summer programming like tango classes and jazz concerts and pushing for years to see a multi-million project to restore the park’s historic wrought-iron fence restored. When Isaly joined the group, it was to protest razing of neighborhood brownstones by Beth Israel, which was then scooping up properties to expand the hospital’s footprint. The SPNA was successful at keeping a street corner now occupied by the Hospital for Joint Diseases by a much taller building to be built by Beth Israel and came close, though it didn’t succeed, in a fight to save a home once lived in by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak that’s now a homeless shelter. A bust of the composer that’s now in Stuyvesant Square Park is there because of the efforts of the organization, though.
The SPNA more recently has succeeded in keeping the landmarked park well maintained with an active volunteer gardening program.
On this effort, Isaly told Town & Village in May, “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.”
Mark Thompson, a member of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association who was also a friend of Isaly, remarked that she was very proud of a nickname given to her by former City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, “The Black Rose.”
“Henry assigned names to people he felt did good things for the city parks,” said Thompson. “It was a big deal, a fun honor.”
Isaly, who owned and managed a couple of properties in the neighborhood she lived in, was also a fine artist. Her paintings in watercolor and ink were shown in different Manhattan galleries like the National Arts and Salmagundi Clubs and the Atlantic Gallery as well as in exhibitions in New Jersey and East Hampton. She was also a member of the board of advisors for Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago and the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park.
Isaly, born Rosalee O’Hanley on June 1, 1937 to Genevieve and J. Lewis O’Hanley, in Chicago, was one of six daughters. She also had a brother who died when he was very young. She later had a son and daughter, Christina Isaly-Liceaga and is grandmother to Morgan Isaly and Isabel, Sebastian, Madeleine, Alicia and Beatrice Liceaga.
Jason Isaly described his mother as being very loving as well as a natural leader in her volunteer work.
Thompson added, “Rosalee was a good friend and inspiration to many people in many different aspects of her life. Our community was lucky to have her leadership and service along with her fantastic sense of humor.”