Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn loses Martin Schneider, 91, ardent activist for historic preservation of Brooklyn streetscapes

July 13, 2020 Elizabeth Kuster

Martin Schneider, an ardent Brooklyn historian, warrior for urban quality of life and preservationist, died June 30 following complications from heart surgery. He was 91. Schneider was an active leader in quality of life issues, particularly in his beloved Brooklyn Heights, since the 1950s.

Dedicated to protecting quality of life in the Heights since moving there with his wife, Rona, in 1957, Schneider played a key role in fighting “master builder” Robert Moses’ plans to condemn large parts of the neighborhood in the name of “slum clearance.” History will show that anyone who loves Brooklyn Heights — loves the trees of Cadman Plaza Park, the open-air space of Pineapple Walk, the nineteenth-century Greek Revival brownstones on Henry Street — owes a major debt to Schneider, whether they realize it or not.

“It was on one evening in late September or early October 1958 that it all started,” remembers renowned Brooklyn preservationist Otis Pearsall. “Richard Margolis, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press, invited me to a meeting in the undercroft of Don McKinney’s Unitarian Church, where a small group of young professionals recently arrived in the Heights were gathering to discuss housing issues triggered by Robert Moses. Martin, already recruited by Margolis, was there and we hit it off straight away. Within weeks we were co-chairing an activist group we called the ‘Community Conservation and Improvement Council,’ shortly to be absorbed by the Brooklyn Heights Association, through which we supported each other in rallying the neighborhood behind our respective priorities, his to battle Moses on Cadman Plaza and mine to preserve the esthetic and historic heritage of the Heights. The rest, of course, is history … Martin was a one-of-a-kind force.”

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In his own recent homage, lawyer, writer and fellow Heights advocate Claude Scales calls Schneider a “preservation pioneer.” Kerith Aronow, governor of the Brooklyn Heights Association, lauds Schneider’s “immense and enduring contribution” to the neighborhood, calling him “bold and idealistic … a leading voice … representing the many young families who came to Brooklyn Heights rather than move to the suburbs.”

As the owner of an eponymous New York public relations concern located at 1501 Broadway (pictured here circa 1976), Schneider had a high-profile client list.

A journalist by temperament and by training (he had a BS in journalism from Iowa State), Schneider wrote numerous impassioned articles on behalf of the Heights over the years, calling for historic preservation and bemoaning urban development run amok. Most of all, he decried what he called “narrow views of what makes a livable city.”

A public relations expert by profession, Schneider used his skills as powerful tools for his passionate advocacy. He augmented his book with the short documentary “Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood,” a film he wrote, narrated and co-produced (with Junkersfeld). In it, Schneider summarized Heights history from 1853 through to the modern day, recounting how the neighborhood went from being a “50-block backwater” and “great relic of New York’s past” to becoming a “beautiful, quiet and much-beloved urban neighborhood” that has “survived 200 years of relentless City changes.”

In 1993, Schneider chronicled the Heights’ ongoing “struggle for self-preservation” in a series of articles for the Brooklyn Heights Press. In 2010, he turned those writings into a book, “Battling for Brooklyn Heights,” which later provided rich source material for WNYC senior editor Matthew L. Schuerman’s critically acclaimed “Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents” (2019).

In his book, Schneider describes how the Heights had been threatened by the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 (which “brought with it the unwanted urban curse of overdevelopment”), and how the “outstanding architectural character” and “family-friendly nature” of “New York’s first suburb” were subsequently threatened by both Moses and absentee landlords in the late 1950s.

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Schneider and his fellow architectural activists — including Otis and Nancy Pearsall, Clay Lancaster and Karl Junkersfeld — fended off the worst of Moses’ projects and ultimately helped make Brooklyn Heights the first historic district in New York City. The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. It was a groundbreaking win that, in Schneider’s view, threw a “protective net” over the Heights and paved the way for preserving a hundred more New York neighborhoods (and counting).

Schneider on Monroe Place circa 1959.

Schneider didn’t win every battle, of course. He “adamantly opposed” the closing of Long Island College Hospital in 2014 and took action to try to stop it — to no avail. Still, he remained justifiably proud of his lifelong contributions to his neighborhood, his borough and his city. “There is an explanation for how this extraordinary bit of precious open space, with sky, light, air and location, location, location, came to be,” he observed in a 2016 opinion piece about Pineapple Walk for the Eagle. He wrote that explanation himself.

