Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice
Robert Simko, Broadsheet co-founder and 40-year resident of Battery Park City, died at age 68 on November 10, after a years-long battle with a cancer that has been linked to exposure to environmental toxins during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath.
An accomplished photographer and publisher, an avid musician, mechanic and watchmaker, Robert was a fixture of the Battery Park City community and a beloved husband, father, brother and uncle.
Born in 1954 in Bayonne, New Jersey, to John, a bus driver, and Florence, a nurse, Robert was the middle child of five siblings. Taught by nuns and known as “Bobby,” Robert took up the accordion at a young age, participating in state-wide competitions where he finished fourth twice in a row.
In high school, Robert developed two interests that would last the rest of his life—photography and working on cars. By the time he left Rutgers University after two years, he’d built a darkroom in his Bayonne basement—and rebuilt a Volkswagen engine there, too.
From Rutgers he went on to RISD, where he studied photography under Aaron Siskind, among others. While there, he also took his first piano lessons, igniting a life-long love for the instrument. Up until the end of his life, Robert would often sit down to play a mixture of Bach études, Thelonius Monk, Chopin concertos, and the entire Beatles playlist.
After college, Robert moved to New York City, settling first in Tribeca, and then in Battery Park City at the brand new Gateway Plaza, 30-pound accordion in tow. He worked as an assistant to Arnold Newman and Burt Glinn, cataloging and printing portraits of world leaders and celebrities.
In the 1980s, Robert was recruited by Clay Felker to work as a photographer at Adweek magazine, where he soon met a reporter named Alison, another Felker recruit.
“We began covering events and parties together in the fall of 1985,” Alison recalled. “We fell in love pretty fast. He was living here in Gateway. I hadn’t heard of Battery Park City before coming here. Back then, the only buildings here were Gateway Plaza. What is now Brookfield Place was under construction. And the rest was empty fields with fences around the edges, connected by a waterfront esplanade.”
“That February, we threw the first of our annual Say Yes to Love parties, where we would cram more than 100 guests into our studio. It was right after that first party that we decided to get married.”
They were married in 1987, Lucy was born in 1989, and Theo followed in 1997. Remembering his father, Theo said, “he was never restless, but he loved to work with his hands. He was happiest taking something apart and putting it back together, learning how it worked.”
Lucy added to Robert’s list of recreational challenges, “solving the Rubik’s Cube, and teaching himself how to pick locks. When Theo and I were young, we would sometimes complain about being bored. He would answer that he never got bored. I get from him my love of doing puzzles. He would say to me, ‘someone made this puzzle for you, and you get to be the person who works through it and comes up with an original strategy to figure it out.’ ”
Later in life, Robert became an amateur horologist: learning how to repair clocks, pocket and wrist watches under the tutelage of a friend and professional watchmaker at Tiffany. He developed a love of working under a loupe, disassembling a long-broken wristwatch in order to make it tick again. Careful Broadsheet readers may remember a perennial classified ad, “OLD WATCHES SOUGHT, PREFERRED NONWORKING,” that Robert ran to try to find any such machines that might be collecting dust in the neighborhood.
Among Robert’s most dedicated pursuits was the creation of the Broadsheet (née The Battery Park City Broadsheet), which he co-founded in 1997 with Alison.
“The Broadsheet was born the same year as Theo,” Alison said. “We were both freelancing at that point, and looking for something more stable. In the summer of 1997, he saw a homemade sign taped to the window of Chase Bank from somebody looking for an apartment. A light went off in Robert’s head: classified ads are the backbone of a newspaper. He said to me, ‘let’s start a newspaper.’ ”
“My reaction was that his idea was brilliant and we had to do it right away, before somebody else thought of it,” Alison said. “At that point, I was part of the fledgling Battery Park City Parents Association. And in those days, the biggest community event of the year for this neighborhood was Halloween. I knew if we could get the first issue out by late September, people would pick it up because we would have information about Halloween activities. We began this mad scramble, laying out an old-fashioned design on our Mac, picking fonts and choosing photos. It was hard work, but also great fun.”
