Robert Schneck: Visionary, Versifier, Activist, and Advocate
“as i die, do not
delay my departure to heaven
let my life
go quickly like a
herself into a tiger…”
These words, part of a poem called “Living Will,” were written by Bob Schneck, in whom Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan lost a pillar, a leader, and a community builder when he died on May 15. Mr. Schneck, who resided in Battery Park City since the late 1980s, died of multiple myeloma, a cancer caused by exposure to toxic debris in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, at age 75.
In lines that were likely written with Cora Fung, his wife of many years, in mind, Mr. Schneck continued:
“if you want a
soul to care for,
water the flowers that
blossomed into joy just for us”
Mr. Schneck served on Community Board 1 (CB1) since 2011, was a member of the World Trade Center Survivor Steering Committee, and was active in Downtown Independent Democrats, an influential local political organization. But while acting locally, he also thought globally. After serving in the Peace Corps (in Africa) and the Teacher Corps (in Washington, D.C.) in the 1970s, he went on to help build schools in Africa. In America, he pioneered the “passive house” concept, using his own funds to build (as a proof of concept) VOLKSsHouse, a residential development in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which uses 90 percent less energy than a traditional home, generates itself what little power it uses, and was constructed for less than the cost of similarly sized ordinary homes. He leveraged this into advocacy for adopting the passive house standard for new construction in New York, which was eventually incorporated into designs for the Bloomberg Center, the Cornell University outpost on Roosevelt Island.
More quixotic (and less successful) was his single-handed campaign to stop the demolition of the Rector Street pedestrian bridge, in which Mr. Schneck gathered thousands of signatures from Battery Park City residents. He was additionally deeply engaged on the issue of ground rent reform for condominium owners in the community.
Mr. Schneck was a renaissance man, not only a prolific poet (writing annual volumes that he shared with his wide circle of friends), but also a roving photographer whose discerning eye chronicled the community in both telling detail and visual narrative writ large.
In the last years of his life, Mr. Schneck spearheaded WestLight, a project that is bringing solar electricity to remote villages in rural western Kenya. The opportunity to draw water from wells with electric pumps, keep cellular telephones charged, and light schools and homes has proved transformative—increasing the academic performance of children in local schools, and preventing health problems associated with burning kerosene indoors for light, among many other benefits. The costs savings in not having to purchase fuel or pay charging shops to power telephones (services priced at roughly $1.20 per day) amounts to an exponential boost in quality of life and standards of living in a region where the vast majority of residents live on an income of less than $2 per day.
Mr. Schneck’s CB1 colleague and friend, Robin Forst, recalls, “it always felt that Bob Schneck was a man on a mission. Whether he was fighting to preserve the Rector Street Bridge or bringing the passive house standard to New York, he was a tireless advocate. He, along with his partner, Cora, was a regular at all things community. As we lose another neighbor to September 11-related cancer, we applaud his energy and dedication to making Battery Park City the wonderful place it is.”
Jeff Galloway, who also served with Mr. Schneck on CB1 for more than a decade, reflects, “Bob was a dedicated environmentalist and community leader, who devoted himself to making Lower Manhattan better for future generations. Bob was a dear friend, who always saw the good in others even in times of disagreement. He will be sorely missed.”
Battery Park City Authority president B.J. Jones notes that, “Bob loved this community and cared deeply about its future, especially when it came to addressing our most pressing issues like sustainability, resiliency, livability. Whether it was at public meetings or crossing paths around the neighborhood, he was always eager to offer insights, advice, and recommendations—and did so frankly and with a smile. And he was generous in his creativity as well, through photography and written word that captured the spirit of the neighborhood he called home.”
Richard Corman, president of Downtown Independent Democrats (and a member of CB1), says, “Bob Schneck was a good man—good in the deepest sense of the word. His time, his thought, his energy, even as his illness progressed, were focused on what good he could do for his neighbors, his neighborhood, his community, the world. It was an honor and a challenge to know him, both as a colleague on CB1 and as a member of Downtown Independent Democrats. It was a challenge as he set such an example of courage, selflessness, and care for others, the planet, and the future, all while struggling heroically against the ravages of another September 11 disease. Conversations with him always had surprises, from the work he did in Africa and lifelong friends he had from there, to his depth of knowledge about passive house and other desperately needed low-carbon initiatives. We will miss him and all the good he could still have done.”
Mariama James, who served with Mr. Schneck on both CB1 and the World Trade Center Survivor Steering Committee, says, “what I loved most and will remember most fondly about Bob is that as brilliant and worldly as he was, he always remained open to insight on what he didn’t know or understand. He had an incredible sense of mission and humanitarianism and so genuinely wanted to help everywhere he could that, if there was something he didn’t ‘get,’ he’d say, ‘let’s go to lunch so you can explain this to me, because it’s an outrage and we’ve gotta do something.’”
In further lines apparently inspired by the fate he knew he was facing, and his love for Ms. Fung, Mr. Schneck wrote:
“don’t worry where I’ve gone
i’ll always love you
we’ll talk soon.”
Ms. Fung, who says that details about a memorial service for Mr. Schneck will be announced shortly, remembers that “Bob always bounced back in the past, but not this round. He took such a joy in living, which only increased when the multiple myeloma came. Bob taught me the deep meaning of never squandering time. When I reflect on his life’s work and the people that he touched on this earth, I hope that Bob’s spirit will make us all stronger.”
She also points to verse from a different poem, “The Eternal Riddle,” in which her departed husband offered advice to his broader circle of friends:
“Over a lifetime
Never let your heart
Go out of business.”
He never did.