Schneider’s first BS (from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) was in electrical engineering, so he was intimately familiar with the way healthy buildings worked and was able to see both the big picture and the small details. Known for his “endless tinkering and problem-solving,” he “reveled in projects involving any sort of engineering,” says his daughter Bettina Schneider. His “restless mind,” as she calls it, made him practically immune to boredom, and he brought that vibrant energy into “every room, every conversation, every situation.”

She shares the story of one of Schneider’s early adventures. “When he was 10,” she says, “he and his best friend figured out how to navigate the Long Island Rail Road to get from their hometown of Hempstead to the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. They went not once, but several times, to take in all the exhibits about science, the world and the future. That sense of wonder, that optimism, and that enthusiasm never left him.”

Longtime friend Hal Gurnee, a former director and producer for David Letterman, echoes this sentiment, writing, “I will miss Martin, his movie reviews, cooking advice, shared political views and, most of all, our heated discussions just about everything.”

Here’s what the western edge of Cadman Plaza Park would have looked like had Schneider and other Brooklyn Heights preservationists not prevailed over Robert Moses’ initial plan for the block. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Heights Association

Progressive to the end, Martin was an active supporter of human rights. “He was curious about people, fascinated by details and always wanted to know and experience more,” Bettina says. “He loved beauty, humanity, this planet, and railed against dishonesty, ugliness and injustice.”

Yet even when railing against injustice, Schneider had his beloved Heights in his heart and on his mind. In his final (yet-to-be-published) article for the Eagle — a criticism of “government by cash register” — he wrote, “Ka-ching is what passes for music to the ears of Donald J. Trump … I know that sound well: It’s that old embossed register in Tommy’s barber shop in the St. George arcade.”

Schneider’s biography notes that he worked for esteemed producer Charlie Guggenheim at KETC in St. Louis; that he was employed by CBS in New York; that he was a PR executive in the fields of health, education, city planning, arts and technology for over 40 years before retiring in 1993.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Rona (Kass) Schneider, their three daughters, Carla Schneider Muskat of New Hampshire and Boston, Jennifer Schmidt of Fairfax, California, and Bettina Schneider of Brooklyn, their husbands, and six grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Schneider’s name to a charity of your choice. A memorial service will be held at a later date. To read loved ones’ remembrances of Schneider in their entirety, keep scrolling.

Otis Pearsall, Brooklyn’s lion of landmarks: “Martin was my companion-in-arms for 62 years of accomplishment and intimate friendship. It was on one evening in late September or early October 1958 that it all started, when Richard Margolis, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press (who happened to own the house almost directly across Willow Street from the basement apartment that Nancy and I shared at No. 143), invited me to a meeting in the undercroft of Don McKinney’s Unitarian Church, where a small group of young professionals recently arrived in the Heights were gathering to discuss housing issues triggered by Robert Moses. Martin, already recruited by Margolis, was there and we hit it off straight away. Within weeks we were co-chairing an activist group we called the Community Conservation and Improvement Council (CCIC), shortly to be absorbed by the Brooklyn Heights Association, through which we supported each other in rallying the neighborhood behind our respective priorities, his to battle Moses on Cadman Plaza and mine to preserve the esthetic and historic heritage of the Heights. The rest, of course, is history. How do I express the loss of Martin Schneider, with our side-by-side struggles not simply in those early years, but in so many arenas since? Intellectually brilliant and dogged in pursuit of correct outcomes, Martin was a one-of-a-kind force I was privileged to experience for most of my life. I am grateful for that, but what I am most grateful for is the thoughtful friendship on which no matter what I could always count 100 percent.”

