In 1993, Joan Fabio was walking down the street on the Upper East Side when she encountered a group of involved citizens. They were staffing a table for the East Sixties Neighborhood Association. The group — affectionately referred to as ESNA — was only two years old at that point, but this past Monday night it celebrated its 25th anniversary with a cocktail party among members, friends and elected officials. They came to pay tribute to its quarter-century of service.
Fabio, who is now the association’s treasurer, was one of roughly 100 people who came to raise a glass.
Founded in 1991, ESNA is a local, resident-run 501(c)(4) organization that aims to “promote a better community through group action, representing the residents, merchants and institutions within its boundaries,” according to its mission statement. The group developed after a few Upper East Side couples got wind of an MTA proposal to use an empty lot at E. 63rd Street and Second Avenue as a parking lot for the nearby F train station. “We said ‘that’s not going to be good for our community,’” said Barry Schneider, one of the founding members along with his wife Judy. The Schneiders, along with Neil and Judy Mclennan, proposed instead that the Elizabeth Street Sculpture Garden be allowed to move into the lot, and the MTA agreed.
“It was a delightful use of the space,” Schneider said. “And we decided to stay with it.”
Since then, the association has grown in size and stature. Barry Schneider was appointed to Community Board 8 in 1992, at which point Judy took over leading ESNA, all the while Barry ran an independent advertising business and Judy worked at an architecture firm. Eventually, Schneider decided to retire and make ESNA his full-time job.
“I found this community work more engaging and rewarding than the business I had,” Schneider said. “We were doing good stuff so we decided to put our full efforts behind it.”
One of the reasons ESNA requires so much effort is the annual directory it puts out of local businesses spanning from First Avenue Wines and Spirits to ZC Cleaners II. The Schneiders personally walk the streets and make phones calls to the shops and write up short descriptions of each one, including contact information, websites and social media pages. Another central project is an annual clothing drive, usually held in October, to collect gently used clothes and donate them to organizations in need. The association is also involved in the Second Avenue subway project, the East River Esplanade and the Apartment Building Recycling Initiative.
Schneider takes in pride in not having “burned any bridges” with elected officials representing his neighborhood, and said ESNA is often seen as the voice of reason in controversial issues. The association doesn’t endorse candidates or advocate for political causes, but like all residents who want something done the group works closely with local representatives.
Council Member Dan Garodnick, of the fourth City Council district, praised the Schneiders for their service.
“Community groups like ESNA really make a council member’s job much easier by helping to digest and amplifying community issues and this group does a particularly good job,” he said, calling the association an invaluable resource. Several of Garodnick’s colleagues, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, attended the anniversary celebration as well.
Fabio, who runs ESNA’s clothing drive, called the Schneiders “linchpins” of the organization and credited their leadership with putting the group on the map.
“We are small in terms of the area we cover and the number of people that are members, but … all of the things that are important for quality of life in the neighborhood are really top-notch on Barry and Judy’s agenda,” she said.
At the party on Monday night Schneider thanked ESNA’s board of directors and its more than 600 members for their support over the years.
“We approach our challenges not with a clenched fist, but with an open mind,” he said. With a new proclamation on display from Mayor Bill de Blasio declaring Sept. 26, 2016 “East Sixties Neighborhood Association Day,” he made it clear they would continue to do so.
Madeline Thompson can be reached at email@example.com