The Broadsheet was a success from its first issue. “We printed 3,000 copies for our first run, and put stacks in lobbies,” Alison said. “Robert and I hid behind a column in a Gateway lobby to see if anybody would pick it up. Each time somebody took one, we would do a little victory dance. After that, the Broadsheet took off—the second print run was double the first, and then we went from two pages to four, and then we went from once a month to bi-weekly.”
The Broadsheet quickly became more than just a job for both Robert and Alison, influencing how they raised their two children in the growing community of Lower Manhattan. “A really wonderful part of growing up with parents who ran the local newspaper is that we almost never had a babysitter,” Theo said. “We would be brought along to Community Board meetings and stories they were covering. We were involved in our parents’ lives and got to watch them do what they did in a way that most kids don’t.”
“It wasn’t until sixth or seventh grade that I fully understood that not every parent had the flexibility to pick their kids up from school every day, take them to the playground, go to Art in the Park a few times each week, and attend soccer practice,” he added.
“We had to work weekends, but we got to go to the playground almost every afternoon,” Alison said.
This idyll was brought to a crashing halt, Lucy remembered, a few days after she had started middle school at I.S. 289 in September of 2001. “We heard an explosion. The teacher told us there had been an accident, but then my mother came to get me.”
Alison took Lucy and Theo (then in pre-kindergarten at P.S. 150) to the home of a friend in Tribeca. “I was wondering where Dad was, but I was sure he was okay,” Lucy said. “I had this sense of calm that whatever he was doing, he could take care of himself, and he would find us eventually.”
Alison added, “I was worried because I knew Robert would run toward the danger to take pictures. And then I couldn’t reach him for hours. I kept trying to figure out how to slip back into Battery Park City, to look for him. But by that time, everything was blocked by police and military personnel.”
Robert stayed in Battery Park City until late afternoon that day, reuniting with his family by chance around 5pm. His photographs, taken from the sidewalks near Gateway Plaza, capture the second plane’s fireball, the burning towers, and the ash-covered neighborhood after the towers’ collapse.
The family left the city the next day. “But we were back within a week,” Alison said. “The first community meeting was led by Bob Townley, at a basketball court on Canal Street. We felt a sense of mission about coming back and resuming publication. We weren’t covering Halloween celebrations anymore—we were writing stories about the quality of the air we were all breathing, and the future of the community, and whether it even had a future.”
“At that point, the Broadsheet delivery people couldn’t get into Battery Park City, but I had identification, which meant I could enter the neighborhood,” Alison said. “So I would hop on my bike, with a bag of papers slung over my shoulder, and deliver them to lobbies. People cried when they saw the first issue of the paper after September 11, and told us that they felt like the Broadsheet was confirmation that the neighborhood was still going to be okay.”
The Broadsheet has always been defined, in large measure, by Robert’s skill as a photographer. “His pictures are an amazing body of work,” Alison said. “His technique was to hover around the edge of a scene and patiently let it unfold and then began taking pictures. These are all portraits of a moment that tell a story, but they also amount to a mosaic that sketches the biography of this community. He was always able to see things that the rest of us don’t—reflections within reflections, or small details that convey a larger message.”
That was one of Robert’s special skills: identifying, understanding, and building the mosaic of a community. He loved Lower Manhattan: the esplanade and parks of Battery Park City, the winding streets of the Financial District, his favorite dumpling restaurant in Chinatown, and the cobblestones of Tribeca. He believed the best of the city was located downtown. When tourists asked him for directions, he would always suggest they make time for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. “The best way to see the harbor,” he would say. “And free, too!”
Lucy summed up her father’s life by saying, “he was the person who would argue with me to the extent that I needed to argue with somebody, and then stop. That’s a rare talent in a father. I want to talk to him about the rest of my life. But I don’t know what to ask.”
A few days after Robert’s passing, family members gathered in his childhood home, in Bayonne, where he grew up with three brothers and a sister, and lived above his grandparents.
His youngest brother Paul said, “I really admired how Robert followed his own path. I mean, how many people do you know who played the accordion, moved to Lower Manhattan, and started a newspaper?”
Robert will be remembered as someone who loved to build community as much as he loved to build watches, car engines, and a delicious pot of spaghetti and meatballs.
A public celebration of Robert Simko’s life and legacy will be announced in the coming months. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Robert’s name to the South Street Seaport Museum.