Hal Gurnee, former “David Letterman” director and producer: “Martin and I met 70 years ago. We both worked for the Dumont Television Network as associate directors at the Wanamaker Store Studio, Dumont’s major facility. We were assigned to Master Control, right next to the Piano Department. Our salary was $22 a week, and when the federal minimum wage was increased we went to $23.75. Martin and I and two other Dumont ADs, Nick Barnett and Bob White, became roommates and lived for a year on West 83rd Street before moving on to the Des Artistes on Central Park West, a marked improvement. Martin (and I will always bless him for this) introduced me to my future wife, Joan. Joan and Martin’s cousin Sylvia were roommates at Syracuse and remained close friends after college. Martin decided to go out to [Iowa State University] for a master’s degree in communications and came back to New York and rejoined his old friends after two years. After working at CBS producing a Sunday morning news show, Martin went on to a very successful career in public relations. We remained close friends: Martin, his wife Rona, Joan and myself and the arrival of offsprings Martha, Tony, Carla, Jenny and Bettina. I will miss Martin, his movie reviews, cooking advice, shared political views and most of all, our heated discussions just about everything.”

Bettina Schneider, Martin’s daughter: “Our dad was an exceptional person. He brought a vibrant energy into every room, every conversation, every situation. He was curious about people, about youth, fascinated by details and always wanted to know and experience more. He could find interest everywhere — his restless mind never would have allowed him to be bored or stolid. He loved beauty, humanity, this planet, and railed against dishonesty, ugliness and injustice. He made a career of his own imagining, combining his love of journalism with his deep interest in advances in science, medicine and nonprofit organizations serving the struggles of communities in need. He loved knowing how things worked and reveled in a project with any sort of engineering involved, reflected in his endless tinkering and problem-solving. History and preservation, as well as land conservancy, were always a priority for him, from the big picture to the smallest detail. He was a progressive to the end, always an ardent supporter of human rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights. He believed in the vote. He believed in us, his children, and delighted and marveled in pretty much everything we did (even if it wasn’t entirely merited!). He was an incredible yarner — engaging, hilarious and always with some edge, just enough to always tilt the perspective to something sharper, more observant and often funnier. His life was wonderful in both senses: rich and full of joy, and also literally full of wonder. When he was 10, he and his best friend at the time figured out how to navigate the Long Island Rail Road to get from their hometown of Hempstead to the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. They went not once, but several times, to take in all the exhibits about science, the world and the future. That sense of wonder, that optimism, and that enthusiasm never left him. We, and his entire family, will miss him forever.”

Kerith Aronow, Brooklyn Heights Association governor: “We are so sorry to learn that longtime Brooklyn Heights resident Martin Schneider passed away earlier this week and would like to take this time to remember him and appreciate his immense and enduring contribution to our neighborhood. When he joined the BHA in 1959, Martin was already knee-deep in an effort to head off Robert Moses’ intended project to demolish nineteenth-century homes and erect a wall of an apartment building from Middagh to Clark Street in its place. Schneider was a leading voice, along with Otis Pearsall, representing the many young families who came to Brooklyn Heights rather than move to the suburbs. They formed the group they called the Community Conservation and Improvement Council (shortened to CICC and pronounced ‘kick’) and soon after joined forces with the Brooklyn Heights Association in order to do battle with Moses. That partnership helped usher the BHA and Brooklyn Heights itself into their modern incarnations. Martin’s goals were bold and idealistic: to stop any more destruction of the nineteenth-century buildings and to redesign a new project that would fit in better and be more of a contribution to the neighborhood — both in its form and function. CICC envisioned not one slab, but a taller and skinnier set of buildings that would allow air and light and people to pass easily in and out of the Heights. Their buildings would be co-ops with larger units specifically intended to encourage homeownership for middle-income families. Martin Schneider, CICC and the BHA did eventually prevail and [Martin] wrote a book about it.”

Claude Scales, lawyer and writer for the Brooklyn Heights Blog: “We are greatly saddened to learn, thanks to the Brooklyn Heights Association, of the passing of Martin Schneider. Martin, a TV producer and Heights resident, was, along with Otis and Nancy Pearsall and others, a strong participant in the battles to save Brooklyn Heights, first from plans to put the BQE through the Heights, then to stop Robert Moses from building a monolithic high rise along the east side of Henry Street from Middagh to Clark, that would block morning sun and invite only transient renters. He was a regular reader of, and commenter on, BHB. He joined with another BHB regular, Karl Junkersfeld, to produce a video about the struggle to preserve the Heights.”


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